Smoking isn't getting any cheaper. In fact, its ruinously expensive but apart from the luxury of duty free cigarettes when I was stationed in Germany, I can't really remember a time when it wasn't. One newsflash for the citizens of East Hampshire and West Sussex is that it's got a whole hell of a lot more expensive in the market town of Petersfield.
The other day I committed the heinous crime in broad daylight of dropping a cigarette end in the gutter in Petersfield High Street before walking into a restaurant. The ‘Law Enforcement Officer' for East Hampshire District Council,’ then followed me into the restaurant and asked me to step outside which I did. ‘East Hampshire Council have a zero tolerance for litter and I am issuing you with a fixed penalty of seventy five pounds.’ I accepted the notice and have no argument that I did indeed, drop a cigarette end in the gutter. Moreover, I wholly accept and support an anti-litter campaign which is to the benefit of all residents and citizens of East Hampshire.
Where East Hampshire and I depart in 'we're all in this together' community spirit is in the size of the fine. Seventy five pounds... seriously? It is a wholly disproportionate number for what they quite seriously refer to as a crime. Hilariously, if I brought one of my dogs into town and it fouled the street the fine would be less. Indeed, the number is higher than any parking offence listed on the councils website which include abuse of residents, disabled and commercial parking, parking in bus stops, taxi ranks, pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes and schools and indeed, parking in a car park without a ticket. All of these come with substantially lower tariffs. That some of these offences infer parking likely to elevate risk to children and pedestrians makes the penalty extreme for dropping a cigarette end in the gutter all the more puzzling. Sorry I forgot. It's not 'dropping a cigarette,' it's now an "environmental incident.' As you'll discover if you take the trouble to wade through the councils web site and the job advertisements for Kingdom Security, there is a common theme of the use of increasingly militaristic language and tone for the most mundane and ordinary things. Time to start watching the watchers.
The use of the ‘Law Enforcement Officer,’ description is interesting. He is not. He / they are traffic wardens employed by a private security company, Kingdom Security, who work on behalf of East Hampshire Council. That they dress in a black paramilitary rig with stab vests in Petersfield High Street is patently absurd. I did three tours in Northern Ireland and carried less paraphernalia on patrol than do these characters. My sense of persecution wasn’t helped when I was later in receipt of a parking fine on reaching my car ten minutes later than expected, having been delayed in my High Street office. That fine will be paid but the zealous approach from these individuals, while increasing revenue, does not encourage a broader sense of belonging and community amongst citizens. Indeed, it is more likely to feed resentment and irritation which is not a good outcome for anyone. How much better to say, ‘if you don’t pick that cigarette up sir I am going to have to issue a penalty notice,’ as most policeman would do and indeed, are trained so to do to encourage good public relations.
Enquiries to the responsible person at East Hampshire Council solicited the not unexpected reply that informed me, 'Whilst I appreciate that you feel the £75.00 to be an unfair sum to pay, due to it being a criminal offence, the amount set by central government is a fine of no more than £80.00. We feel that the amount we charge is proportionate to the cost of cleaning the district.' These people are detached, delusional and focused on revenue raising, little else.
Now many people will say, 'disgusting habit, serves you right you filthy dirty individual,' and I genuinely wouldn't stop to argue. There is a problem here for all citizens however and its coming to visit you, wherever you may live as pensioners Peter Marsh, 69, and his wife Gillian Green, 65 recently discovered.
Last week the Telegraph reported that they unwittingly broke the law in Canterbury when they sat on a bench and ate some cherries. Pushing the envelope of the law, they stood up leaving the stones beneath a tree and toddled off. Bingo! Two enforcement officers issued them each an £80 on-the-spot fine for littering.
The couple said the men behaved “more like nightclub bouncers” and they were “terrified”.
“We were sitting under the tree with the circular bench after buying cherries from a market stall. We ate no more than 15 between us and put the stones at the base of the tree.
“When we left to continue shopping, we were approached by two men who were quite intimidating. We thought they were policemen. They did say they were enforcement officers but didn’t explain clearly what was happening.
“It was terrifying. They separated us and were far too heavy-handed. We are law-abiding people.”
He had been in Canterbury for a hospital appointment and said that he was left “shaking” after being approached.
He added: “I believe we were deliberately targeted as an older couple who wouldn’t make a fuss. Surely a verbal warning would have been more appropriate.”
A council spokesman said that there had been a bin within a “reasonable” distance of the couple which they should have used.
He said: “We seek to enforce fairly no matter the age or gender of the person who commits an offence.” The value of one fine had been refunded as a goodwill gesture, he added.
Oh and guess which company Canterbury employs for 'Environmental Protection?' Yes, its the same Kingdom Security we have in Petersfield.
So what? Well, the takeaway is quite simple. Local and central government alike need money and rather than cutting their own costs will pursue you the individual by every means available to them in more and more creative ways. Moreover, the security companies they employ will be unyielding in their zealotry because they need the next contract. The individuals on the street, the so called self described 'Law Enforcement Officers,' will continue to enjoy their moments of power and swaggering self importance no doubt hoping that a pensioner somewhere will have a go at their stab vests with a rolled up copy of the Daily Mail while clinging to their Zimmer frame.
Those cigarettes, they really are killers.