Paul Poulton on littering fines, parking fines and road rage.

Paul Poulton
Paul Poulton

I was waiting for Dave and standing outside McDonald's in the pedestrianized area of town. I stood next to a motionless yet muscular policeman, at least I thought he was a policeman, but when I took a good look at him I realised he wasn't a policeman, although he wore some kind of law enforcement uniform with a shoulder personal-radio, hi-vis vest and security equipment.

Dave was late! So I thought about talking to the uniformed man, but the look on his face told me he was about some urgent business and I ought not to interrupt his thoughts. Then suddenly the static officer next to me sprang into life, lurching forward he confronted two well-dressed twenty-something young men. I watched as the officer told one of the young men that he had been observed discarding a piece of litter onto the pavement. The young man immediately retraced his last few steps and picked up the offending piece of litter, which to me looked like a tiny piece of paper, so tiny that I could hardly see it. He then threw the paper in a nearby litter bin and explained to the officer that he was sorry and was in a hurry to get to back to work. The officer had other plans saying "You may have picked up the litter and apologised but that fact remains you did commit a littering offence so I have to fine you £80." The two young men looked stunned while the officer tapped out the documentation on his credit card machine.

As the offender began to regain his equilibrium he started to explain to the man in uniform that he had no authority to issue fines unless he was a policeman. The official disclosed that he was an environmental enforcement officer employed by the council. The young man retorted with "Oh is that correct? Well, I work for the council and I don't know of any department like that! I picked up the paper, come on! Let me get to work. I haven't got time to be standing here arguing the toss with you."

"You can take that up with the magistrate" said the officer.

The official then looked like he was starting to talk to someone on his Motorola. The young man, now red in the face with anger, reluctantly got out his credit card and with some expletives tapped his code into the credit card machine. When the £80 was safely in the account of the officer's employers the young man who had been fined exclaimed, "Hang on a minute, you work for one of those companies that take money from ordinary people don't you?" He used a few more expletives and was told by the litter-policeman to watch his mouth and not to push this any further. Some pointing of fingers also took place.

Dave never turned up, so I made my way home. When I got there I told my dad to hold on to every bit of paper he had when he was walking through the town and not to drop anything, even accidentally. "Don't put your hand in your pocket dad, in case you pull out some tissue paper and it falls to the ground," I warned him.

Councils across the UK do sometimes use private companies to enforce the Environmental Protection Act. I heard that if you throw litter and don't pay the fine you can end up with a criminal record and who wants that?

When I first saw the officer confront the young man about the piece of litter I thought he would issue a warning, which would probably have done the job. Some grace from the local council would have gone a long way in teaching the young man not to drop litter in the future.

Enforcement action can be disproportionate to the offence, and grace can be in short supply in a number of areas, particularly parking areas. I recently drove to a hotel that I have visited regularly with friends for coffee. None of my friends or me were aware that new number plate recognition cameras were in place, and we saw no notification informing us of this fact. Two weeks later we each had a notice for £100 drop through our letter boxes. I phoned the hotel reception who informed me that there are several warnings informing the public that each driver using the car park needs to key in their number plate at reception. The receptionist said he understood but tersely instructed me to take the matter up with the firm issuing the parking charge notice, not him.

I started to mention this state of affairs to a few people and heard a number of similar stories. One person told me that she ignored the private parking firm that had issued her with a hefty penalty charge and went straight to the supermarket that employed the private firm. The supermarket staff made a phone call or two and got the charge waived. Aha! I thought, this supermarket has a little grace left on its shelves.

Private parking tickets from supermarkets, hospitals, restaurants and many other establishments are becoming commonplace on the modern landscape. We have got to the stage where car drivers can find parking their cars quite an ordeal. For that matter driving itself can be an ordeal. A friend of mine inadvertently encroached upon a "bus lane" and received a £60 fine. Another driver in Hull saw a blue light ambulance behind her and pulled over into the bus lane to let the emergency vehicle through, she then received a £60 fine from the local council. The driver said, "I think it's ludicrous that someone doing exactly what I did could end up facing a £60 fine. I called the council about it but they just said if it had been a normal notice I could have submitted an appeal. I want to warn other drivers that pulling into a bus lane to let an ambulance through could get them into trouble."

A journey along the motorway can mean numerous temporary speed limit changes. These temporary speed limits are set and changed automatically at the press of a button by operators in a control room. If your wits are not engaged you can quickly be in violation of a speed restriction resulting in a Notice of Intended Prosecution being delivered to your front door. Motorway cameras are sited on overhead gantries and target each lane of moving traffic. The cameras work in unison with the temporary speed limit so that when a vehicle travels in excess of the temporary speed limit the camera is triggered and photographic evidence of the speeding offence is recorded.

A local travel company's coach driver recently told me he dropped off his passengers at a well-known London tourist location and got fined £80, which he had to pay out of his own money. He said every street he drives along in London has a camera. There are 640 official camera sites in London. But if we include private firms and CCTV cameras the volume of cameras in the UK's capital city is estimated at 500,000. I wonder what George Orwell would make of it!

Zero tolerance may work in one way but in another way it may cancel itself out. The Bible encourages us to "love mercy." I'm sure that loving mercy doesn't mean that we should immediately abandon the criminal justice system and let all the criminals out of prison, but there is a place for grace and mercy in our lives.

My mate Nic (the drummer) told me he had been driving in his car thinking about something or other and he hadn't realised he was quite close to the car in front. So when the driver in front finally turned right he gave Nic the finger and shouted abuse at him. Nic's a nice guy and didn't retaliate and realised he was too close - fair enough.

I know how the driver in front of Nic felt because I was at the airport recently and wasn't sure which turn to make but the driver behind was too close giving me some consternation. All drivers probably know how it feels to look in the mirror and see someone invading their personal (car) space. The Good News Bible has a verse that says "Show your love by being tolerant with one another" (Ephesians 4:2). Maybe if we all started to practice showing grace then the tolerance would percolate down and even local councils may begin to "love mercy." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.