Here’s an interesting statistic to ponder. According to information made available online by Defra, one east London council absolutely loves issuing fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for alleged flyposting.
In 2008-09, the London borough of Redbridge issued more than any other local authority and its 206 FPNs accounted for 16% of all those around the country. The year before, it again topped the list and was even more enthusiastic about threatening legal action: it issued 25% of all the FPNs recorded by Defra.
What is really surprising, however, is that in the year to March 2009, a staggering 49% of Redbridge’s FPNs for alleged flyposting were subsequently cancelled.
As I reported at the time, in early September I was issued with three fixed penalty notices by Redbridge council for allegedly fly posting leaflets about the Save Wanstead Flats campaign. At the time these ‘offences’ supposedly took place, I was at work in Forest Gate and so I refused to accept liability for paying them, challenging the council to take me to court if necessary. After some prompting, a senior official in Redbridge’s Street Scene Enforcement team wrote on 18 October to left me know that “having reviewed the evidence and circumstances in this case”, he had graciously decided to waive the FPNs, adding that “as long as there is no repeat if the original offence, you will not hear from us again.”
Although pleased that I wasn’t facing a day in court, I was understandably livid at this last comment. Redbridge council clearly had no evidence it felt it could substantiate in front of a magistrate and any ‘original offence’ involving me had never occurred, so it could hardly be repeated. With help from Newham Monitoring Project, I therefore spoke to a solicitor, who wrote to demand an apology. Today, he received an extremely intemperate response expressing anger at the accusation that the council issues FPNs without evidence. It states:
What indeed? The problem with the comparison to a stray letter left in a dumped bag of rubbish is a simple one – my name does not appear anywhere on the campaign leaflet that was apparently pinned to a tree in Wanstead High Street back in September. It’s a clear admission that Redbridge thought it ‘reasonable’, with no other evidence, to simply find a name linked to the campaign, presumably through a quick Google search, and use this as the basis for a threat of a fine or court hearing. It’s also an admission that a senior member of the borough’s Street Scene Enforcement team doesn’t understand the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, which forbids the issuing of FPNs unless there is reason to believe that a person has ‘personally affixed or placed’ a poster illegally. That involves rather more than plucking someone’s name off the internet - such as catching them in the act of flyposting, for instance - and it’s hardly surprising that Redbridge council wasn’t prepared to risk scrutiny by a court of its officers’ flimsy conjecture.
“The posters concerned were advertising the ‘Save Wanstead Flats’ campaign and bore an address, which you have agreed is your client’s work address. I would contest that in any other proceedings, this would be viewed as legitimate evidence, for instance we deal with many cases of flytipping, if correspondence is found in a bag of fly-tipped rubbish, would this not be considered evidence of the origin of the rubbish? As your client is a ‘well known community activist in the Save Wanstead Flats campaign’, what would a ‘reasonable’ person think?”
But it is also far from surprising that so many of its FPNs are cancelled if this is the cavalier attitude towards evidence adopted by Redbridge’s Street Scene Enforcement officers, who appear to be completely out of control. Decisions about whether to send out letters demanding an £80 penalty, with the prospect of a £5000 fine for non-compliance, shouldn’t be taken lightly. But Redbridge council seems to throw them out as though they are confetti.
I have been offered an apology 'for any distress', but that's simply not good enough. Council officials can't exercise what are considerable powers with a complete disregard for the law or their accountability to the public. Meanwhile, someone in Redbridge council really needs to look at its FPN statistics and start asking questions about what on earth is going on in the Street Scene Enforcement team.
At the same time as instructing a solicitor, I made a Data Protection Act subject access request, demanding to see the information that Redbridge council's Street Scene Enforcement team holds on me. They have 40 days – until 29 November – to release this data. If they fail to keep to this deadline, which considering their casual approach to the law seems probable, then I’ll have no hesitation in seeking a court order to force them to do so. It looks like I'll be facing a hearing after all.