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Angry councillors to further review Kingdom enforcement as questions raised over who decided ‘zero tolerance’ policy

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Thursday, Apr 12th, 2018.

A committee of councillors have agreed to look further at the Council’s contract with Kingdom enforcement – with potential contractual tweaks and scope to make dog fouling more of a priority on the table, and an ‘alternative’ provider or system not entirely ruled out in the future.

In an unusually and overly long three and a half hour agenda item in a meeting yesterday, members of the Homes and Environment Scrutiny Committee looked through several questions raised before Christmas, and quizzed Council Officers and the relevant Lead Councillor.

Seen by some as a controversial contract between Wrexham Council and Kingdom Environmental Protection Services, the meeting saw a number of challenges made to Cllr David A Bithell, lead member for environment and transport and officers from the council’s environmental department, over his departments policy and how it is executed on the streets of Wrexham.

Cllr Graham Rogers called for the “people involved in the contract to admit they’ve got it wrong” and that once people have been treated, in his opinion, unfairly they can be prosecuted and could end up with a criminal record.

He also made noted that two local authorities in North Wales had already scrapped their contracts with Kingdom.

Cllr Bithell reminded committee members over the low volume of tickets issues for littering and dog fouling when the service was being delivered ‘in house’ by Wrexham Council, adding: Members wanted action and we made the political decision to introduce a private company to deal with, and tackle littering.”

The Council’s Head of Environment and Planning Lawrence Isted said: “We have always been between a rock and a hard place. People abhor litter but don’t like how we are trying to prevent it.

“With the policy we have taken a series of publicity steps encouraging people not to litter. We have previously enforced it ourselves but not as effectively as Kingdom.

“There is no one out there that doesn’t know that Kingdom is taking this approach. We have taken the softly softly approach and it has not been successful, this is.”

With regards to the axing of Kingdom contracts elsewhere in the region, Cllr Bithell noted that Wrexham Council’s contract is ‘not the same’ and that “all contracts don’t apply consistently across the country.”

Officers and Cllr Bithell were also challenged over what classes as a patrol by Kingdom staff, with the meeting told that a ‘drive through’ a ward could be classed as a visit, which came as a surprise to many present.

Cllr Alan Edwards said: “You won’t catch anyone with a drive through. I spoke to them and mentioned New Broughton and they said it was part of Brymbo. It shows officers don’t know what areas they are in.

“I would like to know how much time is spent in each ward, not just a visit.”

It was confirmed to the committee that a visit by Kingdom could be a drive through or a walk through an area, however no time data is shared.

One recurring criticism was the high proportion of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) issued to people for dropping cigarette butts compared to other types of littering and dog fouling.

Data released since the appointment of Kingdom in the last 12 months (and the pilot scheme in the 12 months prior to that) has typically shown that more notices have been issued for cigarette litter, particularly in the town centre, than for anything else.

Earlier this Wrexham.com reported that figures for March showed that 95 per cent of FPNs issued were for cigarette related litter alone.

Several councillors picked up on the focus on the town centre area and demanded that other wards deserved an “equal slice of the cake” with patrols to tackle litter and dog fouling further afield.

Cllr Kevin Hughes, who represents Ponciau, said: “When Kingdom was first employed a few years ago, I understood as a local member than dog fouling was a priority. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

“If you look at this month’s stats there was 369 FPNs for cigarette butts and just three for dog fouling. The majority of members of the public in my ward are concerned about dog fouling. It has an affect on people’s health and livelihood.

“The company appears to be over zealous and the imbalance needs to be addressed.”

Cllr Derek Wright, who represents Cefn, said: “Litter isn’t any better. Lawrence said we all abhor litter in the town centre. We abhor litter in rural areas as well.

“In Cefn it is ridiculous the amount of litter and fly-tipping. I don’t see many officers giving fines out.

“It’s having easy targets and dropping cigarette ends, when we have hundreds of incidents of fly-tipping and there is nothing being done.”

It was acknowledged by Cllr Bithell that there had been an increase in fly-tipping and littering in recent months, citing the adverse weather and winter months as a potential reason.

It was also noted that removing fly-tipping and littering waste in the county borough costs the council a minimum of £1.2m.

Cllr Bithell added that there has been dialogue with Kingdom with regards to focusing on other areas of Wrexham as well to get better ‘consistency’.

Referencing the visiting figures from Kingdom officers to wards across the county borough over the past month, Cllr John Phillips said that the data for his ward in Penycae suggested that officers had only spent a few minutes patrolling the area.

He continued: “I have regularly contacted Kingdom with hotspot areas, ones you can’t access by car. But we are still having the same visitations month in and month out.

“To go forward there has to be an emphasis on litter, but dog fouling needs to be addressed and quickly. All local members in this room must be constantly contacted.

“There is no evidence that Kingdom are there. If something needs to change, it’s that all wards should have a fairer slice of the cake, rather than just the emphasis on town centre wards as rural wards matter as well.”

Cllr Bithell explained that there had been discussions for more of an emphasis on dog fouling and that he had personally requested a clause in the contract to make it a focus.

Wrexham Council’s Enforcement Services Co-ordinator, Joanne Rogers, added: “Kingdom have been requested to focus on dog fouling. It is harder in the winter as dog walkers are going out when it is dark and hard to witness” and indicated that with the lighter evenings the numbers should rise.

However this was challenged by Cllr Edwards, who pointed out that 12 months ago it was stressed that dog fouling would be made a priority to Kingdom.

He continued: “The figures don’t show that. I will be waiting in anticipation when the light comes and we have better prosecution for dog fouling.”

Acton Cllr Geoff Lowe asked for a breakdown of the £1.2m being spent by the council each year, noting that councillors need to know if that figure is reducing.

He said: “Like Cllr Wright said, Kingdom are missing out on some of the issues in my ward. I look around my ward daily and there is a lot to be desired in terms of litter.

“A few weeks ago MP Ian Lucas was chastising the council and Kingdom. A drive through is not considered a visit.

“I ask in all fairness how that can be a visit? I expect someone to get out and take a walk around. I had no idea that they were driving through and that’s the end. People are paying for more than that and expecting it.

“I want to see littering stopped, but is it not all about the town. It is about our wards and streets. I recall with enthusiasm the idea of pride in our streets, where has it gone? All I see is a black hole and no one doing anything.

“The lead member talks about littering and weather. I saw snow and rain but I didn’t see litter coming down with it. How has it affected fly-tipping?”

Cllr Lowe added: “It is not just about what Kingdom are doing, it is what we are doing. How can people have pride in their streets if we don’t set an example.”

The meeting was told that details of the £1.2m are available and would be circulated after the meeting.

Local business owner Ruth Rees, who cited her position on the Wrexham Business Group and position on the Wrexham Town Centre Steering Group, called for Wrexham Council to consider “reining in” the contract and cancelling it when its up for renewal next year.

During a rarely seen public speaking opportunity in scrutiny meetings, Mrs Rees also made reference to a woman who’s experience with Kingdom involved all correspondence from the company was sent to her old address – meaning she did not know proceedings were being taken against her.

Similar comments about a shopper feeling threatened was made by Cllr Ronnie Prince, who referenced an incident whereby a woman alleged she was accused of throwing litter out of her window and followed by a Kingdom officer around Tesco whilst doing her shopping.

Cllr Prince added that the woman had felt so threatened that she said she would not shop in Wrexham again, an anecdotal response echoed by others.

However such comments were disputed by Cllr Bithell, who said there was evidence to show that the local economy was picking up and that statistics indicated that people are coming to Wrexham more, and that could be due to it being cleaner.

Kingdom was referenced in the report presented to the scrutiny committee, with calls for assurances that issues identified in a BBC Panorama documentary had not taken place in Wrexham.

Jerry O’Keeffe, the Independent Lay Member who also chairs the Audit Committee of Wrexham Council, challenged comments that operations locally are different to other authorities in England and Wales, adding: “This organisation couldn’t give a cast iron guarantee that bullying doesn’t happen in this authority.”

Cllr Rogers added: “I have no evidence to substantiate the behaviour, but I can tell you a fact. I trust people and there is bullying tactics whether you like it or not.”

Such claims were strongly disputed by Cllr Bithell and the officers, who explained that the council’s enforcement services co-ordinator watches CCTV footage recorded by Kingdom and reviews many of the cases – along with being in ‘constant contact’ with the officers.

Cllr Bithell said: “I will reiterate the statement identified in the report. We are not experiencing some of the issues the Panorama has set out. If it does, we have our officer and procurement to monitor the contract.”

Referencing Wrexham.com and comments made on social media after Kingdom articles are posted online, Cllr Bithell invited people to send in their allegations and said that there weren’t many replies to our article stating that such tactics were being used.

Often the debate went around in long drawn out circles, with the crux of the main complaints coming back to the zero tolerance approach and residents ending up with a criminal record due to not paying an FPN.

There were also questions over when the zero tolerance approach was decided, with initial council documentation about employing Kingdom / introducing a new approach to tackling littering not mentioning the phrase.

During the meeting Wrexham.com dug out the old meeting reports to see if and when the term zero tolerance was first used, however could not find the phrase in the executive board report reference during the meeting. Wrexham.com has requested to view the ‘minutes’ of that meeting, that are contained now in the recorded audio/visual webcast archive.

Mr O’Keeffe who strongly challenged Cllr Bithell and the council’s contract with Kingdom in December 2017 offered a similar challenge yesterday, saying he had scrutinised every “document with this contract that has gone to committee and executive board and I can’t see zero tolerance anywhere”.

He later added: “Of course we follow guidance and legislation, it is policy that dictates policy. It is there to ensure high standards of ethic accountability and governance. Policy states the hierarchy to follow.”

Cllr Bithell said: “When I took the original report to executive board it was clear that the executive board did approve contract to seek external partner to carry out enforcement and zero tolerance approach.”

Cllr Carrie Harper: “One of the key issues we were asked to look at is environmental policy and if Kingdom conflicts with that and what is a zero tolerance approach.

“I have had a look at Welsh Government guidance and it says it is important FPNs should be part of the council’s wider enforcement policy. I’m assuming the guidance is why we have the current policy.

“Wrexham’s policy is clear in three stage approach as referenced in report. It is clear an advisory approach should be first and enforcement last step. Is Kingdom in breach of own policy? This suggests it is.”

She continued: “With zero tolerance I know Cllr Bithell mentioned it is in line with what was agreed, but I can’t see it in the report either. Where has it come from? It is crucial we understand where it has come into the process.”

Mr Isted said: “The policy overarching and covers everything. There is the accepted principle that when it get to appeal we need to show done all other means to prevent that.

“It doesn’t prevent council to take zero tolerance approach with litter, litter which has a detrimental effect on town to attract people and tourism.”

A legal officer was also brought into clarify whether or not the zero tolerance policy was in breach of Wrexham Council’s own procedures and the law, and stated it was compliant and such a decision was ‘within the gift of the head officer’ via a delegated decision making power.

Questions were raised over the content of the contract itself, with no clarity publicly given over the financial split between Wrexham Council and Kingdom, and if such a shared pecuniary interest would mean the appeals process could not be seen as totally independent.

The contract was described as ‘zero cost’ to Wrexham Council, and the meeting was told to bring the service in house would cost around £100,000.

Hours deep into the meeting Cllr Skelland said he was ‘losing the will to live’, and looked to move towards wrapping up the meeting by suggesting some outcomes.

Cllr Bithell said: “Before the committee make final recommendations I am happy as lead member and officers for either a Task and Finish Group and audit committee to look at the contract.

“We are about to start year two and I am happy that during the next 12 months to look at revisions to the contract and even alternative issues to tackle litter and dog fouling.”

The committee agreed to recommend that a Task and Finish Group is set up to review the Kingdom contract with Wrexham Council and suggest potential alternatives / revisions to the contract.

It was also requested that officers look at a balancing categories of litter and have more of a focus on addressing dog fouling, as it seems the initial plan was before Kingdom were appointed.

It is likely the Audit Committee, or the Task and Finish Group, will also get to examine the in depth financial process of how tickets are issued and what revenue goes where – and what the implications are for any appeals or legal action subsequently taken.

As readers will be aware, we were live tweeting from the meeting and we have included a quick archive below with the earliest tweets at the bottom and latest at the top…

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