Councillors are set to review if the Kingdom littering enforcement officers are executing their role ‘to the standards the council expects’, with a report telling them that no bad behaviour show on a Panorama programme has occurred locally.
In December 2017 Wrexham.com reported that an Audit Committee had asked several questions about the Kingdom enforcement, with the answers now set to be examined by the The Homes and Environment Scrutiny Committee this week – after it was referred to them for examination due to possible ‘reputational risk’ to the council.
Two years ago in April 2016 Wrexham Council engaged the services of Kingdom for a 12 month pilot period. Following the trial period, Kingdom were then re-appointed last April on a further two year deal. There is an option to extend the contract by a further year.
Kingdom are used by many councils across the UK, with nearby Gwynedd Council recently binning the firm without even completing the trial period due to issues over how the enforcement took place.
The manner of enforcement has angered many in Wrexham, with Kingdom being described as using ‘bully boy’ tactics on the very first day by the manager of Eagles Meadow – an area of the town centre that subsequently is effectively off limits to Kingdom, an opt out that does not appear open to others.
An angry debate took place, and continues on the topic on if Kingdom and Wrexham Council are working to the law or to UK Government guidance to the enforcement. In effect a political decision has been taken to enforce things in a zero tolerance letter-of-the-law manner, rather than a little more lenient manner give by the guidance often cited.
Since the trial first started and that debate, we have had a round of local council elections last year, with a similar group of controlling councillors returned and the policy (with the then and now Lead Member taking part in our candidate Q&A answering a question on this topic) being continued under a fresh mandate.
As we have documented before the first six months of the pilot saw more than 3,200 fines issued, worth £263,475 , as with the only attempt at a pre-election public debate on the topic was stopped at the Town Centre Forum as there was no relevant Council Officers present. At that meeting it was also stated a debate would be ‘inappropriate’ as the new contract had yet to be agreed, although it was later revealed it had actually been done days earlier.
Prior to Kingdom taking on the job, Wrexham Council did the enforcement job in house – however only 43 fines were issued by the council in 2015-2016, the period before outsourcing.
In December 2016 we asked Cllr Bithell if Kingdom issuing more tickets in the first three days than Wrexham Council in a year meant the council had not been doing the best job, something he said was ‘absolutely right’.
Questions have been raised recently over communications, with a community council invite declined by Kingdom – despite the Community Council in question being under the impression they were due regular updates from the enforcement company. This is something referred to in the report before councillors this week, which states: “Elected Members and Community Councils receive regular monthly updates on Kingdoms activities”.
In December we documented the strong concerns raised in an Audit Committee meeting, including questioning how independent the appeals process really was when there is a financial interest between Wrexham Council and Kingdom.
Mr O’Keefe told that meeting in a scenario where the 1,000 cases where FPNs were not paid, but Wrexham Council had an obligation to pay out on them to Kingdom which ‘could create a situation where a sizeable sum of money’ was effectively owed. The new report before councillors this week refers to the process as “robust, sufficiently independent and fair”.
That meeting also revealed the startling statistic that 2,534 fixed penalty notices were issued for cigarette butts alone, 92% of all tickets issued in the dataset before Councillors.
The cigarette butt data is simply explained as: “The fact that more offences are enforced for smoking related litter is therefore due to the fact that it is the most commonly discarded piece of rubbish.”
Questions were also asked over an apparent mismatch between the manner the enforcement takes places and the Council’s own Environmental Enforcement Policy. Councillors are being told in the meeting report that things appear to be compliant, and again notes it it is a policy decision.
The explanation then changes tack from saying the policy does not need to be specific, to explain that “a new and more comprehensive code of practice is being developed specifically for the FPN enforcement”, noting the Welsh Government are also ‘reviewing its own guidance’ on the issuing of FPNs as it is ‘now outdated’.
BBC’s Panorama famously broadcast undercover film from an investigation into Kingdom , that was raised in December and subsequent questions asked about the ethical policy of Wrexham Council.
At the time Cllr Bithell gave the concerns short shrift: “As for ethical…you don’t allow your dog to foul or drop litter…that’s my ethical policy”.
Councillors get a slightly expanded response this week, with the report noting: “An assurance that the issues identified in the Panorama programme in respect of Kingdom had not occurred in Wrexham.
“As part of the governance arrangements for the monitoring, management and control of the contract, monthly, quarterly and annual contract management meetings are held with Kingdom.
“Located at Abbey Road on Wrexham Industrial Estate, Council Officers are in daily contact with Kingdom staff and work closely with them.”
“As part of the contract monitoring arrangements, a number of videos per month are viewed whilst reviewing offences for court action. Any such activities like bullying tactics and covert surveillance would be seen at this point.
“No such activity as that portrayed on the Panorama programme has been witnessed by Council officers regarding Kingdom’s operations in Wrexham.”
Councillors are tasked with considering the report and “to ensure that the contract with Kingdom for the enforcement of low level environmental crime is being delivered to the standards the Council expects.”
The report recommends Councillors to follow the advice ‘that the Scrutiny Committee note the contents of the report’, however councillors often create their own recommendations.
The Homes and Environment Scrutiny Committee will take place at 2pm on Wednesday 11th April. The meeting won’t be webcast live but as usual is open for the public to sit and view proceedings in the public gallery.