Failures to display adequate warning notices in Pendle parks or to offer people discounts if they pay fines within 14 days could create a spate of legal claims for reimbursement or costs, one Lib Dem councillor has suggested.
And he has also criticised the business model of outsourced enforcement contracts where income for private firms is generated through fines given to the public.
However, the criticism has been dismissed by others, who claim the outsourced enforcement system is fair, effective in tackling problems and cost efficient to the borough.
Pendle councillors have debated fixed penalty fines as new council figures show the number of fines issued over the past three years at parks and outdoor areas where Public Space Protection Orders are in force.
The vast majority of fines were for littering offences rather than dog-related breaches. Over 1,600 fines were issued for littering in the 2021-22 financial year, compared to 17 for having dogs off leads, seven for dog fouling and seven for dogs entering prohibited areas.
In the first year for 2019-20, a higher figure of 4,360 fixed penalty fines were given to people for littering and 112 fines for dog fouling. In 2020-21, there were 1,640 fines for littering and seven for dog fouling.
Under the current contract, a private company called District Enforcement keeps 100% of the income from fixed penalty notices to cover the cost of the service provided. Any additional income is then shared 50/50 between Pendle Council and District Enforcement.
In 2019-20, Pendle Council received almost £25,000 under the agreement. In 2020-21, the council received a lower sum of £4,760. The latest sum received for 2021/22 is not yet available .
The fixed penalty figures were discussed at Pendle Council’s latest Policy & Resources Committee meeting, along with moves to re-tender a three-year park enforcement contract with a commercial firm, rather than provide enforcement and dog warden services in-house using council staff. New warning signs are also to go up, costing £3,000.
Pendle Council updated its Public Space Protection Orders earlier this year covering specific parks, playing fields and other outdoor locations. The orders first began in 2019 and are reviewed every three years.
Fixed penalty notices can be handed to people for offences including dropping cigarette butts or litter, failing to keep their dogs on leads or not picking up dog dirt.
Conservative Coun Sarah-Cockburn Price gave an update at the Policy & Resources meeting.
She and others in the ruling Conservative group generally support the Public Space Protection Orders and the outsourcing of enforcement services. They say it is efficient, fair and effective.
Coun Cockburn-Price said Trawden Parish Council, for example, praised work by District Enforcement which had made a big difference, She welcomed the enforcement statistics from the past three years but added: “It would be good if we could have additional information about numbers of complaints, rescinded fixed penalties and issues that have been resolved. ”
However, Lib Dem Coun. Whipp is a critic of the outsourced zero-cost system. He believes it encourages private firms to maximise income by giving out as many fines as possible. This experience is turning residents against the council and creating legal and financial risks, he believes.
He said: “How many faulty fixed penalty notices have been issued through inadequate park signs or the 14-day discount option not being available? What is the liability contingent on the false issuing of fixed penalty notices? Is it £100,000, £200,000 or perhaps £400,000? If there were a lot of faulty fixed penalty notices then the liability contingent would be quite significant.”
Council corporate director Philip Mousdale said the details could be brought to the committee’s next meeting.
However, Coun. Whipp said: “This is very disappointing. I have raised this with various officers and at meetings. It feels like I’m meeting a wall of silence. This is very important.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t know how much money has been shunted-off by this private company. Somebody know how much the fixed penalty notices amount to.”
He added: “There is a massive outcry about unfair fines being dished out. This is a dodgy business model, I believe, which Pendle Council should have no part of. It’s a license to print money. It flies in the face of DEFRA (the government’s environment department) guidance. What if District Enforcement or Pendle Council has to pay? I cannot see Pendle Council being untouched.
“I estimate it could be £500,000 based on previous data. If the funds at District Enforcement were not enough, it could go under and the liability would shift to Pendle Council.”
Coun Whipp said a future enforcement contract should not be agreed until more information was available.
However, Mr Mousdale said the re-tendering work had started. Information was included in the committee report. The old contract was coming to an end and there would be a gap in services if no re-tendering steps were taken. Furthermore, he did not think there were any serious risks to the council. He expected a new contract to start in July.
Conservative Coun Nadeem Ahmed, leader of the council, highlighted the re-tendering details in the committee report. These include the enforcement supplier providing trained staff, managing fines and payments, creating prosecution files and also attending school, neighbourhood and volunteer events. Tendering criteria would be split 50/50 between quality and price and income considerations.
On consultation, Coun Whipp said previous talk of an enforcement review was ‘up in the air’. Pendle’s West Craven Area Committee, for example, had not been approached, he said.
Labour Coun Mohammed Iqbal asked if all Pendle political group leaders could discuss the issues soon before a new contract is awarded for July.
Legal officer Richard Gibson said there would be more consultation.