A man carrying a chip wrapper bustles along the pavement, his search for a bin becoming more frantic with every step. Across the street, a woman smoking a cigarette at a bus stop looks nervously over her shoulder as she surreptitiously flicks ash into the breeze. An older man, spotting The Independent's photographer in town, gets suspicious and demands to know if she is working for the council.
These are embattled residents of Sandwell. The area, which includes the towns of West Bromwich, Oldbury and Smethwick near Birmingham, boasts what must be some of the tidiest streets in Britain. But cleanliness comes at a cost. Those who fall foul of the council's strict litter laws risk being collared by an army of eagle-eyed wardens, who, residents are beginning to feel, lie in wait around every corner.
Yesterday, the residents of Oldbury woke up to the news that 70-year-old Sheila Martin faced a £2,500 fine after she refused to pay Sandwell an on-the-spot penalty for flicking ash at a bus stop. "I can't work out why the council would be so vindictive over such a petty matter," she said.
Last year, Sandwell handed out more than 2,200 penalty fines of £75, compared to just 336 in neighbouring Dudley. Residents have been punished for misdemeanours as minor as allowing tissues to fall from pockets.
The rule of law has become so severe that some locals are calling Sandwell the new capital of "big brother" Britain, or the "Singapore of the West Midlands", after the city-state that takes a similarly dim view of littering.
Shoppers on the streets of Oldbury yesterday said they feared being caught out and slapped with "excessive" fines. "The council has got a bit strict recently," said the woman with the cigarette, who refused to be named or pictured.
She added: "I am surprised you can be fined for dropping ash, it is very harsh. I can understand it if it is the cigarette butt, but the ash just disintegrates immediately, doesn't it?"
Workers on their lunch break taking advantage of a sunny day wondered if asking nicely wouldn't be more effective, if less lucrative, than fines.
Claire Boyes, a 34-year-old charity worker, said: "There is a big difference between someone who accidentally drops something while they're running for a bus and someone who throws their litter from their car," she said. "I would rather just be told about it then I would go back and put the litter in a bin. I would be embarrassed, but rather that than pay a fine."
Ms Boyes is one of many who are worried about the council's approach to littering after a number of stories about residents caught out by its staff. Last year, Kerrie-Anne Hicken was stopped by a council warden after a tissue blew from her pocket as she ran for a bus. Vanessa Kelly was fined for feeding ducks with her son in a park.
The council eventually agreed the duck-feeding charge was "over the top" and dropped the charges, but it won't back down in the case of Mrs Martin, the bus-stop smoker.
A council spokesman declined to comment on individual cases yesterday, but said: "In general terms, our wardens do not issue fixed penalty notices for dropping cigarette ash."
He added: "The council takes a dim view of littering because the people of Sandwell tell us they want clean streets." Waseem Akhtar, 34, who works for a company providing IT to local schools, wondered why the council had decided on the fine of £75, when "£10 would be just as effective as a deterrent".
He added: "If there are enough bins around, I can understand the council taking action to stop litter-bugs but to fine someone for dropping cigarette ash is just ridiculous."
Akhtar's colleague, 25-year-old Aunkher Sithu added that, if the wardens have other duties as well as this, then he did not mind quite as much. "But I don't like the idea of council employees standing on street corners just to try to catch people out," he said.
Back at the bus stop, just before he disappears behind a corner, the man with the fish wrapper finally finds a bin. Throwing his litter inside, the sigh of relief is almost audible.Reuse content