Fighting the dirty war

What will it take to keep Britain tidy? Perhaps you'd think twice about flicking that cigarette butt out of your car window if you knew it could result in a £50 penalty. Julia Stuart patrols the grimy streets of south London with the man they call the Enforcer
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The Independent Online

Simon Baxter is standing at his desk deleting old photographs from his digital camera to make room for more. The new pictures, he says, will be needed for evidence, "if the buggers don't pay up." The "buggers" are members of the public and traders whom Baxter is hoping to catch littering, which carries a fixed penalty of £50. More serious offenders can be taken to court and fined up to £2,500.

Baxter, 42, is enforcement manager for Southwark Council, in south London. His devotion to duty has seen him armed with a camera and dictaphone when shopping with his daughter in case he spots any offenders. Such is his influence that, at the age of six, she grassed up her uncle for flinging a cigarette butt out of his car window, correctly identifying it as an "enviro crime".

Not surprisingly, considering his enthusiasm for the subject, Baxter was a particularly active force behind setting up the Street Enforcement Academy, Britain's first "school" to train street-cleansing officers how to use litter laws effectively. The two-day courses, which are held at City Hall or the Association of London Government buildings in Southwark, started in May. Launched by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, the academy was set up after a survey revealed that only half the capital's boroughs were enforcing litter laws.

"I think lack of training was one of the issues, and possibly in some boroughs enforcement was low down on their list of priorities," explains John Duffy, environment policy director to the Mayor. Nor has there been much incentive for councils to enforce the law, as money raised from the penalties goes directly to the Treasury. All that is about to change, however, when the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, comes into effect, enabling councils to keep the money for environmental improvements. Hence the enthusiasm with which various councils are now tackling litter. In West Yorkshire, for example, Calderdale Council recently netted £1,450 in fines in a single day. In London, meanwhile, 26 out of 33 boroughs have signed up to the new scheme, and 91 officers have already been through the academy.

Before leaving the office to inspect his patch, Baxter arms himself with not one but three incident report books, in case details of anything he witnesses is later needed in a court of law. He is used to batting away insults from offenders. "You wouldn't come to work if you thought too much about the fact that everyone thinks you're that fat, bald knobhead. But, if I have reason to believe you have committed an offence, there's one person who's going to have the last laugh and that's me, because you may have to explain it all to a magistrate or even a Crown Court.

"I suppose you want to be liked by all of them, but it's difficult with some of the people you deal with," says the manager, whose professional manner is reminiscent of David Brent from BBC2's The Office. All of his staff are chummily hailed, like long-lost friends, whenever they approach his desk.

But not all the insults come from the public, as Baxter reveals: "I thrive on the cat-and-mouse game, but I'm not some evil person who relies on my ability to upset others - as I was once described by a person who used to work here. I'm not evil. I'm a typical Gemini."

He is accompanied on his rounds today by Simon Chorley, 26, who has been in the job eight weeks and who is one of three council staff to have attended the course. So far, Chorley has issued around 50 fixed-penalty notices for dumping trade waste, but none for dropping litter. With him is Martin Talbot, 44, who has been working for the council for 18 months. He has yet to attend the Street Enforcement Academy. Nevertheless, he has already issued half a dozen penalties to members of the public for litter-dropping, and another 150 or more to traders.

We head off to London Bridge, Baxter driving his silver MR2. Dressed in a suit, natty tie and cufflinked shirt, he could be on his way to a wedding. He is not, however, always so well turned out. If he's on a dog-fouling sting in the park, Baxter will don shades, combats and a baseball cap in order to blend in. He and his similarly mufti'ed officers will indulge in a game of Frisbee or cricket, all the time keeping a watchful eye on people who may fail to pick up their dogs' excrement. Offenders who incur a fixed penalty and refuse to give their name and address are followed in relays back to their home or car by the undercover officers, and then traced through records. "The only people who are exempt are people who are registered blind - and that's understandable," says Baxter.

On arrival at Borough Market, all three officers start rooting through piles of boxes and bags banked up against a wall between two pubs. They are looking for evidence, such as an address, indicating where the rubbish has come from. One of the pub managers comes out and admits that the waste is from his premises, but pleads in his defence that he instructed staff to bag it up. It's no use. With a flourish of his incident report book, Baxter issues him with a £50 fixed-penalty notice, naming other sections of the Environmental Protection Act he could throw at the man, with fines of up to £5,000 if he refuses to accept it. The manager walks meekly backs to the pub clutching the penalty.

The team carries on up the street, and sharp-eyed Baxter spots a man discarding a cigarette. He moves in on him with a swiftness one would not expect of a 6ft 1in, 16-and-a-half-stone man. "You've just thrown your cigarette end down there. You could be fined £50," announces Baxter, holding aloft - Starsky and Hutch-style - his enamel council badge in its leather wallet.

"Are you serious?" asks the stunned American tourist, John Dalton, 22. After explaining the law of the land, Baxter lets him off with a warning.

How does Dalton feel about being reprimanded? "Hey man, it's for the better good I guess. It's not my country, I can't fault people for trying to take care of their city." He and his family are all smiles. One suspects that being busted for littering, which must appear like a delicious slice of British eccentricity, has just made their vacation.

But what the tourists don't know is that Baxter and his team would not have issued a fixed penalty in this instance. Though they have the legal right to issue them to passing members of the public, they will only actually do so when accompanied by the police; otherwise, the chances of being given an accurate name and address are too slim. The only time they are prepared to issue one without the help of the strong arm of the law is if they spot someone throwing litter from a car: then, the offender's identity can be traced through their registration plate without fear of being bashed on the nose.

The enforcement manager is now on a roll. He spots a young, blonde woman dressed in powder blue, smoking outside an office building. As soon as the butt hits the pavement, he moves in faster than you can say "offence under section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act". He points out her crime and the penalty. "Oh, God!" she moans, screwing up her face. "Do you want to pick it up and put it away properly?" he suggests, nodding at the offending fag end. "It's just not particularly nice. There are no excuses, really."

"I know," says the smoker.

"I'm not going to lecture you on it, you're an educated person."

"I hate littering," she says.

"I know, but 75 per cent of littering is smoking related," says Baxter, continuing his lecture nevertheless. "And we're spending, like, humungous amounts of money on tidying up the borough, yeah? Enjoy the rest of the week. Thank you."

The woman refuses to comment and scurries back inside "for a meeting". Baxter insists it wouldn't have been fair to have issued her with a fixed-penalty notice when he wouldn't have done so to a man who was "6ft 4in with a tattooed forehead" without a police presence.

Further on, the team spots more rubbish outside a takeaway. Baxter challenges the manager, who claims it's nothing to do with him. However, the boxes bear the names of brands of drinks which are on sale in his shop's fridge. The man then goes into a long explanation about how the council never collects his rubbish, despite his paying them do to so. "Diversionary tactics," Baxter whispers to me. "Why are they taking everyone else's and leaving yours?" asks Chorley. The shopkeeper is issued with a fixed-penalty notice. "It's wrong," he protests. "They fine me £50 but they don't clear this bloody thing." He points to the entrance of an adjacent underground passage that reeks of stale urine.

We head back to the office in Walworth, south London, where Baxter reveals another tactic up his anti-littering sleeve: Bin It To Win It. This campaign, which he devised himself, involves him stalking the streets armed with klaxon and megaphone, and rewarding people who use the litter bins with a golden envelope containing £10. "It's to try and make people think differently about the whole issue of litter," he explains. "Enforcement doesn't just have to be hard and fast, it can also be fun and sexy." The money comes out of Baxter's own pocket. "I don't want anyone complaining that I'm misusing council funds," he explains. Since he started the scheme last October, he has given away £170. It is questionable, however, as to how effective the campaign is. Baxter doesn't promote it, for fear of children hanging around litter bins waiting for the "bald man" with the megaphone to appear.

As he writes out the compliment slip to go in the envelope - thanks for using the bin and a smiley face - Baxter recalls a meeting with Conservative MP Gillian Shepherd. "They were talking about policy, policy, yawn, yawn, the Environment Agency, yawn, yawn. And she said: 'What's the connection between enviro crime and recycling?' And I said, it's like taking someone into a restaurant and saying: 'Can we have the pudding menu, please?' She looked a bit perplexed. And I said: 'Well, recycling's the pudding. Before we get to that, we have to educate people that the first course is not dropping litter. The main course is taking ownership of waste management issues. And then we can talk about puddings and recycling.' I'm not sure she knew what the hell I was going on about."

Back out in the street, Baxter is in mid-flow about litter control when he suddenly stops dead. He sounds his klaxon and aims his loudhailer at an unsuspecting man putting a receipt into a bin on the pavement: "Excuse me! You've just won Southwark Council's Bin It To Win It! You tried to get rid of the rubbish! You've won an instant £10!"

His victim stands stock still, looking scared out of his wits. Baxter keeps repeating, "You've won £10!" A crowd has now formed. The winner, Anthony Angmor, 26, a student from Ghana, cautiously takes the envelope and opens it. He smiles and moves off, grateful for his tenner. "I thought I'd been arrested," he admits.