It’s easy to forget the good work local councils do and just moan about them: the ridiculous rules; the crazy fines; the ludicrous health and safety measures; the apparent love of mindless bureaucracy.
It’s all too easy to just write them off as a bunch of petty-minded Napoleons with an unhealthy penchant for micro-management.
Yes, it is all too easy, which is why I’m going to do it some more.
Let's start with a story on Tuesday which reported that Canterbury council were going to charge 14 households in Whitstable £16 a year for pedestrian licences to access their own back doors. This was because residents would have to walk through a council-owned car park to reach the rear of their houses.
Now, I think of myself as a reasonable person and I want to believe that local government is run by people who are also reasonable. But then a story like this comes along and shakes the very foundations of my views about the reasonableness of humanity. I mean, who thought this up? And – literally – what were they thinking?
It would be easier to pass over if the news wasn’t littered (pun intended) with similar stories of overly bureaucratic rules and ridiculous fines.
You only have to go back one month and Canterbury council are in the limelight again. In September the same local authority were in the news for painting double yellow lines on a stretch of road just 21 inches long. Motorists, it was reported, would be fined £50 or £70 for parking over the lines, which aren’t even big enough to park a skateboard. But even this ridiculous restriction has already been bested by Norwich city council, which has a stretch of double yellow lines just 17 inches long.
It doesn’t end with parking. Littering is a veritable cornucopia of ludicrous fines. In February 2010 Lincolnshire council fined a woman £50 when her baby dropped a piece of banana. The local authority issued the fine after the tip of the banana rolled off her 16-month-old son’s blanket and into a puddle. Lincolnshire council said the fine was “standard procedure”. Yes, that’s “standard procedure”: the mating call of the jobsworth. You can imagine Daleks intoning it mindlessly as they exterminate undesirable litterers in the pedestrian precincts of the future.
Bananas, strangely enough, form their very own absurd subset of littering stories. In October 2009 a man was fined £340 by Rhondda Cynan Taf council for throwing a banana skin out of a car. In full Dalek mode, a spokesperson for the council said: “We have zero tolerance with throwing litter on the floor.” The same person, who may have been watching a lot of Tom and Jerry cartoons in the run up to the incident, also said: “The banana skin could be on the pavement, someone could slip on it.”
The same crusading council, showing the kind of zeal the Khmer Rouge would have been proud of, had prosecuted a van driver twice consecutively in 2007, once for smoking inside a work vehicle then for throwing the offending cigarette on the floor, presumably in his haste to follow the first order to stop smoking.
Welsh councils seem to be particularly fond of the double consecutive fine. In 2007 in Carmarthenshire a man was given a £60 parking fine, quickly followed by a £75 littering fine for throwing the parking fine on the floor. Carmarthenshire council said they hoped the case would act as a deterrent. Hmmm.
You could almost fill an encyclopaedia with news stories of petty littering fines. In January 2010 a man was charged a total of £465 for throwing a can into some bushes in Telford. In August 2008 a woman was fined £75 after a “bite-sized” piece of sausage roll fell from her four-year-old daughter’s mouth onto the streets of Hull city centre. The young mother’s case was dismissed from court after she explained that the piece of sausage roll had subsequently been eaten by a pigeon – the most sensible life form present at the scene.
My favourite of all littering stories though has to be that of 16-year-old Max Twizell from Northumberland who was fined £50 by Newcastle city council after dropping a balloon. Yes, that’s right, a balloon. I hope you, like me, have images of some council official waiting patiently for hours for the balloon to settle on one piece of ground long enough for him to issue the fine. Unfortunately the balloon was deflated, as, I hope, was the official after teenager Max said: “If the warden had asked me to pick it up I would have done. It was just a balloon.”
Rules are rules, it seems, and they are the same for children as for anyone, no matter how young. Such was the case for four, six and ten-year-old sisters, Sienna, Olivia and India from Poole in Dorset when they were reported to the police for theft after picking daffodils in a local park. Police promptly arrived on the scene and threatened the girls’ parents with arrest, reducing the sisters to tears but giving them a timely reminder of their civic duties.
If this catalogue of petty officialdom has made you want to emigrate, you might be consoled – or driven to suicide – by the fact that it is no better anywhere else in the world. In the US, for example, local authorities get even weirder with their petty rules, like in Maine where it is illegal to have Christmas decorations up after 14 January or New Jersey where it is illegal to wear a bulletproof vest while murdering someone or North Dakota where beer and pretzels may not be served at the same time or Ohio where it is illegal to get a fish drunk.
On which note, I’m off to get drunk myself. When I’m sufficiently inebriated I’m going to leave a trail of banana skins and deflated balloons all along my street. The trail will lead to my house which will have a note posted to the front door. The note will read “LIFE IS NOT A STANDARD PROCEDURE.”
I’ll let you know how much I get fined.