If there were a Premier League charting the most bullying, hectoring and punitive local authorities in Britain, the contest would be over each year before the end of August. Since Big Brother Watch was established nearly 12 months ago, we have lost count of the number of times we have had to condemn the actions of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council.
Our fraught relationship began in November last year when we read the story of Vanessa Kelly. Vanessa and her young son had been feeding bread to the ducks in their local park, when a Sandwell litter warden handed her a £75 fixed penalty notice. With our support, Vanessa refused to pay the fine and – in one of Sandwell's rare rational moves – the charge was dropped. They didn't admit they were wrong, but, we suspect, they preferred not to have a fight with a mother in public.
Since then we have watched in disgust as perhaps the most authoritarian of authorities has handed out on-the-spot fines for everything from tissues accidentally blowing from coat pockets to, as was revealed yesterday, a pensioner dropping cigarette ash.
Sandwell responds that their residents' chief concern is littering and they are merely giving the voters what they want. But taking such an absurdly hard line on what are, in essence, very minor "crimes" does both residents and the council no favours. Concerns for cleanliness aside, we are keenly aware that people in the UK – and especially in Sandwell – have had enough of being bullied and berated by town hall bureaucrats.
Big Brother Watch has run out of adjectives to describe the actions of Sandwell Council. But we continue to oppose their rule-by-fine and offer help to those subjected to their punishments.
Dylan Sharpe is campaign director of Big Brother Watch