Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Recent events have seen trust in politics further eroded; ‘they are all liars’ is an increasingly common (although largely unfair) view, as democracy is replaced by dictatorship. Important decisions, across local authorities and government, have been implemented unchallenged because “social distancing” prevents face to face communication at meetings and in Parliament.
The pandemic seems to have given government a fresh lust for fines: e.g. £10,000 if Covid rules are broken, however unintentionally, whether having one extra person for coffee in the garden, or holding big events. With weddings and funerals restricted, this didn’t apply to the 65,000 people attending the Euros at Wembley, or the G7 international conference in Cornwall, where guests were filmed socialising – without masks.
HS2 continues destroying ancient woodland, whilst the government promises to plant millions more trees, which will take decades to mature! New housing policies will inevitably invade the Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including a scheme given permission that overlooks the River Orwell in Suffolk; so what is the point of trying to protect our landscape, when regulations can be so easily overturned, without proper public consultation?
Thankfully, Ipswich Borough Council refused consent for a new house on four acres of woodland at the heart of the town comprising an invaluable habitat for a wide range of species, including hedgehogs, stag beetles, bees, and a variety of birds, thriving because of long-standing Tree Protection Orders (TPO). Appeals were also unsuccessful and it is now hoped that a local primary school can become involved in future preservation and maintenance.
This brings me to Suffolk County Council’s threat to fine residents if a hedge bordering a barely used metre long footpath in the same location isn’t drastically cut back. Subsequent works resulted in the destruction of a blackbird habitat where they had nested for at least 10 years. The hedge was full of flowers attracting bees (a threatened species) and forming berries to feed a range of birds throughout the winter.
Now Ministers are giving councils the authority to fine drivers £70 for minor traffic offences (£130 in London). But will the fines actually be paid by the worst offenders instead of those caught in breach accidentally when the lights change too quickly, or they are lost and take a wrong turn? Are irresponsible cyclists and scooter riders included; and how will they be traced, when there is nothing to identify them?
A year ago one of my neighbours kept receiving threatening letters from the borough council; apparently someone had registered a car at his address although never having lived there, building up hundreds of pounds in parking fines. Despite repeatedly telling the authority it was not his car, and he didn’t know the driver, eventually the bailiffs knocked. It wasn’t until he asked for my advice and I contacted the Chief Executive on his behalf that the situation was resolved. But the driver was never traced and is no doubt still collecting parking fines.
Even pet lovers are now regarded as potential cash cows. This autumn, new legislation to ‘protect’ animals will threaten cat owners with £500 fines if their pets aren’t microchipped. It costs just £20 or £30, and both my middle-aged rescue cats were done on my vet’s advice when I first got them 10 years ago. I’ve always had cats, and can’t understand how such a large financial penalty can be justified.
Will farmers be fined for unchipped cats running wild, reducing mice and rat populations within outbuildings? And will dogs be subject to the same rules? (Let’s hope that both Downing Street’s pets are chipped, otherwise more ‘donors’ will have to pay up.) I’ve always believed that providing information, and incentivising co-operation is the best policy to encourage compliance, so surely there would be more benefit in working with veterinary practices and Cats Protection to organise ‘Vaccination Days’ at a fixed price, with appropriate publicity to support pet lovers, who may be unaware of the need to microchip – or who may not speak English. The difficulties caused by isolation during the last 18 months or so have highlighted the importance of pets in reducing loneliness and helping cope with depression, especially for the elderly and disabled – £500 fines is sheer bullying. And how will such a scheme be managed? Are cat owners to be forced to put collars on their pets, which my own vet advised against because cats are independent; they roam and even elasticated collars can get caught on branches, with the potential for strangling them.
Meanwhile, I and a neighbour could be fined for having some pots, housing bee-friendly plants, in place for more than 20 years on the short footpath on our front boundary, only used by four residents and the postman, overlooking a private car park. They do not block access, but a malicious complaint by someone living nearby for more than 25 years, who never uses the footpath (and never puts her three waste bins away) resulted in the council having to take action and ask for their removal. Even the Cabinet member responsible, who is dealing with similar residents’ challenges elsewhere, agrees this policy should be reviewed to allow discretion in some circumstances.
The authors of these punishments have no idea of the stress they cause to the law-abiding, which accounts for the vast majority of British people. Yet it is they who are the most vulnerable because they respect the law – and feel responsible for other people – unlike those who breach the law at every opportunity in the knowledge that they will never be caught and made to pay up!
The government’s energy should be diverted to protecting the law-abiding, not penalising them at every opportunity to fill its coffers, whilst failing to even chastise – let alone fine or sack – some Ministers and officials for breaching Covid rules and the Ministerial Code. It is increasingly evident that there definitely is one rule for them, and another for the rest of us.