Hammersmith: local fines for local people

This is the latest in a series of interviews I’m collecting from low earners in Tory Hammersmith and Fulham’s Big Society:

About a month ago, Notting Hill Trust tenant Johnny O’Hagan, 53, found a fat letter from Hammersmith and Fulham council in his morning post.

Now.

Hammersmith and Fulham council rarely writes to its poorer burghers to talk love and/or mercy. O’Hagan assumed the crash position as he peeled back the envelope’s fold.

He was right to worry. Opened, the envelope coughed out a pile of accusatory correspondence about a rubbish bag that O’Hagan had put out for collection a day before he was supposed to. His collection day is Wednesday. He put his single rubbish bag out on Tuesday. There were letters, closeups and wide-angled photographs of the offending bag sitting by itself outside O’Hagan’s home on Hammersmith and Fulham’s Leamore Street, and a threatening notice – complete with paragraphs in red ink – demanding payment of a fine.

Little wonder that Hammersmith and Fulham’s less well-off residents live in fear of their council. One strike, says O’Hagan, and you’re gone. He’s an exemplary tenant and touches often on this clean sheet: ‘I’ve been a [Notting Hill Trust] tenant for 15 years and I’ve never been in trouble.’

So.

O’Hagan’s offense is poverty and ill-health, rather than attitude or a longterm love of life on the state. He was a manual worker for most of his working life – he started on the production lines in East Acton light-industry factories in the 1970s and 1980s, then spent ten years on the night shift at Sainsbury’s, unpacking West London’s frozens. He liked the routine and the regular work: he’s on the autism spectrum and prefers the beaten track.

He’d probably still be at Sainsbury’s, except that he had a heart attack on the job and went off sick, which led to the sack. Angioplasty followed, along with serious depression and a stint in Charing Cross Hospital’s psychiatric unit. Now, he collects an income support payment of about £90 a week and housing benefit for his £80 a week one-bedroom flat. He says he’s bored out of his mind. ‘I applied for dog walking, but they never got back to me. I’d like to work in a charity shop, or something silly like that.’

But enough of the laughs – back to the rubbish. Two days before he made his fatal collection-day mistake, O’Hagan woke up with feet and legs so painful that he could hardly walk. He went straight to his GP – he worries about arthritis and other permanent injuries, because he spent so much of his working life on his feet. O’Hagan’s doctor prescribed strong painkillers. They went to his head, so he decided to head off to bed. Before he went, he put his rubbish out. ‘I was out of it a bit. I got my day wrong.’

A couple of days later, the letter turned up. O’Hagan was shocked. These fines are heavy. The immediate demand for the single bag was £100, with a chance to get that down to £60 if O’Hagan paid within ten days. Both amounts were beyond him.

As for the £1000 fine that he faces if the council decides to prosecute for non-payment – well, forget that. Hopefully, the council will forget that: the costs (for councils) of taking people to court are exorbitant. Certainly, it seems that pursuing these fines is less about saving money than it is about terrorising citizens into handing over whatever they’ve got.

Eric Pickles is considering scrapping these fines and rewarding people who recycle (opponents of that plan say rewarding people for recycling encourages them to consume more). Hammersmith could choose to run such a scheme already, of course: unfortunately for O’Hagan, Hammersmith and Fulham prefers to prioritise in favour of revenue generation. It fleeces lower earners to keep council tax down. Vulnerable and disabled tenants have taken the council to court to fight the council’s various charges.

O’Hagan didn’t have £100, so his only option was to head down to the council offices on King’s street and ask staff to drop the fine. He left his contact details three times before he was able to talk to someone. He was told that he might be excused if he could give the council a doctor’s certificate. He went to the doctor, got his certificate and dropped it off at the council.

He hasn’t heard a word since, so he’s hoping that the whole thing is over. He says he’ll give it a couple of weeks and then relax. Been a tense few days so far, though. The last council officer he spoke to said he’d keep the doctor’s note just in case. ‘Do you know how much power do they have to take the money off us?’ O’Hagan asks. ‘Can they come into the flat?’

6 thoughts on “Hammersmith: local fines for local people

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Hammersmith: local fines for local people – Hangbitch -- Topsy.com

    • Well said, Brian. It’s all about shifting the tax burden to those who can least afford it. H&F have started charging for meals on wheels and homecare – the judge who heard the case that homecase users brought against the council stated clearly that H&F residents might be surprised to know that their lower council tax rates were being subsidised by the borough’s most vulnerable. Now, we have the sort of situation I’ve described above. That guy worked all his life and paid his taxes and fell ill. I’d need some state support if that happened to me.

  2. A sickening piece of bureaucratic bullying. The only part that doesn’t add up is your statement that they fleece lower income earners to keep council tax down. Both Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea employ a small army of uniformed pseudo-police (mostly ex-police officers) on salaries of between £28k and £40k to enforce the environmental legislation against littering. And that’s not counting the many levels of far more highly paid managers above them. All on generous pension schemes, and all equipped with cars. Their efforts are exclusively targetted on residents and shopkeepers who leave rubbish bags out early, and builders who cut corners on skips. There’s no way on earth those boroughs are making any savings on council tax by issuing fines of £100. I think they do it mainly to please Tory voters who tend to become hysterical about litter, and bend the councillors’ ears far too often for their convenience.

    • That is the irony – first thing the above guy’s family said to me as they showed me the photos & paperwork, etc, was ‘how much has all of this cost?’ I’ve just heard that the council is pursuing the fine above, so ultimately, costs for the council will skyrocket. I have figures that it costs the council thousands of pounds to take people to court – so you’re right to say that this exercise isn’t about costs in the first instance.

      What this sort of initiative does is generate an income stream where there wasn’t one (council tax is also an income stream), so income generation appears to have increased. Outgoings may increase accordingly, but councils choose which information they publicise, of course.

      The point is that the tax burden on low-paid/vulnerable people in Hammersmith is being increased (homecare charges, meals on wheels, the sort of fine described above) while better-off residents are enjoying negative council tax growth.

      The tax burden – and, in particular, the public presentation of the tax burden – is being shifted onto poorer groups. Ultimately, these people are likely to look at shifting out of the borough, to places where public services are more affordable. That will enable Hammersmith to cut service provision and the costs of it even further. The savings are ultimately made and the face of the borough changed forever – place will be filled with Tory voters.

  3. the Centre’s lease on the building where it has lived for the past ten years, but the Council rneeged in June 2010—announcing it would now seek to sell the building in March 2012.a0 A petition urging

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