In January Mid Ulster District Council became the fourth council in Northern Ireland to engage WISE (Waste Investigations, Support and Enforcement) in a 12-month pilot.
Through the pilot WISE officers work seven days a week to provide a visible deterrent for littering offences and the detection of such offences across the district.
However, speaking at a recent meeting of Council’s development committee Councillor John McNamee expressed concern that of the 651 fixed penalty notices issued by WISE approximately 88 per cent of this total was issued in Cookstown (307 fines) and Dungannon (266 fines) alone.
He questioned why such a high number of fines have been recorded in these two towns and claimed the enforcement seems “weighted against the smoker”.
“I would have concerns that the wardens seem to be targeting smokers,” said Cllr McNamee.
“Over 95 per cent of the total fines are for cigarette butts. I am not justifying any type of littering but it seems things are weighted against the smoker here.
“We have 622 out of 651 fines for cigarette butts and five for dog fouling and three for fast food littering.
“In our workshops to discuss the option of employing WISE there was very little talk about cigarette litter and a lot more about dog fouling and fast food packing being dumped.
“I would not like to think they are targeting the smoker to get their salaries paid while ignoring the other stuff.”
His Sinn Féin party colleague, Councillor Niamh Doris said she would concur with Cllr McNamee’s comments and noted that every meeting she attended on this issue concerned dog fouling more than anything else.
“I don’t think this is taking the direction councillors expected it to take,” she said.“There are a lot of popular walkways in the rural areas and they do not seem to be monitored in the same way smokers and cigarette butts are.”
Councillor Cora Corry said she was in agreement with the comments already made.
Meanwhile, Independent Councillor Barry Monteith told the chamber he was sceptical of privatising this service from the start and claimed at present it is “not addressing the issues Council has raised”.
“These folk are sitting in streets or towns and following people around to see how they dispose of cigarette butts,” he said. “This much lauded programme is failing miserably to address the issues of dog fouling and fly tipping.
“There needs to be a serious question asked to the viability of this scheme, we are three months in and it is an unmitigated disaster so far,” added Cllr Monteith.
Ulster Unionist group leader, Councillor Walter Cuddy said he felt for those from East Timor who may not be able to read English fluently and would consequently not have been aware of the scheme and are now left paying £80 fines as a result.
“A lot of foreign nationals are good at speaking English but are not great at reading English,” he said.
“An £80 fine is steep. This scheme is not hitting its intended targets at the moment and I don’t know how we change that but these issues need addressed moving forward.”
SDLP group leader, Councillor Malachy Quinn said he is still regularly contacted about dog fouling and other rubbish in his area and said that is what WISE need to focus on.
“We need to see the issues we raise being addressed and for this programme to be a success we need to rethink this and go to our targeted areas,” he said.
Councillors Dan Kerr and Sean Clarke said they too had similar concerns to those already expressed by others and called for WISE to change its approach.
Councillor Trevor Wilson said WISE must be told of these problems and given a chance to tackle them before noting “anything that takes littering off the street is to be welcomed”.
Councillor Frances Burton said the company should be given a chance to improve and said Council’s “zero tolerance policy on littering” must be maintained.
Council’s assistant director of health, leisure and wellbeing, Kieran Gordon said he was in regular contact with WISE officers and told the chamber he would let them know of these concerns with “due urgency and importance”.
He also shot down suggestions that WISE officers are going after easy targets to ensure they get their salary by telling the chamber, officers are paid an hourly salary with “no performance related incentives”.