Neighbours take action as 'virtue signalling' council fails to fine drivers who leave engines running

A queue of cars idling at St Stephen's level crossing, Canterbury
-Credit: (Image: LDRS)

Neighbours have taken matters into their own hands after a council failed to fine drivers who leave their engines running. Canterbury City Council (CCC) warned drivers in May 2022 that leaving engines running unnecessarily in hotspots, like outside schools or level crossings, could attract a £20 levy.

But not only are penalties yet to materialize, some living in the most polluted areas stress they have yet to see a single enforcement officer on the beat. Despite the lack of fines issued, Thanet District Council granted itself identical powers on engine idling in a meeting this week.

Critics have labelled the scheme “virtue signalling” and questioned its efficacy if motorists can avoid a fine simply by turning their engine off when council staff ask. Jennifer Holland, who lives near St Stephen’s level crossing in Canterbury, claims she has not seen an enforcement officer despite living in one of the worst affected areas.

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She said residents decided to take matters into their own hands by joining forces to help tackle the potential health risk themselves. She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).“We decided that we wanted to do something about this issue that we had about vehicles leaving their engines running.

“It is obviously a risk to people’s health – not only to the residents but to children walking to school and parents – so we were very concerned about it."

An anti-idling sign on a residential property near St Stephen's level crossing, created by the St Stephen's Residents Association
An anti-idling sign on a residential property near St Stephen's level crossing, created by the St Stephen's Residents Association -Credit:LDRS

Ms Holland, vice-chair of the St Stephen’s Resident’s Association, said neighbours clubbed together to drum up cash for their own anti-idling signage. When the council built its own signage idling temporarily stopped however, drivers now “totally ignore it,” she says.

She added: “I thought if they did do some enforcement the message would spread and people would know they need to turn their engines off, but they don’t. I’ve never seen an enforcement officer."

On separate occasions this week, when the LDRS visited the area queues of cars on either side of the crossing could be seen, all with engines running despite signs from both the council and residents. Ms Holland believes CCC’s policy to ask offenders to kill their engines before handing out fines is the “only way to deal” with the problem, rather than dishing out penalties immediately.

She added: “Not being a car driver I don’t know what people would think about that, personally I think you need to request first. It’s a learning cycle, isn’t it? If you’re asked to turn it off it may occur to you that it’s an important thing."

Canterbury City Council anti-idling sign near the St Stephen's level crossing
Canterbury City Council anti-idling sign near the St Stephen's level crossing -Credit:LDRS

Describing how more enforcement staff are needed, she added: “If there’s not enough to do the job that’s needed, it’s somewhere they could increase their workforce and it would be of benefit to the whole community.”

In 2022 CCC voted to implement fines of £20 at “hotspots such as outside the district’s schools, popular shops and other areas where parked vehicles are known to leave their engines running, or idle.” It said offenders must have engines on unnecessarily “for long periods of time and in places where people are likely to breathe in the fumes”.

The previous Conservative administration voted to bring in the fines, which rise to £40 if not paid within 28 days, and they remain in force to this day.

Council says fines are 'a last resort'

A CCC spokesman told the LDRS hitting drivers in the pocket is a “last resort” and the work so far has generated a “positive outcome” in its bid to clean up the air.

“We are pleased to say that no fines have been issued for anti-idling over the last year. Issuing fines is not something we want to do and is only ever a last resort,” the spokesman said. "A fine can only be given out if someone does not comply with a request to switch the engine off.

“On all occasions when a motorist has been approached, they have either been willing to switch their engine off or have driven away. As well as enforcement officer visits, we have also placed educational signs about switching engines off at drop-off and pick-up points a number of sites.

“All in all, this is a really positive outcome and we are grateful for the support of our residents in our efforts to improve air quality."

'Difficult to enforce'

CCC in 2022 introduced the new measure to “make the air we breathe that much cleaner”. City councillor Clare Turnbull (Green) says the lack of fines being issued doesn’t come as a surprise.

“I’d like to be really angry about this but I’m not surprised that they haven’t been issued,” she said. "It’s difficult to enforce because if you ask someone to turn their engine off if they’re idling and they do so then of course you don’t issue a fine.

“So it could be that enforcement officers are going round and knocking on car doors and asking ‘would you mind turning your engine off’ but I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. The main thing that needs to be done is education, people don’t realise that it’s illegal to leave your car running if you’ve stopped and we need more of a district wide education plan to make sure that people are aware of the impact that it has on the environment."

She added: “Enforcement officers are very stretched, we probably don’t have enough to cover all the things that we need to be doing."

Thanet District Council brings in same fines

As a question mark hangs over the scheme’s success, Thanet District Council (TDC) voted on (Thursday May 30) to implement the same fines under the same legislation. Cabinet member Cllr Heather Keen (Lab) said at the meeting: “The council is committed to doing what we can to protect our environment.

“Although we’re fortunate that Thanet has good air quality, at peak times when traffic builds up, so does associated pollution from burning fossil fuels. Leaving engines to idle not only burns climate changing fossil fuels, it also produces nitrogen dioxide and fine particles exposing children with asthma and older people with respiratory conditions to the harmful effects of pollution."

“Introducing these new powers will provide the opportunity to raise public awareness around these issues,” she added.

However, at a meeting of TDC’s cabinet on April 25, Cllr Phil Fellows (Con) said the authority has barely a handful of traffic wardens to enforce the new rules. He said: “We need more traffic wardens, this is an area we struggle to recruit for, maybe we should start looking to bringing in outside agencies.

“This summer is going to be horrendous with only three wardens covering seven days a week.”

A TDC spokesperson stressed that the council has recruited an extra four civil enforcement officers since then, but this is not related to the anti-idling fines. The spokesperson added that the decision on which officers enforce the anti-idling fines will be taken later. However, some remain sceptical of whether the rules can be enforced.

Cllr John Davis (Con), told the LDRS: “We’ve got to have the resources to enforce this issue – somebody to go and speak to the driver and request that he turns it off. At the moment it’s difficult to find enough parking wardens, so I question how this could be policed.”

In Thanet, like Canterbury, the fines will apply to any driver who has their engine running unnecessarily while parked, and refuses to turn it off when asked by a council officer. The fines cannot be doled out to motorists caught in traffic.

The Cliffsend & Pegwell representative added that he thought the policy may be politically charged: “I do think this is a pretty empty policy. Canterbury have tried this – I believe it was a Conservative initiative initially – and in two years not one ticket has been issued.

“It’s very easy to put out virtue signalling policies – it doesn’t escape my attention that we’re entering an election period so anything that can be waved around will be.” In principle I support anything that helps to prevent pollution, but it has to be viable.”

“Any resource that’s spent on for instance enabling ticketing would be better spent on some form of educational programme or even just signs reminding people not to idle.”

Residents are divided

(From left) Badger, Pamela Norman and Brian Swayne gave their views on fines for drivers who leave their engines running unnecessarily
(From left) Badger, Pamela Norman and Brian Swayne gave their views on fines for drivers who leave their engines running unnecessarily -Credit:LDRS

On the streets of Margate however, opinion was split.

“Yes you should be fined for that,” said Brian Swayne, 83. "You’re wasting fuel which is expensive enough as it is, and you’re polluting the atmosphere, why sit there with the car going?”

“If you switch the engine off at least people know that you’ve stopped and you’re not going to suddenly pull off,” said Pamela Norman, 75.

Though one resident, who gave his name only as ‘Badger’ was against the move. He said: “I just think it’s another ruse from the council to take money from normal people – those that don’t have it basically.”

“if you’re idling it’s going to be for a very small period, you’re going to create much more emissions when you pull away.”

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