North Yorkshire County Council has revealed that it has invested almost £2,000 in a drone which it says will be used to help the authority work more efficiently as it copes with radically reduced funding.
The council has made £157m of cuts over the past nine years by spending £40m less on frontline services and making efficiency savings worth £117m, but is now facing huge demands on its services for special educational needs, children and adult social care and home to school transport.
Nonetheless, campaign group Big Brother Watch warned that the use of a drone by the local authority as part of a service improvement and innovation drive should not go unchecked, and it has called for new guidelines to ensure drones are not used to spy on taxpayers without due cause.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “There’s a real risk that drones could be used by councils to expand the surveillance state.
“There should be clear safeguards in place to make sure authorities make the best of new technologies without having free license to snoop on the public in the absence of good reason.”
Addressing those concerns, the leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor Carl Les, said the authority’s drone would support a wide range of council services, such as carrying out aerial surveys of traffic congestion for its highways division.
The drone could otherwise be deployed by the council’s trading standards officers to inspect roofing work, to look for breaches of the council’s limited planning functions, or to boost health and safety.
Coun Les said any suggestions that the drone would be used to spy on home extensions to see if they were larger than planned were incorrect as the council is not responsible for such matters.
He said: “It is simply a useful piece of equipment that has a camera attached to it, from which you can get a bird’s eye view.
“Surveillance has its role in checking what people have said they are going to do, but we haven’t bought a drone to snoop, it’s another tool.
“We have little planning enforcement to do and it certainly can’t be used for snooping. We are governed by the same legislation as the police and other public bodies. If we wanted to snoop we would have to get permission from a senior person and we would have to pass a number of checks.”
The concerns over drones have been raised after some local authorities in the region, including Hambleton District Council, revealed they were using covert CCTV to tackle fly-tipping.
Laws around use of drones have become increasingly tight but the technology continues to cause disruption.
On Sunday, three flights were diverted to Stansted Airport following reports of a possible drone sighting at Gatwick. The incident caused delays of more than 90 minutes for passengers.
It followed 36 hours of chaos at Gatwick in the run up to Christmas when drone sightings then led to runway closures, affecting 1,000 flights.
Heathrow was forced to ground flights after drone sightings in early January and British Transport Police is investigating after online footage appeared to show a drone being flown dangerously close to a stretch of railway as Doncaster-built steam locomotive, Flying Scotsman, passed through Surrey earlier this month.