North Yorkshire County Council has defended spending £2,000 on a drone which it says will be used to help the authority work more efficiently as it copes with budget cuts.
Council leader Carl Les told the local press that the drone would support a wide range of council services, including surveying traffic congestion for the highways division, inspecting roofing work work for trading standards officers and looking for breaches of the council’s planning function.
But he denied suggestions that the council would use the technology for random surveillance.
"We have little planning enforcement to do and it certainly can’t be used for snooping,” he said.
“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 council has said the drone's operations will comply with both data protection law and new regulations on drone flying.
Laws which restrict drones from flying above 400 feet or within one kilometre of airport boundaries came into effect last year. From 30 November this year owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more must register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and pilots to take an online safety test.
A specialist lawyer said the use of drones by local authorities should be welcomed. Rufus Ballaster, partner at City law firm Carter Lemon Camerons and co-author of A Practical Guide to Drone Law said that drone use is well regulated in the UK and can help protect communities from a range of anti-social behaviours.
"This is not something we should be concerned about,” he said. “In fact, we should be pleased. For every illegal rave organiser hoping to manage to leave the site of a successful event before being ejected by the authorities, there are many people living or operating nearby who wish the authorities got enough warning to stop the event from even starting.
"For every property owner who has built an extension under permitted development rights, but ‘overbuilt’ it to get more space, there are law abiding citizens who value the controls that planning law imposes and who want local authorities to take actions to uphold the law.”
However, privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch called for new guidelines to ensure drones are not used to spy on taxpayers without due cause.
“There’s a real risk that drones could be used by councils to expand the surveillance state," said Silkie Carlo, director. “There should be clear safeguards in place to make sure authorities make the best of new technologies without having free licence to snoop on the public in the absence of good reason.”
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