Council bans: helping or aggravating social cohesion?
The Manifesto Club, a campaign group opposed to the “hyper-regulation of everyday life,” has criticised the implementation of public spaces protection orders (PSPO) which they say threaten to “turn town and city centres into no-go zones for homeless people, buskers, old ladies feeding pigeons, or anyone else whom the council views as ‘messy’”.
Guidelines for the enforcement of PSPOs, contained within the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, state that a council authority may issue someone with an order if their behaviour is, or is likely to have a, “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”.
Anyone found violating the terms of a PSPO is liable to receive an on-the-spot fine of £100 or risk being prosecuted.
In a group briefing published today, the Manifesto Club has highlighted several new offences created by PSPOs, these include: a ban on open containers of alcohol in certain areas of Cambridge; a ban on the consumption of alcohol and legal highs by Lincoln City council in public spaces in the city centre; the criminalisation of begging in parts of Poole, Dorset; and a ban prohibiting young people in Oxford from entering a tower block unless they are a legal resident or visitor.
Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton said the powers prescribed by PSPOs were “so broad that they allow councils to ban pretty much anything”.
She added: “This makes it hard for the public to know what is criminal and what is not. It is astonishing that in the twenty-first century you could be punished for the crime of selling a lucky charm, ‘loitering’, or failing to leave a retail park within 20 minutes. This looks like a return to the meddling and moralism of nineteenth-century by-laws.”
In September 2014, one month before PSPOs were introduced, the Manifesto Club produced a briefing on the impending legislation. They argued against PSPOs on the grounds that they were largely undemocratic, could be enforced through fines issued by private security guards who receive a portion of the fines issued, could be vulnerable to discriminatory uses and were difficult and potentially costly to appeal against.
The group compared the limited means of appeal available to PSPO recipients in the UK to the much broader means by which French citizens may contest similar orders issued by their area authorities.
The group wrote: “In effect, the PSPO means that UK local authorities will possess the most open-ended powers in Europe – a dramatic reversal of England’s status as historically the most limited state.”
But what if all this supposedly needless interference is the bitter pill the UK needs to swallow? What if levels of suffering, damage and intimidation have become so great, as local councillors from the aforementioned affected areas claim, that councils must take action beyond what the Manifesto Club believes is appropriate?
Of course, these councillors are certainly within their rights to try and eradicate any antisocial behaviour in their area. That the “deep public concern” as described by Boston borough councillor Stephen Woodliffe, is justified is not up for debate.
Rather, it is the protean nature of the guidelines under which PSPOs can be issued which is most worrying. PSPOs may prove effective in reducing antisocial activities, but they open doors for misplaced and undemocratic abuses of power. Of course, those who damage public or private property, or make others’ lives miserable should be prohibited from doing so. However, tight restrictions must equally be placed on those who impose such legislation.
Perhaps it seems presumptuous or even irrational to criticise orders that ostensibly restore civility to previously unruly areas. Nevertheless, when such orders restrict basic public rights or place authority in the hands of a small, unrepresentative minority, they could pose a more serious threat than beggars, buskers or pigeon-feeders.