Public freedoms have gone out of the window, with new powers - Public Spaces Protection Orders, or PSPOs - which allow council officials to ban pretty much anything they like. PSPOs can be passed by a single unelected council official, if they judge that an activity is having a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of a locality. The designated council officer must consult the police, but is not obliged to consult elected councillors or members of the public.
The results of this blank-cheque power are as one might expect: a patchwork of badly drafted, bizarre laws, criminalising a host of innocent or normal activities. In the first 18 months of the new power, 79 councils passed 130 PSPOs, including 9 bans on swearing, three bans on rough sleeping, and 12 bans on loitering or standing in groups. Some bans verge on the surreal, such as North East Derbyshire’s prohibition on the carrying of golf bags, Sefton’s ban on covering your head, or Colchester’s upcoming ban on being in possession of roller skates or skateboards.
In some cases, these orders seem to be targeting the most positive uses of a space, or the distinguishing feature of an area - such as Blackpool’s ban on selling lucky charms and card tricks, or the Forest of Dean’s planned ban on sheep in villages. There are five PSPOs criminalising busking or street art, including a ban by Swindon Council on its resident pavement poet. Hammersmith and Fulham Council has banned busking outside Shepherd’s Bush tube after 6pm (6pm! - not even the end of the rush hour), as well as banning amplification at any time.
Several councils, including Kettering, have targeted young people skateboarding or swimming, while others have simply barred young people from public spaces, with Bassetlaw banning under-16s from standing in groups of three or more, and Kettering banning under-18s from going out after 11pm.
Indeed, the new criminalisation of ‘loitering’ (defined as ‘standing or waiting around without apparent purpose’ by Blackpool Council) shows the anti-social impulse behind these powers. It is spontaneous social life itself that is being criminalised here. Go to a Spanish town and the square is full of ‘loitering’: sitting, chatting, laughing, games. This is what a public space looks like. The new official policy redefines a ‘nice’ public space as one essentially devoid of public activities or even of members of the public - or at least not anyone in the least bit ‘messy’ or controversial.
Of course there are problems in some of these areas where PSPOs are being introduced, but these orders don’t solve these problems. If young people are behaving badly they often say that they are bored: banning them from public spaces with dubious laws is hardly going to improve their socialisation or civility. Homeless people can’t afford a £100 fine for rough sleeping, nor will be helped by a court trial, larger fine, and criminal record if the case goes to court. Areas that have banned rough sleeping have merely pushed out homeless people to suburbs or neighbouring towns.
We have lost the principle that laws should tackle nuisance behaviour, rather than a broad category of activities that might somehow be related to nuisance behaviour. There is a catch-all ban on all skateboarders rather than on aggressive skateboarding, a ban on all dog walkers rather than those who allow their dogs to foul. The homeless person having a chat on a bench is treated as a criminal, because homelessness is ‘associated with anti-social behaviour’.
We have also lost the idea that people can negotiate relations in public spaces: that different people could manage to play ball, have a picnic and walk their dog in the same space. Now, if a sheep nibbles someone’s flowers, or a skateboarder annoys the elderly, the answer is always complaints and a ban. Yet it is the diversity of activities which makes a space interesting - and public, that is, bringing people together who do not have a prior relation. In truth, people spark off and entertain one other just as much as they might experience tension, yet both are part of citizenship.
It is notable that PSPOs affect all groups in society: young and old (skateboarders and pigeon feeders), urban and rural (sheep commoners and rough sleepers). Our map of PSPOs shows orders in most areas of England and Wales. If this continues there will be few parts of the country left untouched by some or other restriction.
To raise the alarm about these powers, the Manifesto Club is holding a weekend of action against PSPOs on 6 and 7 of August. We will be gathering in Gillett Square in Hackney (a gloriously boisterous and unregulated space) on Sunday 7 August, 12-2pm, for speeches, music and performance art. We are also holding protest events in other parts of the UK, including the Forest of Dean, Woking and Cambridge. Do join us.
See details about ProtestPSPO events here.
Sign up for the Hackney event on Facebook here.