By Chris Cornell
Are Public Space Protection Orders just ‘Mickey Mouse’ laws ?
Canterbury City Council has announced a consultation on public space protection orders (PSPOs). They might ban barbecues on the beach, your little Bluetooth speaker, and watching the sunset with a bottle of wine. So are these orders a ‘useful tool’ in helping improving local safety or a step too far?
PSPOs aren’t new. Canterbury already has three including one covering our beach. You might be surprised to know that you can currently be served with a £150 fine for throwing stones in a reckless manner, swearing, pissing against a groyne and refusing to stop drinking when asked to do so.
PSPOs need to be reviewed every 3 years and the review of ours has started. Canterbury City Council wants to know if you think we should also ban:
- releasing canisters of compressed gas such as Nitrous Oxide
- beach barbecues
- open fires
- metal detecting
- playing music excessively or bringing any item used for the amplification of sound
- playing golf, cricket or archery (in a way which could endanger others)
- flying drones
- allowing a dog into a fenced play area or sports pitch
- loitering in a playground not designated for your age
- bringing glass recepticals onto the beach
- releasing balloons or Chinese lanterns
Now challenging PSPOs isn’t about being soft on crime. I have campaigned for more police. It’s about considering what the purpose of making something a crime might be, and understanding that unenforceable laws don’t help anyone. This is a point wonderfully made by comedian Mark Thomas who submitted a list of 423 swear words he planned to say in his set at the Lowry to Salford Borough Council who had just outlawed offensive language.
The charity Liberty has described PSPOs as somewhere between the mundane and ridiculous. Local authorities have used them to ban some bizarre offences including carrying a golf bag in North East Derbyshire, using noisy remote controlled vehicles in Hillingdon, feeding birds in Devon and, more worryingly, covering the face in Sefton and preventing a rough sleeper seeking refuge in a car park or doorway in Poole.
In some cases councils have criminalised loitering (defined by Blackpool as standing or waiting around without apparent purpose) and expressly targeted young people from gathering in groups of more than 3 (Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire) or 4 (Blaby, Leicestershire) or being out after 11pm (Kettering, Northamptonshire). Liberty points out, rather importantly, that people challenging their convictions under PSPOs are not eligible for legal aid.
Of course, framing laws is difficult, but for councils and councillors wanting to appear tough on crime and active in the face of huge cuts to front line police services they are attractive.
Research by the campaigning organisation the ‘Manifesto Club’ found that 127 councils introduced 276 PSPOs between August 2017 and January 2019, an 89% increase on when they were first introduced. These councils served nearly 10,000 fines for breaches in England and Wales in 2018, however interestingly 60% of these were issued by just four councils (Peterbourgh, Bedford, Hillingdon and Waltham Forest) which all use private companies to issue their fines. In 2016 this type of payment by results led a firm in Gravesham making £45 when serving a lady for loitering when feeding ducks – a tactic thankfully Canterbury City Council doesn’t employ.
For me personally, PSPOs run the risk of making our public spaces a hostile space for the young, homeless or non-consumers. They are described by many as a way of supporting our police services whilst using private companies to undermine them and speak to a widening intolerance which I don’t think represents our town.
PSPOs need to be considered very carefully because they focus on the deservedness of people to use public areas, providing us with an opportunity to exclude certain types of people just because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They do little apart from temporarily relocate a problem and fail to open up a meaningful dialogue with young people. We were all young once.
However, the strongest argument against some of them is that they just don’t work. In the first two years of having PSPOs in place Canterbury City Council served only 17 fixed penalty notices. Whilst some sections of the PSPO can obviously lead to convictions (there were 570 fines for Littering in 2018 under different powers) we should remember that over half of local authorities choose to solve similar problems without them.
These new laws aren’t a magic wand, they haven’t solved some persistent problems like graffiti, which are in the current PSPO, increasing and which the council can’t even report accurate enforcement figures on. Enforcement is only possible when you catch someone in the act, have enforcement officers on the ground and someone gives you their right name and address. At present, only police offers have the right to demand your name and address, anyway.
Whilst some say that PSPOs are about equipping police with the tools they need to solve problems, most frontline officers I speak to are more comfortable using the powers they already have and roll their eyes at councils grandstanding to their electorate by writing unenforceable legislation. When they don’t have the laws i.e. when dealing with legal highs such as Nitrous Oxide they want real legislative change in parliament, not more paperwork.
Canterbury City Council’s consultation is open now until the 30th August. Some people have already expressed to me how uncomfortable they feel ticking a box to say something should be universally banned.
Some of my colleagues on the council might be retired coppers but as an elected official it not my job to police our town. It is tempting as a politician to respond to everybody who is offended by the actions of someone with a courtesy email admitting they are right but it is perhaps more honest for a politician to tell you that some things are best dealt with by the police who are focussed on actual harm rather than perceived slight.
I’m not saying that I don’t agree with the legislating of some of what the council is proposing but I am saying that when handed the power to write laws, local councillors need to be cautious about blurring the criminal and non criminal, lumping both together into a vague category of anti social behaviour which both negatively stereotypes and is positively impossible to enforce.
These are laws which will affect us all – so please get involved and if you are unsure about whether a ‘outright’ ban of a certain activity is perhaps suitable in all situations – maybe tick the other box.
To complete the public space protection order survey, please go to: https://wh1.snapsurveys.com/s.asp?k=159420266190
Chris is a youth worker, school governor, university lecturer and proud dad of three. He has lived in Whitstable for over 10 years.
Chris is a former chair and current trustee of Whitstable Umbrella, where the impact of government cuts to front-line services inspired him to get involved in local politics. He takes an active interest in local youth services, whether as founder of a local dads’ group (Who Let the Dads Out) and scout leader at Long Rock or school governor and member of the PTA executive at Swalecliffe Community Primary School. After a career working in housing and youth-work charities across the country, he now is a senior lecturer in business administration and social enterprise at two London universities.
He was elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 as a representative for Gorrell ward with George Caffery and Valerie Kenny.
Chris sits on the Whitstable Forum, Whitstable Harbour Board, community and governance committees in addition to full council.
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