PSPO Watch: August 2016
August proved to be an interesting month as far as Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) were concerned.
On the one hand, the Government’s failing experiment has been exposed like never before, getting a kicking in the press while people around the country took to the streets alongside the Manifesto Club to protest against their use.
But on the other hand they continue to be the instrument of choice for local councils looking to sweep inconveniences off their streets – and will be until the power to create them is scrapped once and for all.
Thanks to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, local authorities are able to ban any activity they deem to have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”. This overly broad definition is of particular concern considering those who breach a PSPO face on-the-spot fines of up to £100, or a criminal record and a £1000 penalty if they can’t pay.
Teignbridge District Council has taken full advantage of this vague power by seemingly banning everything. Its PSPO for Dawlish came into force last week, making it illegal to, amongst other things, “act in a manner as to cause annoyance…to any person”.
This term has been left undefined, meaning you simply don’t know if you’re breaking the law or not – and just about any action can be annoying to someone.
Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council has attempted to avoid this trap by providing a list of proscribed activities for its ban on acting “in a manner which causes or is likely to cause nuisance, annoyance, harassment, alarm or distress”.
But the supplied list isn’t exhaustive, meaning that – like Teignbridge – you simply don’t know if you will be breaking the law or not.
The Sandwell proposals further require that the culprits must be in “a group of three or more persons”. But this is completely illogical – why would certain actions have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality” if performed by a group of three people but not if only two people are involved?
Sandwell’s PSPO is open for public consultation until Friday 9 September.
Targeting the vulnerable
Unfortunately the trend of using PSPOs against some of the most vulnerable in society has not let up.
An Order criminalising “sleeping within Wrexham Bus Station in King’s Street, and any public toilet facilities within the Town Centre during the hours of darkness” came into force at the beginning of the month, while Dawlish’s PSPO outlaws all sleeping after the hours of darkness.
We can’t reiterate enough that sleeping rough isn’t in and of itself antisocial behaviour, and suggesting it has a detrimental effect on the lives of others is narrow-minded if not cruel – spending the night in a public toilet is not something that anyone would happily choose to do.
Public consultations also closed for draft PSPOs in Rushcliffe and Banbury which are set to turn the homeless into criminals. Cherwell District Council is ploughing ahead with its plans for Banbury despite evidence from Thames Valley Police that it received just six reports of rough sleeping between July 2014 and February 2016. How exactly does that amount to detrimentally affecting locals’ quality of life? We must now wait to see whether these Orders ever come to pass.
Gravesham Borough Council has been the subject of near relentless criticism for enacting a PSPO banning lying down and sleeping in Gravesend’s open spaces – despite attempting to exclude the homeless and vulnerable from its application.
Having been slammed for the breadth of the Order, a council spokesperson said that action will only be taken “when there is an obvious problem” and enforcement officers will use their “common sense”.
But whether or not a council chooses to enforce a PSPO, it still applies to everyone.
The suggestion that we should simply trust the authorities because they will only enforce an Order against the right people asks us to place far too much power, confidence and discretion in their hands. The criminal law should be clear, and people should be able to predict whether they are acting within it or not. If this is uncertain, what is there to stop the authorities from abusing their power?
And we already know that Bournemouth Borough Council is considering handing enforcement powers for a potential future PSPO to a private company. If the contract allows them to keep the revenue or make a commission – which would be the obvious model – there will be a huge financial incentive for the private enforcers to issue fixed penalty notices.
So in the face of a PSPO, perfectly law-abiding people are likely to change their behaviour to make sure there is no risk of them falling foul of the law. This ‘chilling effect’ is an entirely undesirable by-product of these Orders which may prove unavoidable.
The PSPO experiment has been an unmitigated disaster. Until the Government wakes up and scraps these draconian powers innocent people all over the country will continue to suffer.