UK civil liberties 'Wanton' cycling and swearing among acts banned by councils
Increase in fines under public spaces protection orders raises concerns over civil liberties
Tree planting, putting golf balls, impromptu raves and “furious” cycling are among a growing list of activities banned by councils using fines to control behaviour and top up stretched finances, a Guardian survey has revealed.
One of the most prolific enforcers of public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) is Peterborough city council, which raised £270,000 in the year to August issuing 1,000 fines for unauthorised cycling – which is prohibited in the city centre if done in a “wanton or furious manner” – and more than 2,000 fines for littering, freedom of information responses show.
Nottingham city council, which has bans on drinking alcohol as well as ball games and busking in some areas, raised about £20,000 in a year. The London borough of Barnet, which bans street drinking and has strict rules on dog walkers, raised £6,600.
Many of the locally drawn up orders are directed against rough sleepers and beggars. Councils in Sandwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, Barking, Enfield, Colchester and Rochdale are using PSPOs against beggars and have issued a combined 70 fines.
Sleeping in tents or rough sleeping has been banned in parts of Tower Hamlets, Plymouth, Haringey and north Somerset. In Southend-on-Sea, “sleeping in a manner which has a detrimental impact on the quality of life of others” is prohibited.
The orders are drafted and approved by councils and are allowed under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which was introduced as part of efforts by the Conservative-led coalition government to devolve powers to local authorities and create a “big society”.
Civil liberties campaigners have warned they are part of a creeping “preventive state”, which can stifle freedom of expression and rights to congregate. Swearing is banned by a dozen councils and gathering in groups is banned in some areas controlled by nine councils.
“The idea that the council or police can fine you for swearing is crazy,” said Josie Appleton, the director of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against PSPOs. “We’re not at school. It is our language.”
Lara ten Caten, a lawyer at the civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said: “PSPOs are blunt powers that councils are deploying with impunity, without regard to the wellbeing or rights of their residents.
“If you become homeless, your local council should be trying to offer support and help, not victimise you. Councils need to stop using their powers to sweep problems under the carpet, and PSPOs should be scrapped.”
Officials argue the orders reduce strain on public services by prohibiting behaviour such as public drunkenness, improve social harmony by reducing complaints about antisocial behaviour from residents, and tackle nuisances including dog mess.
Earlier this year, the victims commissioner for England and Wales, Helen Newlove, highlighted the need for greater action on the “living nightmare” of antisocial behaviour for some people, with street drinking and gathering in groups the most frequent causes of problems.
The Guardian gathered information from nearly 100 of the largest English councils, which showed their use of the orders has spread from the most common concerns of preventing public drunkenness and ensuring dog walkers clean up after their pets.
Parks in Richmond in London operate under a web of 26 banning orders relating to feeding animals, riding bicycles, tricycles, scooters and skateboards in a way that causes annoyance, putting golf balls and being “lewd”.
In Hackney, uprooting trees is banned, while both planting and removing them are prohibited in Richmond’s parks. Westminster bans street gambling, revving of car engines is prohibited around the Trafford shopping centre in Greater Manchester, and shouting “to cause annoyance” is outlawed in Brick Lane, east London.
The subculture of “doughnutting” cars (racing and skidding in car parks) is a target of detailed banning orders in Trafford, Milton Keynes and Gateshead, while environmental destruction has emerged as a concern since November, with Tameside and Oldham councils, close to the Lancashire moors, which have been ravaged by fires in recent years, making even possession of a barbecue on open moorland punishable. Fireworks and Chinese lanterns are also banned.
The Manifesto Club said free expression and association were being “significantly restricted”.
It added as part of a report calling on councils to drop such bans: “Nearly 20% of councils have introduced a legal restriction upon free expression or association.”
Tower Hamlets bans groups of two or more people from gathering in one area, unless they are couples, keep-fit groups, dog walkers, sports teams or community groups. Gatherings of two or more “causing a nuisance” are banned in Coventry, and no more than two people can gather in parts of Doncaster in a way “to cause any person harassment, alarm or distress”. Looking at “offensive” materials is banned in libraries in north Somerset, and distributing leaflets is banned in several places.
Some orders can seem highly subjective, such as the ban on charity fundraisers “startling” members of the public or making them feel guilty in Weston-super-Mare.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, the chair of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, said PSPOs were an important tool for tackling public drinking, car racing and aggressive begging.
“Councils are determined to protect their communities from behaviour that ruins their quality of life, harms business or means people are scared to visit public places,” he said.
- UK civil liberties
- Local government
- UK criminal justice
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