|People protesting Cheshire West and Chester Council's proposed Public Space Protection Order. Source: http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/chester-public-space-protection-order-10473411|
It has become common practice within councils in the UK to undertake public ‘consultations’ before making decisions that will directly affect communities in the local area.
One such decision that councils have consulted on is the implementation of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) in places around the UK. These new powers have been available for councils in the UK to use since the passing of the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.
PSPOs are a particular geographically-defined form of antisocial behaviour order. Similar to ASBOs, but for places rather than people. Councils can consider using PSPOs if they are aware that certain activities in particular public spaces have, or are likely to have, negative effects on quality of life. When an order is put in place, anyone partaking in one of the predefined ‘anti-social’ activities in the area covered by the PSPO may face fines and/or prosecution.
While these new measures have drawn plenty of controversy by themselves (see campaigns by the Manifesto Club), the way that councils consult with communities before implementing the PSPOs has consequently also come under increasing scrutiny.
I came across consultation issues in my previous work on the regulation of busking in Camden. Here, Camden Council were getting the opinions of stakeholders on their proposal to license busking throughout Camden.
In this case, however, there was a feeling amongst many that the consultation was inadequate for a number of reasons:
- Buskers and activists felt that the voices of people who live outside Camden were largely ignored by the council, despite Camden being an area of wider significance nationally and internationally.
- People from all groups were concerned that the questions used in the consultation were biased, in that they implied that the council’s proposals were going to go ahead (e.g. using phrases such as ‘do you agree that…’).
- Perhaps most importantly, some councillors suggested that many consultations are done simply as a means to an end – a tick-box exercise where being seen to be consulting was more important than the actual quality of engagement with people affected by the issue. The council could then justify whatever eventual decision by claiming that the consultation was thorough.
As real as these issues are, in this and other contexts, my decision to write a blog post about consultations was actually based on a success story.
Earlier this year, Cheshire West and Chester Council proposed to implement a PSPO in Chester’s city centre targeting busking, rough sleeping, begging, feeding pigeons, consuming alcohol/legal highs, and urinating/defecating. All of these activities would have been prohibited outright apart from busking, which would have required buskers to undertake a ‘quality assessment’ by the council, only play on council-designated pitches, and play at restricted noise levels. Anyone violating the order would face a maximum £100 fixed penalty notice, or a fine of up to £1,000 on conviction at court if they continued with the prohibited activities.
In keeping with the current trend in consulting, the council launched a consultation for these proposals on 23rd July, running until 15th October. I responded to the consultation, mainly as someone who has worked closely with Keep Streets Live in their campaign to encourage councils to adopt their Best Practice Guide for busking, rather than creating additional legal architecture to regulate it. But I am also concerned about the powers that the 2014 Act gives authorities generally, encouraging legal intervention for activities in public space that simply have the potential to cause someone a nuisance. In my response, I therefore argued why I felt that the PSPO should certainly not be adopted for busking, rough sleeping, and begging, while expressing my concern with the use of the 2014 Act in general.
Although I’ve become used to expecting the worst from council consultations, Chester’s councillors actually listened to respondents. When an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they did not support using a PSPO to regulate busking and rough sleeping, the council removed these measures from the proposals. And given that 77% of respondents supported using a Best Practice Guide for busking, they have decided to take steps to use this approach instead.
For the other activities – public urination/defecating, alcohol/legal high consumption, pigeon feeding, and begging – the consultation showed that responses were mixed, with slightly more in favour of PSPO restrictions than against. The council is therefore going to discuss these issues further before making a decision in early 2016.
What this all demonstrates is that, when done well, local authorities can use consultations to make informed decisions that reflect the views of stakeholders. On the basis of the consultation responses, you couldn’t argue that Cheshire West and Chester Council’s next steps have been unreasonable. Unfortunately this does not always happen in practice.
It seems that there are new councils each week that propose to use PSPOs to regulate activity in public space. Last week, both Exeter City Council and Kettering Borough Council launched their proposals to introduce the measures for activities as diverse as begging, skateboarding and swearing. In light of this trend, it is more important than ever that councils follow Chester’s lead and ensure that their consultations are fair, responsive, and listened to accordingly.
See geographer Bradley Garrett's piece in The Guardian on PSPOs and public space:
See this page for all of the Chester Chronicle's stories on the proposed PSPO in Chester town centre: