The Manifesto Club has produced an update this morning on the use by councils of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs). These were first introduced in October 2014 under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act and allow councils to ban any activity they believe to have a “detrimental effect” on the “quality of life”.

So far as the Manifesto Club is concerned these Orders amount to an attack on freedom of expression:

“A Manifesto Club FOI survey published in February 2016 showed that 130 PSPOs had been issued by 79 local authorities – including 9 bans on swearing, three bans on rough sleeping, and 12 bans on loitering or standing in groups.

“Since then, the rate of new PSPOs has further increased, leading to increasingly bizarre new criminal offences. Here is our selection of the 20 worst new PSPOs, including those recently passed and those out for consultation.

“We are arguing that this legislation amounts to a ‘Busybodies’ Charter’: it needs to be scrapped or dramatically scaled back, in order to halt the growing criminalisation of everyday activities in public spaces and the undermining of fundamental public freedoms.”

They offer the follow recent examples:

Tendring District Council brought through a PSPO banning: persistent begging; sitting in shop doorways on more than one occasion or loitering in that area; remaining in a public toilet without reasonable excuse, or sleeping there; refusing to stop drinking alcohol or hand over containers likely to contain alcohol when required to do so. 

Hammersmith and Fulham Council banned busking and public speaking in the area outside Shepherd’s Bush tube station. The order prohibits: busking after 6pm; no amplification of music or speech; no busking for more than 1hr; no buskers within 50m of each other. 

Wrexham Council banned: sleeping during hours of darkness; intoxicating substances; being intoxicated; smoking in children’s playgrounds.

Gravesham Council criminalised lying down/sleeping in any public place (except if you are homeless), including in a car or caravan. It also banned alcohol and introduced a restriction on riding bicycles.

Walsall Council banned any activity which has a detrimental effect on quality of life. It also banned causing annoyance by playing ball games or through using any vehicle (including bikes and skateboards). See a news report of the order; see the text of the order.

Blaby Council has banned 10- to 17-year olds from standing in groups of four or more. The council thoughtfully exempted the playground of the local school from the restriction, as well as bus stops or school trips.

Worthing Council has banned begging, sitting or loitering for an unreasonable time; being in possession of a receptacle used to obtain monies for the purpose of begging; remaining overnight in any vehicle or temporary structure. 

Cambridge Council has banned punt touting in the city centre. Critics of the order have said that it will harm independent punt operators and that the city council stands to gain financially.

Kettering Council‘s PSPO officially came into force on 25 July, banning under-18s going out after 11pm, begging, unsolicited charity collection, skateboarding, swearing and loitering.

Brighton and Hove Council criminalised unauthorised tents and caravans, the failure to remove an unauthorised vehicle, and the refusal to hand over your details to a council official. 

Bassetlaw Council has brought through PSPOs for Retford and Worksop town centres, banning shouting, swearing, and young people aged 16 or under standing in groups of three or more.

While some more are being proposed:

Rushcliffe Council plans to ban street drinking and sleeping in any public place. The order will state: ‘No person shall sleep within the restricted area’. 

Newcastle Council plans to ban face-to-face fundraising and begging. The order is due to be signed off at the end of the summer. 

Forest of Dean Council is planning to criminalise those who allow their sheep to enter the village of Bream in Gloucestershire. This order will prohibit sheep grazing practices that have been established for centuries. 

Cherwell District Council plans to ban drunkenness, sleeping rough and begging. The consultation will launch soon. 

Colchester Council is proposing a ban on people entering an area in possession of roller skates, skateboards or scooters. The order would also prohibit open containers of alcohol and causing harassment, alarm or distress. 

Lancaster Council is planning to ban shouting, swearing, and any behaviour causing harassment, alarm or distress in Lancaster city centre.

Burnley Council is planning to ban: begging; under-16s out between 11pm and 5am; unsolicited charity collection; misuse of skateboards and scooters. 

Oxford City Council is planning to ban unauthorised mooring of boats, and noise and smoke from boats that causes annoyance. Boat-owners say that this broadly drafted prohibition will criminalise ordinary boating activities and make it difficult for them to run generators or heat their homes. 

Wigan Council is planning to ban making verbal or non-verbal requests for money or donations, except on designated pitches and with council permission. This would prohibit not only begging but also unauthorised charity collecting or fundraising.

My instinct is against passing new regulations. There is not only the libertarian objection but also the practical point about enforcement. It can be tempting to engage in gesture politics of bringing in a new rule rather than getting on with the boring job of dealing with those who are breaking the large number of existing rules.

One rather unsatisfactory justification is that the rules would be applied with discretion. One can easily imagine that one person scooting in Colchester or swearing in Kettering might be doing so rather harmlessly – another person might be doing so in a threatening or dangerous way. Would not other existing laws be available to punish the culprits in the latter group?

What if a three-year-old is scooting under his mother’s careful supervision on the way to nursery school? What if a retired Colonel is overheard muttering: “Blast I’m late for my appointment at the dentist.” When I checked to see what swear words are allowed in Kettering the Council website said the “download is not available”.

It is all very well to to say that the rules would only be used occasionally; that is conceding arbitrary power into the hands of the state. It is unsatisfactory to make everyone a law breaker and for the law to only be enforced capriciously by some municipal functionary.

However, libertarianism involves a careful balance which the Manifesto Club should remember. John Stuart Mill made the useful distinction between “self regarding” and “other regarding” acts. So we should not allow the “freedom” to make excessive noise, or threaten people, or obstruct people, as that restricts the freedom of others.

It is quite proper for our locally elected representatives to try to establish what is reasonable. The details will always be a matter for contention. Surely the Manifesto Club must accept this. Do they think I should be allowed to walk the streets naked?

In the example above from my own local authority I have asked about the restrictions on busking outside Shepherd’s Bush Central Line station.  I will see what the the particular justification is. But what seems unsatisfactory about these Public Spaces Protection Orders is their random nature. Why should buskers be embraced outside Fulham Broadway tube or Hammersmith tube but persecuted in Shepherd’s Bush? Should not the rules on the amount of noise and the hours of day that they can make it be consistent?

There is some easy populism and natural temptation for councils to give themselves more power. They should try harder to resist the temptation.