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The End of Public Space: One Law to Ban Them All

Laws handing sweeping new powers to police and private security to restrict access to public space are extinguishing the diversity of civic life

The idea of public space, as it developed in the modern period, was space for the free use and enjoyment of the citizenry. The temper and character of public space should be determined not by any private or public authority, but by the ways in which people choose to use it.

A bill currently passing through the UK parliament will mean the death-knell of this principle. When the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill becomes law in a few weeks, we can say that there is no longer such a thing as public space proper in Britain.

This Bill greatly expands powers for state authorities to control who can do what in public space – to such a degree that councils and the police will have an almost free hand to determine the use of all public spaces from civic squares to rural footpaths.

These new powers include ‘Injunctions for the Prevention of Nuisance and Annoyance’, under which anybody whose activity could cause ‘nuisance and annoyance’ to ‘any other person’ can be issued with an injunction prohibiting them from this activity or imposing positive conditions upon them. This ‘annoyance’ definition is so broad that it could catch most things people do in public space – after all, busking, preaching, protesting, wearing certain clothes, singing etc, all annoy somebody.

Simultaneously ‘Public Space Protection Orders’ (PSPOs) will mean that local authorities can ban activities which they believe have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of the area. Again, this could catch almost anything – skateboarding, ball games, public drinking, talking loudly and so on. Worse, it is a summary power meaning the authority doesn’t have to consult the public and can be targeted at particular groups. A council could ban homeless or young people from a park, or from a town centre at particular times.

A new dispersal power will allow police to remove any individual from ‘a locality’ for up to 48 hours; and new confiscation powers will allow them to confiscate property which they believe has been used (‘or is likely to be used’) in an activity which ‘harasses, alarms or distresses a member of the public’.

All these powers have precursors. The injunctions replace ‘anti-social behaviour orders’; PSPOs replace separate powers to ban dogs and public drinking. These previous powers were bad enough: the Manifesto Club created a Google map of London at bannedinlondon.co.uk, showing how little of the capital remains untouched by no-leafleting, no-drinking, no dogs or no-protest zones.

But the new bill will take things to an entirely new level, removing existing checks on the use of powers, such as the need for public consultation or to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. This bill will make authorities’ total control over public space a daily reality.

Similar powers have developed recently across the Western world. In Australia, the ‘prohibited behaviour order’ can be used to prohibit someone who has not been convicted of a crime from activities such as carrying pens or going to a public library. The book, Banished: The new Social Control in Urban America, charts the development of draconian powers in US cities, ranging from ‘stay out of park orders’ which ban somebody from city parks, to ‘stay out of area orders’ which can ban someone from an area of the city, including the entire city centre, and ‘trespass orders’ which prohibit someone from entering particular property, such as a housing estate or shopping mall.

These controls are exerted by a fusion of public and private interests, with state authorities and business interests (who are increasingly the legal owners of what we think of as public space) forming seamless collaborations to restrict what they see as unseemly or ‘messy’ activities. These collaborations include: private security guards issuing fines on behalf of councils; business associations pressuring for new restrictions such as leafleting bans; the police issuing trespass orders on private property without the owner’s consent. This is a new alliance of a business and state elite, set against civil society. What turns out to be ‘messy’ is social life itself – skateboarders, protesters, buskers, leafleteers, children playing games – that is, any activity that is not shopping or getting from A to B.

We need not look to Russia or China, but only to our own squares and streets for a warning of the threat to public space.

What now? I am part of a coalition called Reform Section 1, which successfully convinced the Lords to vote to tighten up Injunctions in the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. This is good news, but the contents of the Bill are so extreme that amendments at this stage will only solve part of the problem.

What is needed is a comprehensive rediscovery of the idea of public space; and then, its concerted defence against the forces which would squash it out of existence.

Factfile

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns for freedom in everyday life.

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