We need to talk about Public Space Protection Orders

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Five years ago, a rather dull-sounding law was introduced by Theresa May’s Home Office called the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. It passed relatively easily through parliament and was presented as a more effective way of taking enforcement against anti-social behaviour.

In reality, it has become a favourite tool of the more authoritarian-minded councils, who now have the power to criminalise virtually any activity they choose, with no central oversight. As a busker and a campaigner for Keep Streets Live, we’ve felt the sharp end of this legislation. Despite Home Office guidance stating that the powers ‘should not be used to stop or prevent appropriate busking or other forms of street entertainment where it is not causing anti-social behaviour’, councils around the country have used Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) to curtail our activities, in breach of the guidelines, knowing full well that an appeal against its introduction would run to around £100, 000 (according to a Liberty estimate). My assumption that the Home Office must be keeping a record of the new rules that were being introduced under these new powers proved unfounded as my Freedom of Information Request confirmed that the department ‘does not collate information on the making of PSPOs from councils’. The logical conclusion of this is that councils are able to fine citizens up to £100 for any activity of their choosing, knowing full well that even if it flies in the face of official guidance, it cannot be challenged by either private individuals or the Home Office itself.

The rules against busking are frequently not just targeted at those who are causing a genuine nuisance (for which existing legislation can be used). Our biggest campaign at the moment concerns Kensington, whose council have recently introduced stringent restrictions across the entire borough and complete no-go areas outside the museums as well as outside Harrods (the latter in particular being a clear example of PSPOs being used as a tool for social cleansing).

Of course, it is not just buskers who are feeling the brunt of poorly-applied PSPOs. They have been used extensively against rough sleepers, an issue which has been raised repeatedly by Liberty yet ignored by the Government. In Peterborough, a private company called Kingdom are contracted out to issue PSPOs against cyclists in the city centre, despite the absence of clear warnings that it has now been criminalised. I met with councillors in Peterborough recently to discuss their busking laws (which make it a criminal offence to remain busking if asked to leave by any member of staff from any nearby shop), and upon exiting the meeting I witnessed a Kingdom employee giving out a fine of £80 to a cyclist who clearly was not aware of the restrictions. He was also given no warning to dismount, which should have been the case. Of course, the cost of appealing the fine and the time involved meant that he almost certainly will have paid up. Under Peterborough’s incentive system, the Kingdom employee will take a cut of that fine – a system which has led to 25% of all PSPO-related fines in the country being issued in this one Cambridgeshire town.

Keep Streets Live, along with Equity and the Musicians’ Union, always attempt to work with councils who want to introduce heavy-handed legislation against buskers to come up with a better way of creating a vibrant busking culture that works for everyone, and by and large this approach is well received, such as in Carlisle. But there are simply too many councils misusing these powers and as such we need a complete overhaul of the law. Not just for buskers, but for the rough sleepers; the cyclists; the dog owners; and the Kettering residents under curfew. For a fuller overview of the problems that PSPOs have caused innocent citizens around the country, the Manifesto Club has a more detailed outline here, courtesy of Chester Bingley.

We urge the Lib Dems to make the repeal of this law (or, at the very least, significant reform that enforces the guidance and creates a realistic route to appealing both the orders themselves and individual fines) a part of their next general election manifesto. Lord Clement-Jones has long been a consistent ally in this fight – we now need the support of the whole party.

Keep Streets Live is a non-party political organisation.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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8 Comments

  • William Fowler 20th Aug '19 - 2:43pm

    Out of interest, how are the fines enforced as there is no obvious way to confirm identity, no legal obligation to have ID on you and no numberplates on cycles?

  • Neil Sandison 20th Aug '19 - 3:41pm

    We use PSPOs in my council sparingly and for genuine anti-social behavour in line with the guidance .The guidance states PSPOs can only be issued by council officers or the police so i am very surprized a private company or town centre Bid company is being authorised to issue fines . Perhaps a question by an MP In the house of commons to the new home secretary would clarify this and perhaps embarrass these councils to stay within the guidance which is clear that it must be victim led and only issued after fair warning .We o not issue them to buskers or homeless persons one we enjoy and the other we help and support.

  • Thanks Neil. This is why the law needs serious reform – to prevent the irresponsible councils (unlike yours by the sound of it) from abusing them.

    William – it’s a good question. Personally I would not give my details to a Kingdom employee but of course many do out of fear. The guidance for PSPOs state that council officials can issue fines and that you are compelled to give your details to them, but I’d be surprised if that held up from a legal point of view.

  • Bobby Copper 21st Aug '19 - 1:12pm

    I understand that Lib Dem Richmond Council has used a PSPO to stop peaceful anti-abortion protests outside a clinic.

  • Stephen Scott 21st Aug '19 - 2:57pm

    The council involved in the recent abortion clinic case is in fact Ealing (Labour)

  • Stephen Scott 21st Aug ’19 – 2:57pm………………..The council involved in the recent abortion clinic case is in fact Ealing (Labour)……………

    Ealing council was last year; this year it’s Richmond (LibDem)

  • Paul Bennett 22nd Aug '19 - 10:23am

    I clicked on this article thinking it was about preservation of informal recreation spaces – bits of undeveloped land used by kids to play football or cricket, by dog-owners to give their pets exercise, or by pretty much anyone to just sit and watch the world go by.

    How wrong can one be about the concept of Public Space Protection!

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