Smoking out the Blackpool fag ban

Councillors at the English seaside resort town have no legal or popular basis for banning smoking in parks.

While the rest of the UK and Europe contemplates a future of austerity and the curtailment of public-sector fripperies, Labour-led Blackpool Council in north-west England is bucking the trend by spending its tax receipts on the pressing issue of tackling smoking in parks. Vast expanses of land designed to offer seclusion and calm, which are wide open to the elements, and in which one could quite easily lose oneself with little effort, are henceforth to be pronounced devoid of tobacco users.

This futile initiative, announced last week, will involve signs being erected declaring that ‘to protect children this is a designated smokefree site’. As a policy, it ranks up there with the grandiloquent delusion exhibited by councillors in the 1980s claiming that their fiefdom was ‘nuclear-free’, as if the Kremlin would instantly point their missiles somewhere else out of obsequious respect for a collection of inconsequential political wannabes.

At least the the Eighties ‘loony left’ were attempting – in their own comical way – to address a valid public fear of Armageddon. The modern Blackpool incarnation, however, just seems to be making it up as it goes along. Contrary to the enthusiastic rhetoric from Blackpool’s local jobsworths, the parks ‘smoking ban’ has a significant hurdle to overcome: it is entirely unenforceable. Without legal basis (which would require primary legislation), there isn’t a ban at all, just a plea to refrain from smoking or the pretence of a ban to fool innocent smokers.

Smokers who flout the ‘ban’ by retreating into a copse to enjoy a roll-up a hectare away from anyone under the age of 16 will be faced with, perhaps, being spotted by a park warden through binoculars who will be empowered to punish them by tutting inwardly. A second offence might bring the ultimate sanction of being asked to desist (if the park wardens can be bothered to walk that far).

The one thing the policy will not do is make anyone healthier or happier. Ill-conceived marginalisation of smokers can only foster resentment or, just as likely, fewer visits to parks for them and their children. The health angle promoted by the council is vacuous and the product of an immature mentality.

Quoting no science whatsoever – even from the Journal of Gullible Buffoonery - councillor Ivan Taylor summoned up all the naive credulity he could muster to justify his voluntary ban by commenting that ‘I don’t think it is reasonable for children who are playing to be suffering from inhaling smoke’. He doesn’t explain how someone reading a book and enjoying their Marlboro hundreds of metres away can direct their smoke into a child’s nostrils far more accurately than an Olympic archer can hit a target from 70 yards, with or without wind, nor how it will affect health without a single study worldwide finding any threat from passive smoking in unenclosed areas.

The Blackpool decision is, to mimic the council’s own Orwellian massage of language, an evidence-free policy. Devoid of scientific reasoning and even the merest passive whiff of legal legitimacy, Blackpool’s ‘ban’ would be amusing if it didn’t also carry with it a sinister threat to free society.

Out of an electorate in excess of 200,000, it is difficult to imagine that Councillor Taylor and his pals are able to reference more than a handful to have petitioned for such an all-encompassing ‘ban’ – if at all - which is borne out by statements picked up by local journalists after the policy was announced. ‘We’ll have to wait and see what the reaction is but I think most people would welcome the reason for it’ is not encouraging. It smacks of councillors deciding on policy and just crossing their fingers in the hope that there isn’t too much objection from those who pay for their existence. Something as fundamentally contrary to liberalism as controlling legal behaviours on citizen-owned open spaces should surely carry some semblance of democratic demand before it is imposed, rather than after.

If not, the possibilities are endless. Blackpool Council has now fostered an environment where any wacko with a personal grudge could claim precedent. Barbecues on public land irritate many people. There is no scientific evidence that they are harmful in a park, and no great call for a ‘voluntary ban’, but if the level of support required is so minuscule, why not put a few signs up anyway? It’s not like any real law is required.

Wearing a t-shirt advertising rappers whose CDs carry a parental advisory warning could corrupt kids and send them into the realm of profanity, so let’s voluntarily ban wearing them near playgrounds. No legal basis, but who needs it? While we’re on a mission to clear the air, gas-guzzling 4x4s shouldn’t be allowed near a park because we’re all a bit jealous. Fine, we can now ban them with a few signs and ask the public what they think about it 12 months down the line. Youngsters playing football too near the little lad learning to ride a bike? No problem, ban them. It’s all up to whatever crosses the mind of someone who was elected by 400 people on a 14 per cent turnout now.

When bans become so very simple to apply, we can all voluntarily ban just about anything. Attempting to intervene in someone else’s meagre pleasures without any legal basis, or any believable reason for doing so, is now literally child’s play.

Whether the targets of all this petty by-lawmaking will respect you for it, or comply with your strictures, is a different matter. I’m sure there are better ways of employing local taxation than giving it to wastrel councillors who dream up irrelevant grandstanding like this.

Martin Cullip is a columnist for the Free Society.

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