Why is a council criminalising a little girl?

Should a five-year-old child be able to make lemonade and sell it at the end of her street to people walking to a pop festival nearby? You would have thought so, wouldn’t you? It sounds like a great way to build confidence, to learn to be enterprising, and to get some extra pocket money. But it seems Tower Hamlets council enforcement officers disagree.

So when the five-year-old daughter of Andre Spicer, a business professor at London’s City University, decided to set up a stall to sell lemonade to people on their way to the Lovebox festival earlier this month, four enforcement officers from Tower Hamlets council in London descended upon her. They read her a legal letter informing her that, as she didn’t have a legal permit, she would be issued with a £150 fine. Unsurprisingly, she burst into tears. When asked by her father if she’d be up for trying again if they obtained a permit, she said that would be ‘too scary’.

You would struggle to find a more perfect example of what writer and activist Josie Appleton has called the ‘busybody state’.

Unsurprisingly, the media have been critical of Tower Hamlets council’s treatment of the five-year-old. For trying to earn some extra pocket money, a little girl had been treated like a criminal. She is likely to think that displaying initiative and acting independently are frowned upon by the adult world. Little wonder that many have tried to undo the damage done by the council, including Borough Market, which has, to its credit, invited her to sell lemonade there.

Tower Hamlets council, clearly under pressure from an articulate parent and critical media, swiftly apologised and withdrew the fine. It also said that it expects enforcement officers to use ‘common sense’ when using their powers.

But a lack of common sense is not the problem. The problem is the colonisation of public space by local councils and their enforcement agencies. They presume that public space belongs not to the public, but to councils and local authorities. The space for genuinely free action by the public is being squeezed out by mountains of increasingly intrusive regulation.

A further issue is the state’s disorientating position on law enforcement. While it is widely acknowledged that the police lack the resources to investigate burglary properly, it seems there is no shortage of resources when it comes to preventing five-year-olds from selling homemade lemonade.

This is why the council’s plea for common sense will be in vain. The authorities need more than common sense; they also need to limit their role and powers, and concern themselves with where there is risk of genuine harm to others. Because, as the case of the lemonade-selling child shows, in trying to regulate all interactions between members of the public they can no longer see the wood for the trees.

When the authorities no longer see informal activities between consenting citizens as their concern, perhaps then public space could be reclaimed for the public. Because a society that treats a five-year-old selling lemonade as a criminal is lacking not just common sense but real freedom, too.

Steve Bremner is a writer based in London.

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