The unfree streets of London

A shocking new Google Map shows the bits of London where you can become a criminal without even realising it.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

The streets of London may look the same as they did a few years back, but in terms of liberty, they are very different.

UK councils and the police now have powers to demark areas of public space within which everyday freedoms are restricted. There is a new cartography of ‘unfree zones’: areas within which you cannot hand out leaflets, or walk your dog, or drink alcohol. Zones are not generally marked with signs, but when you cross these invisible lines your normal freedoms are suspended; you can be punished for things which are not, outside of the zone, an offence.

Today, the Manifesto Club is launching a Google map, titled Banned in London, which reveals the 435 special zones that now cover half the area of the British capital.

In these areas, people can be fined or prosecuted for activities that would otherwise be perfectly legal – including leafleting, protesting, dog walking, gathering in groups, or drinking. Similar zones have been enacted by local authorities across the UK. In London and most other UK urban areas, there are four different kinds of zone: no-dog zones; no-leafleting zones; alcohol-confiscation zones; and dispersal zones. London also has the distinction of a fifth zone – a restricted protest zone, in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament.

Within a dog-exclusion zone, you can be fined or prosecuted just for walking your dog. There are currently 219 dog-exclusion zones in London. (These are all parks or open spaces: we didn’t include children’s playgrounds or sports fields, which have long-standing and accepted restrictions on dogs.) In 2011–12, there were 56 fines for the offence of walking dogs in a no-dog zone in London – 24 in Greenwich, 31 in Islington, and one in Camden.

Within a no-leafleting zone, you can be fined or prosecuted for handing out leaflets without a licence. There are 110 leafleting zones in London, within seven different local authorities (and three further local authorities are planning to enact leafleting zones in the near future). Leafleting licence fees are often prohibitively expensive, out of reach for everyone but big businesses: £175.40 in Kensington and Chelsea, £49 a day in Haringey, and £2,000 for the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. In 2011–12 there were 37 fines issued for the offence of ‘unlicensed leafleting’.

In an alcohol-confiscation zone, officials can confiscate your alcohol without justification, and arrest or fine you if you refuse. It is not required that you are behaving in a disorderly manner to have your alcohol confiscated, only that the police officer ‘reasonably believes that a person is, or has been, consuming alcohol [within the designated area] or intends to do so’. Unopened containers can be confiscated. The refusal to surrender alcohol is an offence, punishable with an on-the-spot fine or prosecution.

There are 74 alcohol-confiscation zones in London, throughout 32 London boroughs (14 boroughs have designated the whole of their territory an alcohol-confiscation zone). In 2010, London police issued 663 on-the-spot fines for the offence of ‘drinking in a designated public space’. Alcohol is often disposed of on the spot and such disposal is not even recorded; but Haringey recorded 1,027 alcohol seizures in 2010, and Hackney recorded 220 seizures in June 2011, suggesting that across London there are thousands of confiscation incidents each year.

In a dispersal zone, a police officer can order you to leave the area for 24 hours, and it is an offence to return within that period. The officer can use this power if he has ‘reasonable grounds for believing that [the group’s] presence or behaviour has resulted, or is likely to result, in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed’. In addition, the dispersal zone is a de facto curfew zone for young people, who cannot be out unaccompanied between the hours of 9pm and 6am. Dispersal orders tend to be particularly used against young people and homeless people. There are 32 active dispersal zones in London, within which there have been 547 recent orders to disperse.

Rights to protest are limited in the restricted protest zone around parliament. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 made it an offence to take part in a demonstration in this area without prior authorisation (a demonstration could involve a single person). The law was repealed by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, but this new act introduced new controls, prohibiting the use of ‘amplified noise equipment’ and the possession of ‘sleeping equipment’ in Parliament Square. In addition, Greater London Authority bylaws make it an offence to make a speech or hold a demonstration in Parliament Square without having obtained written permission; and new Westminster Council bylaws enable the seizure of ‘sleeping equipment’ and ‘sound equipment’ in a larger area in the vicinity of parliament.

In short, these five zones criminalise perfectly normal and otherwise legal activities – walking a dog, handing out leaflets, protesting, or just hanging around. Because the areas are often unmarked, members of the public do not know when they are entering them and can therefore commit an offence unwittingly. There have been several recent cases of pensioners caught out by no-dog zones they did not know about.

Open-ended powers give officials a broad degree of discretion to decide who should and should not be punished, which amounts to an ability to make up the law as they see fit. Powers tend to be used disproportionately against certain groups who are seen as ‘up to no good’. Homeless people in some parts of London have their alcohol confiscated on an almost daily basis; some groups of young people are constantly dispersed or moved on. Discretionary powers violate the fundamental principle that criminal law should be specific and predictable and should apply equally to everyone.

Worryingly, these banned zones are being enforced not only by police, but also by a growing force of unaccountable officials. There are now hundreds of council officials with powers to fine people for unlicensed leafleting or walking dogs in the wrong area. Several London councils also contract private security companies to patrol the streets and issue fines. Under the Accredited Persons Scheme, the Metropolitan Police has given police powers to 221 civilians, including private security guards, transport employees, and hospital staff. These ‘accredited’ officials can demand people’s name and address, confiscate their alcohol, and issue fines.

Banned in London reveals how ordinary freedoms and legal protections have been suspended in large parts of our towns and cities. This is the first step in a campaign that will challenge such open-ended powers, with the aim of restoring civil rights in public spaces.

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club civil liberties group. See the Banned in London site. This map is part of the Manifesto Club’s ‘Pavement Injustice’ campaign, against on-the-spot fines. Email: josie.appleton@manifestoclub.com

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Topics Politics

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