‘Anti-social behaviour’ is the heart and soul of a city
Oxford’s illiberal campaign to control everyday city life.
This is the final week in a consultation by Oxford City Council, proposing a ban on various ‘anti-social activities’ in the city centre.
The council is using new ‘public spaces protection order’ powers, or PSPOs, which allow it to ban any activity it judges to have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the local ‘quality of life’. These banned activities include: sleeping in toilets, rough sleeping, public drinking, dogs being off leads in the city centre, pigeon feeding, ‘non-compliant’ busking, and ‘persistent begging’.
When the Manifesto Club debated the issue on BBC Radio Oxford on Sunday, Oxford councillor Dee Sinclair said the council was bringing in the measures to try to achieve a ‘world-class city’. This phrase suggests a city for the brochure – cleaned of any disorderly, messy elements.
Sinclair said the council wanted to stop things in public spaces which make some people ‘feel uncomfortable’. She used the word ‘uncomfortable’ several times in her description of the application of these powers. The council, she said, wanted to encourage people to feel ‘safe’. Her example of something that made people feel uncomfortable was somebody asking them for money.
No doubt, buskers, people sleeping in toilets and pigeons may make some people feel uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean these things should be subject to the criminal law.
Oxford City Council has delegated PSPO decision-making powers to single council officers, which means that one officer could alone introduce an order to ban a swathe of activities. The council has already passed a PSPO banning young people from entering a tower block, and plans to continue with measures banning anti-social behaviour along the waterways. Sinclair described the PSPO as ‘one of the tools’ the government has ‘put into the act’ to enable officers to ‘deal with’ issues. This is a worrying vision of lawmaking ’ as a ‘tool’ which is ‘put into’ a law. Shouldn’t a law lay down crimes?
It is one of the nice characteristics of Oxford that it is a varied city, with a ‘town’ as well as a ‘gown’. This gives it a life and vitality that is lacking in pristine, Palo Alto-like neighbourhoods. Perhaps an Eton-educated student passes a young homeless man on his 2am cycle ride home, and, who knows, they may exchange a word or two.
It is not clear whether the prohibitions on public drinking are meant to be enforced against exam celebrants, with their champagne-swilling exuberance, or whether they are only meant for the street drinkers, sitting rather more quietly on a bench. Either way, it is an outrage, since both groups have equal rights and equal claim to be in public space, to which they each contribute something.
This law is a violation, not just of the liberties of the homeless, of buskers, and so on, but of the life of a city. This cannot be boiled down to a photo in a brochure — a city is a living, breathing thing, where people of all backgrounds go about their business and encounter one another.
The only sensible use of coercive powers is to prosecute people who have committed real criminal acts. If they have not, they should be left to go about their business and their ‘activities’, even if some people, and the city council, find these activities ‘uncomfortable’. It is public activities, and not the ‘public-spaces protection order’, which give public spaces their true character.
Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life. Visit the Manifesto Club website.
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