Dear Dzidra, Basat and Bernard,
As I am sure you are aware there is currently a consultation out on a city centre Public Space Protection Order (PSPO). Under the proposal any “authorised person” will be able to issue a person suspected of breaching the PSPO with a fixed penalty notice and fine of £100. If not paid and prosecuted in court the fine can rise to £1000.
The PSPO is designed to address the following problems in the city centre:
You are my representatives on the Council and, as such, I would like you to consider my reservations, which I will now outline.
The consultation is deeply flawed
The online consultation is inaccessible to anyone who does not have access to an internet connection – which includes many of the people it will affect. For those that can access the consultation, it fails to give adequate information about the powers that already exist to help combat the issues outlined. It also fails to explain the potential implications of using PSPOs, which I will outline below. Finally, it is very dangerous in its wording. Rather than consulting on the impact that a PSPO would have, the survey questions the extent to which the behaviours it is seeking to control affect the reader. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is very possible for anyone to feel they are affected by a problem without determining that the instigator of that problem needs to be punished. In the case of homelessness I don’t doubt that there are many people in every city who feel they have been adversely affected by “aggressive” begging, but most people agree that the behaviour is not the “fault” of the person, so much as any number of large-scale societal and economic flaws in the system. In presenting the consultation in this way, as well as presenting the homeless “behaviours” alongside other crimes like commercial waste disposal is dehumanising – to members of society who are already dehumanised by the systems that have failed them.
The implications of a PSPO are not being properly explained
Manchester City Council have either misunderstood or deliberately misled the public about the way that PSPOs can and do operate. Like ASBOs before them PSPOs criminalise people, not behaviour. The wording of the actions it seeks to criminalise is very vague in that it leaves the “authorised person” to determine what constitutes “aggressive”, “obstructing”, “occupying” etc. There are already plentiful laws in place that defend the public from the extremes of these behaviours and the police frequently enforce them. The subjectivity of the language used and the fact that the measures it is proposing are in themselves already accounted for can only mean one thing: that the PSPO is not intended to punish extreme behaviour but to open the door to allow homeless people to be punished simply for being homeless. You can read more in this statement by the Greater Manchester Law Centre.
There is no Legal Aid available to defend the fines which are issued to homeless people. It is likely that many will move out of the city centre as a result of this action and the problem, as it is seen by the City Council, will be solved. But the problem will not be solved for those homeless people – in fact, it will be considerably worsened as they are dispersed around the city. They will have less access to services that can help them to overcome their complex problems, less income from begging and they will lose their networks of peer support. As a case in point, one of the inflammatory arguments for the removal of the tents is that they can be venues for sexual assault – I ask you: is that more likely to take place in a busy city centre or in an unpopulated side street or park?. You can read more about how PSPOs have played out to the detriment of homeless people in other cities here.
It is worth noting here that in many other cities where PSPOs have been put in place those “authorised persons” enforcing them have been private security firms, often paid for by Business Improvement District levies. I’m sure I don’t have to make it plain to you that a shop owner may have a much lower threshold for what “aggressive” means than someone who does not have a business to run.
Which leads me to my final point.
We need to ask better questions about who our streets are for
As a place making consultant concerned with social justice my interest lies in the fundamental importance of encountering people who are different from us every day. The “death of the high street” – and with it the loss of shops as social (or “third”) places – means that we are all far less likely to encounter people who are different from us in our day to day lives. That has very dangerous implications for democracy.
The third places that remain as potential mixing spaces (other than what is usually known as social infrastructure – libraries, schools) are shopping spaces that are increasingly owned by private companies (for example, The Trafford Centre). Those places are private property, meaning the owners can set their own rules about who can go there. That’s what Manchester City Council is trying to instigate here. They are sanitising public places because the people who pay to keep them going (the tenants) believe, rightly or wrongly, that in order for people to shop they need places to be clean and safe. Of course we don’t want to go shopping where there are people being aggressive or violent but, as above, those are criminal offences and are dealt with by the police.
When our governing bodies decide that public spaces are not, in fact, public, that they are only for economically active members of our community, when they make up their own laws to enforce that concept, then we are at the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. It might seem fanciful to worry about what could happen but there are stories of private security firms in this country hosing down shop doorways in the dead of winter to stop people sleeping there. That could easily happen here if this PSPO was put into place.
We need to ask questions about who owns our public spaces. Is it the people? Or the commercial interests? In their review of city branding research, Stockholm University’s Andrea Lucarelli and Olof Berg (2011) conclude that there are fundamental questions to be asked about how the way that we sell our cities to investors (be that shoppers or tenants existing and prospective) shapes them. As they put it “to what extent are brands new semiotic spaces that re-organize the urban experience?”.
I hope you are able to take on my concerns and share them with your colleagues in the town hall. This is not NIMBYism, or as, Jonathan Schofield so charmingly put it, a nihilistic agenda. When I attended a meeting about the PSPO, organised by the Tenants Union last week, I realised one thing that I had not previously – that the people of Manchester had been sold a lie about what this proposal means for its fellow citizens, for our public spaces and for justice. If they knew the truth they would be disgusted and disturbed. Please consider your public duty when you go back to the Chamber.