Swindon Borough Council is quietly consulting on an ASBO-like crackdown on certain behaviour in the town centre. It’s the first of a number of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) planned across Swindon. I’m less than impressed. At best it wastes money on unnecessary additional red tape, at worst it criminalises some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Swindon. I believe we should only add more red tape and extra laws where there is a real problem that needs fixing. SBC are trying to criminalise behaviour that isn’t actually much of an issue, and they haven’t said where the money is coming from to enforce it.
There isn’t much information on the Council web site. The draft PSPO outlines seven things it wants to ban. Depending on the nature of the “offence” anyone breaking one of the rules in the PSPO could be subject to an on the spot fine of up to £100 or up to £1000 if it goes to court.
Dogs on leads: “Any person in charge of a dog, at any time, must keep the dog on a lead”. This won’t apply to support dogs, such as hearing dogs for deaf people, or guide dogs for the blind.
Out of all of the proposed provisions this is the one I’d have the least problem with, but what is the point of it? I don’t recall ever seeing a dog causing an issue around town.
It’s already against the law to let any dog be dangerously out of control in a public place. That applies not only if it actually injures someone but even if it makes someone worried that it might injure them.
In my experience, dogs off the lead in such an environment tend to be rather better behaved than most, trained to walk to heel and act on voice commands from their owner. There is existing legislation to protect against irresponsible dog owners so this addition seems unnecessary. We shouldn’t be adding more laws and red tape to fix problems that don’t exist.
Alcohol: The PSPO proposes to make it an offence to, “at any time, drink alcohol or have an open alcohol container”, unless they’re in an area with an appropriate license (essentially in the pub, or a seated area outside that’s covered by their license).
So the offence is having an open bottle or can, or taking a drink from it. It’s nothing to do with actually causing a disturbance, being aggressive, or committing any other crime.
Just having an open can of beer would be a crime. Why? There are existing laws to deal with breaches of the peace and other anti-social and criminal behaviour associated with having too much to drink.
Why criminalise an act that in itself is harmless? It makes no sense that having a drink in one of the pubs in the town centre is fine, but step outside a few feet and you would be committing an offence.
Begging: “Any person is prohibited from, at any time, placing himself in a position to receive alms for a continuing period”
I had to look up the word “alms” to check the meaning. According to my dictionary it’s “Money or goods given as charity to the poor”. Why would you want to ban that? The Queen gives out “alms” every year when she hands out her Maundy money, who’s going to tell her she can’t come to Swindon to do it?
I’ve seen far too many homeless people in Swindon, but the problem isn’t that some of them occasionally ask for help. The problem is that we’re not doing enough to help them to not be homeless. Rather than dealing with the problem this just seeks to sweep it out of sight.
Whenever I’ve given money to someone who asked for my help I got a thank you, I’ll often get a thank you even when I don’t give anything just for acknowledging they were there with a “not today mate”. It’s not the begging that’s a problem!
Criminalising the poorest in society and trying to perform some sort of economic cleansing of the high street is not something that I want to see happening in Swindon. If someone has to be out on the street begging what the hell is the point of slapping them with hundreds of pounds in fines? We should be finding them homes to sleep in not jail cells.
Peddling/Street Trading: “Any person is prohibited from, at any time, peddling/trading goods without the written permission of the authority, even if licensed”
Again, what’s the problem that this seeks to fix? I don’t know whether the woman I saw selling balloons had a license, or written permission. I suspect the bloke flogging cut price perfume with his market-stall patter probably didn’t. They have two things in common though: neither of them ruined my day or hindered me in any way shape or form. It’s not a problem that needs fixing.
Marking surfaces/chalking: “Any person is prohibited from, at any time, directly marking surfaces such as walls or pavements with paints, chalk or similar without the written permission of the authority“
Chalk. Chalk that washes off without doing any damage. Really? You want to make that an actual crime?
If someone starts scrawling offensive words on the pavement or tries to incite crime by painting on shop windows… there are laws already on the books to stop them.
If someone wants to create a bit of street art to get across a message or persuade us to part with a bit of change then where’s the harm? I’ve seen that chap writing stuff on the pavement: some people stopped to read it, others trampled over it oblivious.
There’s not a problem that needs fixing, if anything the town centre could do with a bit more colour!
Skateboarding: “Any person is prohibited from, at any time, using a skateboard or similar in a way that may damage property or cause nuisance or annoyance”
This is really poor. Laws shouldn’t be written in such a way as they mean different things to different people. If I see someone skating through the town centre how am I to judge whether or not they “may” damage property? It says “use” rather than “ride” so maybe it’s only an offence if they pick it up and start beating rubbish bins or shop doors with it… and if I get annoyed because they ride one much better than I ever could… is that covered by this rule?
I suspect that they want to say you can’t ride one in the town centre at all, but if that’s the case why didn’t they just say that? And why stop at skateboards? People might be tempted to run or cycle recklessly through the shopping centre, or perhaps might imagine a near miss with an electric mobility scooter as it zips past rather too speedily.
But then are any of those things actually a problem that needs fixing? Do we need to criminalise skateboarders? (or runners or cyclists or even wannabe Evel Knieval mobility scooter riders?).
Aggressive Charity Collection: “Any person is prohibited from, at any time… engaging in assertive or aggressive (commercial or charity) collection or soliciting of money”
Aggressive? Have charity collectors been pulling stockings over their heads and pinning people up against the windows of Primark to demand money from them? Where’s the point at which a polite request for a few moments of your time becomes “aggressive”.
A simple “no thanks mate” has stood me in good stead whenever a stranger I didn’t want to talk to has approached me. Ones I have stopped to chat with have always been polite and taken rejection well (I never sign up to on-street collectors, I always go home to check out the charity before donating).
I think the worst I’ve had on the street wasn’t the charity collectors but the religious couple who told me I would burn in hell for all eternity for being a Humanist. Would that count as “assertive” or “aggressive”? Seemed pretty harsh to me!
I’m no legal mastermind but I’m pretty sure that actual aggression towards passers-by on the streets is frowned upon by the law and could be dealt with under current police powers. Again, I don’t think there’s a problem here that needs fixing.
These proposed new rules seem to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. If there is a body of evidence that documents issues with out of control dogs, harm done by chalking or acts of aggression carried out by charity collectors, where is it?
If the council has evidence of the issues these rules are supposed to fix, let’s see it before making any decisions. On what I’ve seen so far I’m against every single one of these proposed measures as they seem like a crackdown and criminalisation of things that just aren’t a problem.
I’d also like to see the costs of enforcement. In the paper submitted to the council in February this year it is stated that the costs of the scheme would be paid for “from within existing housing and community safety budgets”. So what schemes will that money be taken from, what additional cuts are being proposed? At the very least the council has a legal obligation to ensure that the area covered by the new rules has signs up to let people know they are entering the PSPO area and what the restrictions are. That’s a lot of signs.
A friend of mine suggested this might be just the thin end of the wedge, and that further restrictions would be placed on Swindon residents and visitors in the future. Sure enough, according to the story in the Swindon Advertiser “Further consultations will be posted for future PSPOs, including one that covers the whole borough”. I’d like to see them publish all their proposals up front, so we can see where this is all leading. If there are real problems affecting Swindon that would be solved by these new laws, why chip away at them bit by bit?
Overall I don’t think the case has been made to justify the criminalisation not only the homeless on the streets of Swindon but anyone who might fall foul of these rules. The council has provided no evidence to demonstrate that there’s a problem, the rules it has drafted are vague open to misinterpretation and it has provided no costings or suggested how these rules might be enforced.