WALTER CRONXITE on how attempts to give special powers for the police and private security guards in central Croydon have stalled
Five years on from rioting, arson and looting breaking out in West Croydon, there are signs that the borough’s Labour-run council is having second thoughts about giving more powers to the police and private security operators under a Public Space Protection Order, or PSPO, to cover the whole of the town centre, specifically around the proposed Westfield shopping centre redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and North End.
PSPOs, introduced under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, have been put in place across the country by local authorities seeking to drive out of town centres rough sleepers, buskers, beggars, boy racers, the inappropriately attired… Indeed, through the ruthless application of on-the-spot fines which can be levied by private security operators against individuals for offences as trivial as dropping a cigarette butt, whole areas of supposedly “public space” can be be swept of anyone seen as causing offence or compromising the local quality of life.
Civil liberty groups have described PSPOs as “dangerous” and “disproportionate” and accused them of being little more than “a busybodies’ charter”.
Because as ever, when national politicians give local councils enforcement powers, they get abused. Anti-terrorist powers were used by councils to spy on parents and by police authorities to stop and search the innocent.
Two Tory councils in London are even using PSPOs to ban gatherings of more than one person and to give a criminal record to parents dropping off children near school gates.
Josie Appleton, the director of civil liberty group the Manifesto Club says that PSPOs give
“blank cheque powers for unelected council officers to create crimes as they see fit”.
As we have outlined previously, others refer to PSPOs as an effort to impose “social cleansing” of public open spaces.
Croydon Council supposedly consulted the whole borough last summer about having a town centre PSPO. Based on responses from a grand total of 514 people, they suggested that the vast majority of the general public want to see council officers, private security guards and police have the powers to criminalise street drinkers, loud music, inconsiderate behaviour, anyone acting in a manner that causes distress, littering, drug users, drug dealers, charity fund-raisers, prostitutes and prostitutes’ clients.
The council consultation did not make it entirely clear that those breaking the rules under a PSPO could be taken into the criminal court system. Nor did the consultation make it clear that the police already has the powers to deal with many of the offences covered by the PSPO, but they just lack the officers to carry out their job, following Tory cuts to policing numbers.
Having a PSPO would allow for the effective privatisation of the policing of central Croydon, though without enough, specially trained police available, it is unlikely that a PSPO would do much to avert the kind of civil disturbance much of central Croydon suffered on this date in 2011.
But sources in Katharine Street report that the council has been unable to progress the PSPO because of strong reservations expressed by senior Labour councillors. Some are worried about the effects a PSPO might have on the destitute rough sleepers, who have been increasing in number in Croydon over the past four years, and also about accountability of those enforcing the PSPO, whether the police, council officials or private security firms.
Confidence in Croydon’s police has been undermined by the controversy raised by former Advertiser journalist Gareth Davies, with night clubs closed or being banned from playing Bashment music, because the police regard it as being “black music”.
Councillor Hamida Ali, the recently appointed “Cabinet Member for Communities, Safety and Justice”, had to explain the delay in introducing the PSPO in a written answer for the last full council meeting. It reads very much like the council is having second thoughts over PSPOs:
“The council is assessing the use of Public Space Protection Orders as a tool to tackle anti-social behaviour. PSPOs are one of a number of different tools available to the council and police to tackle anti-social behaviour so it is important to assess which is the most appropriate one to use in particular circumstances,” Ali wrote.
“The use of PSPOs across the country has been controversial, particularly where they have been specific in targeting behaviours by people that are often vulnerable such as homelessness, begging or street drinking. We therefore want to make sure that the additional enforcement powers that this would give the council and police are a proportionate and appropriate response to the issues that are being experienced locally before any final decisions are made.”
A PSPO would certainly be controversial, as Ali admits.
It would also be difficult to enforce. The powers given under the Act oblige council or police officers to require people to desist from whatever activity that the council decides is not appropriate in the town centre before any action can be taken. This is therefore not an easy policing power to use.
Further if the powers are used in a discriminatory way against specific communities they risk reinforcing some of the resentments that fuelled some of the real criminality on the streets five years ago.
In Hackney, public pressure – with 80,000 signing a petition opposed to the criminalisation of rough sleeping on the borough’s streets – saw the PSPO withdrawn, the council saying that it recognised the “strength of feeling” on the issue.
Oxford, too, yielded to the public outcry and dropped rough sleeping from the “offences” under its PSPO.
The pointlessness of charging homeless people with £100 fines was highlighted when Newport City Council dropped rough sleeping from its PSPO, after the human rights campaigners at Liberty had described it as “dangerous, disproportionate and unlawful”, highlighting how the measures may have been contrary to the Human Rights Act. Birmingham City Council was also persuaded to abandon that part of its PSPO because of similar reservations.
All of this, of course, may not stop the majority of the Progress-dominated Labour councillors in Croydon deciding to push ahead and introduce the Draconian powers in the autumn. After all, they wouldn’t want to cause any offence to the Hammersfield developers before they have even started to build their £1.4 billion supermall, would they?
- For more on Liberty’s campaign on PSPOs, click here.
- For more on the Manifesto Club’s stance on what they call “the busybodies’ charter”, click here.
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