Case Studies

PSPOs: too wide, too unresourced?

by Mark Rowe

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) have been going for several years. Are they still working, if they ever have? asks Mark Rowe.

With much fanfare, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and some government ministers recently announced an ‘action plan’ (so much better than a mere plan) whereby the Government proposes to ‘tackle anti-social behaviour robustly’ and give ‘swift and visible justice’ to those doing anti-social behaviour (ASB for short). That the departments for culture, and levelling up, were part of the plan’s publicity, besides the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, shows how community safety is a matter of more than crime.

Alongside the plan is a consultation, running until June, on how community safety partnerships (CSPs) and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) should work together against ASB. As with so much else, the laws in place are already plentiful. That more than the police have a part to play was put into statute in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Labour Government brought in anti-social behaviour orders, to recognise that some crimes or nuisances needed addressing, but not necessarily with a fine or prison term.

PSPOs came with the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the Coalition Government’s refresh of what Labour brought in. As the consultation document put it, the 2014 Act gave ‘flexible tools and powers that they [the police and councils] can use to respond quickly and effectively to ASB. We know that there is a general preference for use of non-enforcement tools and informal interventions at the first instance and powers provide a useful option where the ASB continues or requires a stronger response’.

Only councils can make PSPOs. The consultation is asking if this power should be extended to the police (in other words, without the councillors’ scrutiny, and the oversight being by the PCC).

Police can make dispersal powers, that last for up to 48 hours, ‘to nip ASB in the bud’; and police and councils alike can ‘put in place closure orders, to shut down premises which are being used to commit nuisance or disorder’. As all that implies, the merit of such orders is that they’re quick, and can cover a particular area.

As an aside; significantly for private security, the consultation also asks about the Community Safety Accreditation Scheme. Briefly, CSAS (dating from a 2005 Act) allows police chief constables (in the words of the consultation) ‘to accredit employed people in roles that contribute to maintaining and improving community safety with limited but targeted powers. Should this range of powers be extended to include relevant powers in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014?’.

Typically, PSPOs cover dog fouling, littering, on-street drinking and the like. Some are specific; such as the Coastal PSPOs that cover Canterbury and neighbouring Thanet in Kent, about beach-specific potential nuisances such as open fires and barbecues, or jumping from piers and breakwaters.

Cambridge brought in a PSPO to counter touts that were bothering tourists by too aggressively looking for trade in punts on the river in the university town. PSPOs in various places seek to prohibit ‘vehicle nuisance and street racing’, such as in the east London borough of Newham, where drivers may rev engines, play loud music and drive fast, for example around the former Docklands, at Beckton and Custom House.

PSPOs have not been without controversy, for example where they are seen to target the homeless (which is not the same as beggars). Shrewsbury for example is, as the 2014 Act requires, consulting on a renewal after three years of its town centre PSPO that began in 2017. Some of their order – against ‘leaving personal belongings’ and requiring someone ‘sitting or lying on any footpath or pedestrian area or in any fire escape, stairway or other entrance or exit to any premises’, to move on when asked ‘by an authorised officer’ – is aimed at the homeless. Campaigners protest that such orders criminalise people for having to sleep on the street.

In south London, Merton Council (pictured) last month replaced a PSPO that covered five council wards to cover ASB-related alcohol consumption across the whole borough. Merton says that it has ‘become a responsible drinking borough’.

Eleanor Stringer, Merton Cabinet Member for Civic Pride, said: “Merton is one of the safest boroughs in London. But we know that anti-social behaviour has an impact on people’s lives and how they feel about their local area, and it’s really important that when we launch policies to help residents, they can clearly see them being properly implemented.
“It’s also important that the PSPO is not solely punitive – it’s crucial that we can use it to help those in the borough who have problems with alcohol, informing them about the full range of services that we have on offer to help them.”

Similarly another south London borough, Lewisham, is running a consultation in March and April about a borough-wide PSPO, covering: alcohol related antisocial behaviour and disorder; consumption of drugs and psychoactive substances (nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ was a feature of the Home Office ‘action plan’ fronted by PM Rishi Sunak); illegal encampments; public urination and defecation; amplified speech or music in open spaces; and ‘dog related antisocial behaviour’ in public spaces and parks’.

Chris Barnham, Lewisham Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Community Safety said: “Tackling antisocial behaviour continues to be a high priority for Lewisham, we want to make sure that everyone is able to enjoy public places safely, free from antisocial behaviour. We’re consulting on plans that can help to make local areas safe places to live, visit and work. We want everybody to enjoy living and working in or visiting Lewisham, so we are consulting residents on this proposal because these views are really important to us.

“This is not in any way intended to restrict people’s enjoyment of our parks and public spaces. Quite the reverse – it’s about making sure that everyone is able to enjoy the public realm safely and without being subjected to antisocial behaviour.”

The problem when a PSPO goes too wide is; how to enforce it? Drill down into the Home Office consultation document, and it admits to ‘low levels of confidence in how community safety issues are being dealt with at a local level’. While the ‘action plan’ described ASB as ‘unacceptable’ (‘simply unacceptable’, the PM called it in his foreword’) and the plan says that ‘the Government is doing everything possible to stamp out’ ASB, the plan also admitted ‘a growing gap between the anti-social behaviour that people are suffering, and what they report to police’, and that ‘too often, anti-social behaviour goes unchecked or unpunished’. In other words, without someone (a uniformed presence, or ‘natural surveillance’ to use designing out crime theory) or something (such as public space CCTV) to deter ASB, or prevent it (locking parks out of hours, and having high enough walls to keep trouble-makers out; or police to collar offenders), ASB will carry on. Or; the crime or nuisance may simply be displaced; such as street racing. That may require any enforcers to spread themselves.

In Wrexham, a PSPO dates from 2020 and the council recently debated ahead of renewing it. A report to the council’s executive board admitted that it ‘continues to receive complaints from members of the public and businesses relating to substance misuse and discarded needles in the city centre areas, rough sleeping, busking, begging, encampments and general anti social behaviour’. A report for councillors proposed extending the PSPO regardless, as it had public support; City Centre Wardens felt the order was useful as a ‘power to tackle ASB’, and other agencies appreciated the PSPO as it ’acted as an effective tool for engagement’ (Wrexham’s covers alcohol, urinating in public, and ‘harassment, alarm, nuisance or distress’). Like others in local government, the report to Wrexham councillors stressed that the PSPO does not penalise rough sleeping, but ASB.

The report addresses a central question: if ASB that distresses shoppers and other users of a town centre – with implications for ‘levelling up’ and business confidence – is caused by a few, known, beggars or buskers, or rough sleepers, or drunks, and if those people refuse to accept help and continue ‘to display behaviours that impact on the public’, what is the state to do, if, ‘criminalisation is the very last option’? Does society (to leave the report for a moment) want to have addicts who leave needles lying around, or aggressive beggars, imprisoned, if they persist? The report (again, in tune with other councils) stresses that enforcement, alone, ‘is not the answer to the issues’.

Wardens issued no fixed penalty notices (fines) under the PSPO in the (covid-affected) 2020 and 2021; in 2022, they issued a total of 11 (and only six were fully paid). That would appear to be far less than the sum of ASB in the town centre; the report quotes a list (that could stand for many places) including ‘gatherings of drinkers and drug users’, ‘ASB in the bus station from school children’, and aggressive begging. Others in the list are hardly criminal, such as cardboard left by rough sleepers in shop doorways, or buskers playing too loud (surely a matter of opinion?) and yet (as in many towns) it harms the ‘quality of life’.

As for police enforcement, in January they made a dispersal order in the town centre; and in 2022 issued three Criminal Behaviour Orders, six Community Protection Warnings and six Community Protection Notices.

Some responses quoted in the report from a public consultation were pithy: if this is behaviour that should not be tolerated, and that’s already prohibited, why have extra laws? What’s key ‘is resourcing’, not only of police but public health services. An order (and any law) has to be enforced, including outside the actual town centre, ‘otherwise it’s meaningless’. One responding complained that ‘I have witnessed first hand flagrant breaches of this order at all times of day’.

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