Sweeping across Sussex councils like the latest fashion accessory, new powers to crack down on antisocial behaviour are dividing opinion.
Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were created by the coalition government in 2014 to ‘deal with a particular nuisance or problem in a particular area that is detrimental to the local community’s quality of life’.
But human rights campaigners have fought their introduction nationwide, arguing the orders ‘simply fast-track vulnerable people into the criminal justice system’.
And in Sussex, it has been no different. A PSPO to target beggars put the national spotlight on Worthing this week, with thousands signing a petition against its introduction.
Littlehampton town centre could soon be subject to a PSPO targeting alcohol consumption, while Adur declined the option to restrict camping in a Shoreham park.
“Several local councils across the country have recently introduced – or consulted on – unfair and overbroad PSPOs,” a spokesman for human rights group Liberty said.
“A range of measures have been proposed, including a ban on rough sleeping and ‘aggressive’ and ‘persistent’ begging – ‘persistent’ being defined by the authority as begging ‘on more than one occasion’.
“Local authorities should focus on finding ways to help the most vulnerable – not criminalise them and slap them with fines they can’t possibly pay.”
The powers were brought in under the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, allowing councils and police to impose fixed penalty notices on those who disobey an order.
It followed feedback from authorities that existing byelaws were ‘hard to enforce’ because fixed penalty notices were not allowed to be issued.
Intended to target a ‘wide range’ of behaviours, councils across the country have adopted them in various ways.
Oxford City Council prevents those under the age of 21 entering a named tower block, following complaints over antisocial behaviour.
Aggressive begging, remaining in a public toilet without reasonable excuse and nuisance street entertainment are also off limits in the city. A ban on pigeon feeding was also considered.
‘Car cruisers’ were targeted in Colchester, while skateboarders, aggressive charity collectors and even chalking surfaces without the permission are subject of a PSPO in Swindon.
A pioneering PSPO on the use of legal highs in Lincoln has been replicated elsewhere, after the powers were utilised 275 times in the first six months, resulting in 21 prosecutions. A scrutiny report, however, noted the order had helped but not completely solved the problem.
But the most controversial orders have been perceived to target the homeless.
Labour-controlled Hackney found itself amidst a media storm last year, when a PSPO to prohibit rough sleeping in certain areas was dropped after widespread criticism.
A petition of more than 80,000 signatures helped overturn the proposal – though the council stressed it was not the intention to ‘victimise’ people.
In Worthing, criticism has been similar. Senior councillors approved three PSPOs, tackling overnight camping in certain public parks and open spaces, begging and town centre drinking ‘where their behaviour as a result of consuming alcohol affects the quality of life of those who live, work or visit the specified area’.
The Worthing People’s Assembly, which gathered more than 5,000 signatures against the orders, believes longer-term solutions like night shelters would be better.
The group urged the council to heed advice of Worthing Churches Homeless Projects chief executive John Holmstrom, who warned it could have ‘damaging, unintended consequences unless planning was very carefully thought through and additional prevention resources identified’.
Dan Thompson, spokesman for the Worthing People’s Assembly said: “By using PSPOs rather than addressing the underlying causes, the council is exacerbating the problem as the homeless will be displaced to other areas, or they will be forced into more debt or the criminal justice system, making them more entrenched and less likely to get off the streets.”
Councillors at the joint strategic committee meeting last Tuesday said the proposals were not about targeting the homeless but a minority who caused a nuisance in the town – often not rough sleepers.
Worthing Borough Council director for communities John Mitchell urged critics to look at the ‘whole picture’, with the authority also working extensively on prevention.
He said: “At one level there will be critics because of PSPOs but at the same time members of the business community will say ‘what are you doing about people who are begging or behaving in an antisocial manner, driving away business and tourism?’.
“All these things have to be taken in the round.”
See part two of our special investigation tomorrow.