Oxford City Council to ban anything that makes people feel ‘uncomfortable’

This is the final week in a consultation by Oxford city council, proposing a ban on various ‘anti-social activities’ in the city centre (the council is using new ‘public spaces protection order’ powers, PSPOs, which allow them to ban any activity they judge to have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’).

These banned activities include : sleeping in toilets, rough sleeping, public drinking, dogs off leads in the city centre, pigeon feeding, ‘non-compliant’ busking, and ‘persistent begging’.

When the Manifesto Club debated the issue on BBC Radio Oxford on Sunday, Oxford councillor Dee Sinclair said that they were bringing in the measures to try and achieve a ‘world-class city’. This phrase suggests a city for the brochure – cleaned of any disorderly, messy elements.

Sinclair said the council wanted to stop things in public spaces which make some ‘feel uncomfortable’. She used the word ‘uncomfortable’ several times in her description of the application of these powers. The council, she said, was concerned to deal with the things that make people ‘feel uncomfortable’, and encourage them to feel ‘safe’. Her example of something that made people feel uncomfortable was somebody asking them for money.

No doubt buskers, sleeping in toilets, pigeons may make somebody feel uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it should be subject to the criminal law, that it should be a crime.

Oxford City council has delegated PSPO decision-making power to single council officers, which means that one officer could alone introduce an order to ban a swathe of activities. The council has already passed a PSPO banning young people from entering a towerblock, and plans to continue with measures banning anti-social behaviour along the waterways. Sinclair described the PSPO as ‘one of the tools’ the government has ‘put into the Act’ to enable officers to ‘deal with’ issues. A worrying vision of lawmaking – as a ‘tool’ which is ‘put into’ a law. Shouldn’t a law lay down crimes?

It is one of the nice characteristics of Oxford that it is a varied city, with a ‘town’ as well as a ‘gown’. This gives it a life and vitality that is lacking in pristine, Palo Alto-like neighbourhoods. Perhaps an Eton-educated student passes a young homeless man on his 2am cycle ride home, and who knows, they may exchange a word or two.

It is not clear whether the prohibitions on public drinking are meant to be enforced against exam celebrants, with their champagne-bearing exuberance – or whether it is only meant for the street drinkers sitting rather more quietly on the bench. Either way, it is an outrage, since both groups have equal rights and equal claim to be in public space, to which they contribute something.

This law is the violation not just of the liberties of the homeless, of buskers, and so on, but of the life of a city, which is not actually a photo in a brochure but a living breathing thing, where people of all backgrounds go about their business and encounter one another.

The only sensible use of coercive powers is to prosecute people who have committed real criminal acts. If they have not, they should be left to go about their business and their ‘activities’, even if some others and the city council find these ‘uncomfortable’. It is public activities, and not the ‘public spaces protection order’, which provides the true character of public spaces.

Respond to the Oxford City Council Consultation.

Sign a Manifesto Club petition against the PSPO

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