Why Oxford City Council won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Earlier this year Oxford City Council proposed a public spaces protection order banning a swathe of activities in the city centre – rough sleeping, feeding the pigeons, sleeping in public toilets, unlicensed busking, begging, and more. The plan was met with a student petition that gained over 70,000 signatures, as well as protests from civil liberty groups such as the Manifesto Club and Liberty, buskers Keep Streets Live, and homeless organisations such as Crisis. There was also firm opposition from Green and Liberal Democrat members of the council.

The council’s public consultation showed that a clear majority were against the criminalisation of these activities: for most of the proposed items, only around 30% of respondents supported criminalisation. Indeed, only a minority of people said that they had even been ‘affected’ by these particular issues. Notably, only 6% said that they had been ‘affected’ by the issue of people sleeping in toilets.

The council made certain concessions, but pushed on in the face of opposition to bring through this order. The order prohibits: ‘aggressive begging’ (defined as begging near a cash machine or begging that is ‘perceived’ to be aggressive); any street entertainment that ’causes a nuisance’ (nuisance is not defined); remaining ‘in a public toilet without reasonable excuse'; peddling goods in the same spot for more than 10 minutes; allowing dogs off leads or allowing a dog to enter ‘any covered space’.

This episode gives an insight into the dynamics at play in local councils introducing these bans. Here is one of the most privileged city centres in the country, occupied in large part by students caught up in their whirl of tutorials, social events and sports matches. There are also around 26 homeless people – the relation with the students being one of friendly coexistence, and direct support through student organisations such as On Your Doorstep. A few days ago Queen’s College post-graduates passed a motion condemning a fence erected to prevent homeless people from sheltering in a building doorway, stating: ‘Queen’s College has a duty not only to its students, but also to all of humankind. This fence will have a negative and unfair impact on the lives of homeless persons.’

The drive to produce such PSPOs comes not from public demand. Instead, it is fuelled by a relatively autonomous dynamic within councils, often driven by a handful of officers. They invoke a fantasy public, which exists only to affirm the need for the regulation they propose. This fantasy public remains unaffected by encounters with the actual public, for example in petitions or responses to public consultations. Councillor Dee Sinclair, Board Member for Crime, Community Safety and Licensing who led the PSPO said: ‘Residents have told me that they feel intimidated and even scared by some of the behaviours that are currently happening in the city centre…people should be reassured that Oxford will now be a safer and more welcoming place for everyone.’

Who really is ‘intimidated or even scared’ by their experiences in Oxford city centre? It would be hard to imagine a less intimidating city centre. A more realistic opinion comes from Christopher Archibald, a second-year English student at Christ Church, who told Cherwell: “I have never experienced aggressive begging, but maybe the council should try to solve the problem rather than covering up its symptoms.”

Sinclair had previously stated that he council sought to ban anything that made people ‘feel uncomfortable‘. This psychobabble has one reason only: to justify the extension of controls into public spaces. In a perverse inversion, the extension of controls and fining powers is rendered as making Oxford ‘a safer and more welcoming place for everyone’. Here, council wardens with their fine slips have become the custodians of ‘welcoming’ public places.

The underlying reason for this PSPO remains obscure. Perhaps these prohibitions are for the tourists, aiming to remove homeless people and therefore to better approximate the brochure version of the city. Sinclair has talked about Oxford as a ‘world-class’ city, and world-class cities do not apparently contain unruly buskers or people begging.

Or perhaps, which is more likely, these laws are merely driven by a logic within the state itself – the drive for office holders to justify their existence. It is through prohibition and restriction that office holders define their remit and make their presence felt. This has the feel of a vanity project, officials putting their stamp on public life.

Whatever the reason, the handful of council officials who brought this through were determined to do so in the face of staunch opposition. In one report, the council explained why it was not respecting the view of the majority of consultation responses: ‘The Board is not obliged to follow the majority opinion (whether for or against a particular prohibition) but must give conscientious consideration to the entirety of the responses.’ The University has said that it does not want the PSPO enforced on its land. Green councillors battled day and night to have the PSPO reduced or scrapped.

And so we reach a new era of prohibition – restrictions that are unpopular, irrational and unnecessary, where there could not be more of a disjuncture between repressive measures and social reality.

Which means that the potential for opposition is still present and live. Oxford City Council, it’s not over yet.