The Silencing of Public Space



1. This report argues that free speech and association are fundamental freedoms – and that they are also essential for the quality and vibrancy of public spaces, contributing towards spaces in which people feel at home, and where they can reach their fellow citizens for the organising of petitions, events or political campaigns.

2. Over the past 20 years, free speech and free association have become significantly restricted in public spaces across the country. This is partly due to new anti-social behaviour powers such as Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) and dispersal powers, and partly due to restrictive council policies. This means that it is hard, and sometimes impossible, for citizens to use public spaces to campaign, collect donations, or let others know about local events.

3. Since 2014, there have been 89 PSPOs restricting free expression or association, in 67 councils. This means that nearly 20% of all councils in England and Wales have introduced an order restricting free expression or association in the past five years, including 14 restrictions upon charity collection, 16 restrictions upon standing in groups, and 4 bans on handing out leaflets. Two councils have introduced orders banning vigils outside abortion clinics, which led to the recent arrest of a disabled man who was praying on the grass outside an Ealing abortion clinic.

4. Police dispersal powers are being used against political protesters and street preachers, to prevent them from gathering or speaking. There are several cases of police forces using dispersal powers against street preachers who have been cleared of public order offences. This means that dispersal powers are being used to remove people from public spaces when their speech has been found to be legal by the courts. Our FOI requests found that 13 police authorities recorded 4423 uses of dispersal powers in 2018. Scaled up for all 43 police forces, this would mean a national average of some 14,600 uses of dispersal powers in 2018.

5. There is a new ‘zero tolerance’ approach towards community posters. Our FOI results show that only 9% of councils show tolerance towards community posters for local political or social events, whereas 44% do not allow any posters at all and will remove all posters or issue fines. Councils have taken down posters in the past year for events including: a Macmillan nurses boot fair, an art show in a village hall, a hospice Christmas fair, protest signs, election posters, litter picking watch, allotment association, Sunday Worship, girl guides, Race for Life banner, missing cats and dogs, campaigns against local developments, bonfire events and a fire station open day poster. Yet very few councils had open public noticeboards where people could put up posters for free. The result of this is that there are reduced opportunities for people to advertise local political or charitable events to fellow residents.

6. There are growing restrictions upon political campaigning in public spaces. Only 19% of councils said that people could put up a political stall in a public space without payment or booking or undergoing other formal procedures. 25% said that political stalls were not allowed, and 43% said that they would charge, or possibly charge, for people to put up a political stall. These fees are sometimes very large, including £500 per day in Basingstoke and in Cardiff. Other councils (13%) required people to apply and undergo risk assessments and public liability insurance before they would be able to put up a political stall. This severely restricts local political groups’ ability to campaign during an election or at other key political moments.

7. Many councils are now restricting public leafleting. 31% of councils restrict leafleting, including charging people to leaflet under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, or alternatively instigating local charging regimes, or banning leafleting entirely. These regulations affect leafleting by arts and community groups and by political organisations. In Leicester a local theatre would have to pay £1300 a year to hand out leaflets, while in Hillingdon they would have to pay £10 an hour, and in Cardiff they would have to pay £250 per day. Some councils are applying speech codes for acceptable leafleting, including banning ‘insensitive’ leafleting in Greenwich, or Tamworth’s request that political campaigns do not go against the council’s Equality and Diversity Policy.

8. There has been a growth in privately owned open-air public spaces in town centres, such as streets or squares, where property owners restrict public activities such as demonstrations, political stalls, or leafleting. In one case (Corby) the entire town centre is owned by a private company, which restricted leafleting, busking, and charity collection. 47% of councils said that there were privately owned public spaces in the town centre, many of which imposed restrictions upon public activities.

9. Over the past few years, many councils have started renting out open-air public spaces, which are marketed as ‘promotional spaces’ or ‘events spaces’. Areas of streets or squares are rented out to commercial bidders at a high cost: Cardiff Council made £367,000 from renting out public spaces in 2018, while Oxford Council made £123,000. The practice of renting out public space means that political and community groups are excluded from using the spaces, and that commercial promoters are able to claim a monopoly of access in the area they have rented out. This leads to a further reduction in opportunities for people to campaign or run petitions in town or city centres.

10. Some councils have taken a more liberal approach to freedom of expression. Hull, Colchester and Leeds councils said that people could put up a political stall wherever they wanted, so long as they were not causing an obstruction. Councils including New Forest, Blaby and Stratford-on-Avon allowed people to put up posters for community events, so long as they were removed after the event and did not obstruct road signs. These councils recognised the importance of freedom of expression, and also saw this as beneficial for civil life, for example helping local events or fundraising. These case studies show that it is possible for public authorities to support freedom of expression and association, and that such a liberal approach could have beneficial effects on the locality.

11. We call on local authorities and private landowners recognise the principles of free association and expression, and promote measures including:

  • Drop PSPOs restricting free expression or association;
  • Allow leafleting for political, religious, or charitable causes, as well for arts or community events;
  • Apply deemed consent for posters for political/religious/charitable/community events;
  • Allow people to put up small temporary stalls campaigning for political, religious or charitable causes;
  • Exempt political, community and religious groups from any system charging for the use of public space.




In the nineteenth century, areas such as Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street or Leicester Square would be packed with handbill distributors or sandwich board men, shouting about new exhibitions, products, lectures on astronomy, spectacular demonstrations, boxing matches, or concerts. In the streets of a British town, people would hand out handbills or post notices for theatre plays or ladies hats; they would promote petitions, call for public donations or meetings with the mayor, or promote election manifestos.

It was this culture of handbills and communications that made public space public: it meant that squares and streets were not just places to pass through, between home and work or one shop to another; nor were they merely social spaces for meeting friends. Instead, they were places to assemble, to protest, to appeal to fellow citizens, or to find out what was going on. It was through handbills, posters, and public gatherings or protests that citizens connected with one another: they found out about an exhibition, signed a petition, gave money to charity, joined a political party or purchased a political magazine.

Twenty years ago it was still possible to go to most British towns and cities and put up a small political stall: you would find a suitable spot, hand out leaflets and collect donations or sell magazines. A local theatre company could go into town and hand out leaflets or wear a sandwich board. People would know when the local fete was on because of the poster tied to a lamppost or put up by the roadside. Twenty years ago, public space was still a place of public communication: a place where people protested, argued, appealed for support, or pitched local events.

Now, in many British towns and cities, this is no longer the case. Leafleting is licensed or banned in many areas, and many local authorities charge for political or religious stalls and others ban them entirely. There is often ‘zero tolerance’ of posters, no matter how worthy the local cause: charitable events and lost cat posters are taken down or even threatened with fines. Street preachers are increasingly dispersed from the area or arrested. While police forces have extended powers to disperse groups from public spaces, council officers also have claimed dispersal powers, or indeed banned the gathering of groups altogether. Other council bans target charity collection, protests outside abortion clinics, or the amplification that is necessary for speech to be heard at any public protest or gathering.

At the same time, while citizens’ use of public space is restricted, there has been a move towards the commercialisation of public space, which is now divided up into ‘events spaces’ and sold to companies to put up gazebos or carry out product promotion. In some areas, public space either owned by or managed by a private company and run on purely commercial lines, with reduced rights for local people to use public spaces for their own purposes.

This report deals primarily with everyday free speech and association in public spaces – the local protests against the closure of libraries, the political stall or magazine seller, the group advertising an art or theatre show, the activities of local political parties, or promoters of civic activities such as fetes. The report does not focus on larger scale and media-visible protests, which have been regulated under the Public Order Act and by the police since the 1930s. It is our view that the substantial shift in regulation concerns the more everyday activities of citizens in town and city centres across the country, which form the grassroots of civic life.

The silencing of public spaces has a significant effect on citizenship and people’s ability to organise into communities of interest, to appeal to others, and to participate in events. Although perhaps the most concerning aspect of this is the silencing of political expressions, this cannot be separated from the restriction of other forms of public expression and appeal, including the street preacher trying to win converts or the person advertising a fete or charity event.

The report begins with the new legal restrictions on the freedom of association and expression, and moves on to other more policy-based forms of restriction. The report concludes with examples from certain councils that have supported freedom of expression, and highlights these as examples to others.


PSPOS restricting free expression

Public Spaces Protection Orders were introduced in the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, and allow councils greater powers to create restrictions in particular public spaces. While previous bylaws had to follow central government models, and be signed off by the secretary of state, PSPOs could be brought in almost overnight by a single council officer. The test for a PSPO is that the activity in question has a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of a locality – a low and potentially very subjective test.

There is no central database of PSPOs but the Manifesto Club has carried out a series of FOI requests into the use of the PSPO power in England and Wales councils, in 2016, 2017, and 2019. From this data we have compiled a database of all the PSPOs restricting freedom of expression or association since 2014.

We found that there were 89 orders in total, introduced in 67 councils, meaning that nearly 20% of councils have introduced a legal restriction upon free expression or association. Together these orders restrict the language people use in public spaces, their ability to gather or protest, to hand out leaflets, to use amplification, or to collect donations for charity. Some councils have introduced bans on standing in groups, a blanket restriction that equally prevents protests as well as any civic or social gathering. Finally, some councils have introduced dispersal powers, giving their officers a summary power to disperse groups from public spaces.

These 89 orders include:

– 14 bans or restrictions upon charity collection, with Coventry banning charity collection in all but a few exempt areas, Kettering in effect banning all face-to-face fundraising, and councils including Nottingham, Rochdale and Rotherham requiring that all charity collectors obtain council authorisation. This has meant that charity collection has become extremely restricted or even impossible in several UK towns and cities. One homeless charity was threatened with fines in north-east England, the new regulations in Newcastle are so restrictive as to make fundraising impossible, and fundraisers no longer work in Folkestone.

– 16 bans or restrictions upon gathering in groups, including Hillingdon Council banning any group of two or more people (unless waiting at a bus stop), Guildford banning gathering in groups of two or more people, Staffordshire Moorlands banning people from gathering in a group of 6 or more, and Conwy banning under-18s from gathering in groups of 3 or more.

– 24 bans on swearing or foul language, including Ashford, Brentwood, and Canterbury councils.

– 4 bans on amplification, including Bolton, Tunbridge Wells, and Hammersmith and Fulham councils.

– 2 bans on gatherings outside abortion clinics, in Ealing and Richmond. The PSPOs prohibit ‘Protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.’ These led to the arrest of a disabled man, Christian Hacking, who was praying on the grass outside of an Ealing abortion clinic.

– 25 dispersal powers for council officers, including Wigan, Slough and Salford councils. These orders allow council officers to disperse people from public spaces for a period of up to 48 hours. In one year, Barnsley Council issued 222 notices banning people from the area for 48 hours (see 2017 Manifesto Club report), while Peterborough issued 13 fines for failure to disperse in 2018 (see 2019 Manifesto Club report).

4 bans on handing out leaflets, including Chelmsford and Coventry councils, which banned all leaflets or free literature.


Dispersal powers restricting free expression

Another significant new restriction upon freedom of association and expression comes in police dispersal powers, which are provided for by another section of the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. These allow a police officer to disperse an individual or group from an area for up to 48 hours, if they believe that their behaviour has or is likely to contribute to harrassment, alarm or distress.

We issued an FOI request to all 43 territorial police forces in the UK, and received responses from 30. Of these, only 13 police authorities were able to provide data on their use of the dispersal power in 2018. In total, these 13 authorities recorded 4423 uses of dispersal powers in 2018. Scaled up for all 43 police forces, this would mean a national average of some 14,600 uses of dispersal powers in 2018.

These powers represent a significant threat to freedom of association, since a group can be banished from a public space, not because they are committing crime or disorder, but only because of a suspicion that they may later cause harrassment.

The group Netpol (Network for Police Monitoring) says that dispersal powers are ‘increasingly targeting people exercising their democratic right to freedom of protest’. Dispersal powers have been used against political activists, including housing activists handing out food for the homeless in Trafalgar square, pro-Palestinian activists in Merseyside, a pensioner peace activist outside a US spy base, student demonstrators in London in 2015, an anti-fascist counter demonstration in Merseyside, housing activists opposing the eviction of a housing estate in Southwark, and supporters of the homeless at a demonstration in Liverpool.

Dispersal powers have also been used against street preachers, who are cleared of public order offences but then prevented from preaching through the use of dispersal powers. One example of this is the preacher Michael Overd, who has been cleared of prosecution for public order offences and now is being targeted with dispersal notices to prevent him from preaching. Here, we can see how dispersal powers are being used to prevent speech that has been found to be legal in the courts.

The new anti-social behaviour legislation has led to a growing restriction upon street preaching, compared to previously existing public order legislation. The Christian Institute said that it had dealt with 24 cases from street preachers in the 7 years between 2008 and 2015; after the introduction of the new anti-social behaviour legislation it dealt with 23 cases in the 4 years between 2015 and 2018.

Other street preachers have been arrested under public order offences. Footage of an African Christian preacher was shared around the world: a man telling passersby that ‘Jesus is on the way’ was stopped by police and led away in handcuffs on charges of ‘breach of the peace’. The Christian Legal Center has provided a legal defence for over 200 street preachers who have been arrested for preaching their beliefs in public. While these beliefs may be wrong, or unpopular, they should be free to express them in a public place – while the public are equally free to respond or to walk away.


Taking down posters

As well as new legal powers, an equally significant shift has been the change in council policy towards free expression in public spaces.

One new policy is the zero-tolerance approach towards community posters. 20 years ago, you would expect to find temporary notices in public spaces: a banner by the roadside advertising a village fete, a poster on a lampost advertising an art exhibition or local political meeting. Indeed, such temporary postings are judged to have ‘deemed consent’ under the Town and Country Planning Act, with government guidance giving consent for ‘temporary notices or signs which are intended to advertise any local event being held for charitable purposes, which may be religious,educational, cultural, political, social or recreational’, so long as the adverts are no more than 0.6m2.

This policy of ‘deemed consent’ acknowledges the longstanding practice of people posting temporary notices in public spaces, from political petitions to lost cat adverts. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, the end walls of houses (and even the back of the Bank of England) were plastered with flypostings, with political events glued up alongside theatre performances or spectaculars.


Public postering – as opposed to commercial advertising with paid-for billboards – was one of the means of organising and promoting local political, civic and charitable activity. In more recent times people would attach their notices with string or ties rather than glue; the posters can be easily removed and do not damage the object or building to which they are fixed.

Yet some councils have moved towards a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to postering, with many removing posters for local events or even issuing warnings or fines. Councils including Swansea, Edinburgh, Wakefield, and Bedford will not allow people to put up lost cat and dog posters. In another case, a woman who put up posters advertising a charity Christmas lunch (for people who would be on their own at Christmas) was threatened with fines by Nottingham council.

We asked 346 councils in England and Wales about whether they had taken down any posters for  political/religious/charitable/local events in the past year, and what was their policy towards these kinds of posters. 223 councils were able to provide information. Of these, 44% (99 councils) said that they would would take down all posters: they had zero tolerance to all flyposting, and many of these said that they had taken down community posters in past year. 47% (104 councils) said that they had not taken down community posters in the past year as far as they were aware. Only 9% (20 councils) said that had policy of consent towards community posters, only taking them down if they were a safety risk, damaging the building, or the event was out of date.

Of councils that took down posters, some invoked the Highways Act, which gives them the right to take down posters on a highway (which includes pavements as well as roads). This act was previously used to allow authorities to take down posters that presented a danger to traffic (for example, obscuring road signs or distracting drivers), rather than a justification to take down all posters as a matter of course.

34 councils provided details on the posters they had taken down in the past year, including political posters of all persuasions (pro- and anti-Brexit, Extinction Rebellion), signs for Macmillan nurses events, local allotment or open day signs, and lost cat and dog posters.

These councils include:

– RushcliffeFines issued for signs for Newark Festival and a Food and Drink festival at Wollaton Park. Signs taken down advertising an art show in a village hall.

– East Riding – Took down homemade ‘give way to cyclists’ signs, a bonfire event poster, protest signs, posters for a ‘game and country fair’.

– Folkestone and Hythe – Took down posters for a Christmas fair held by a hospice, Christmas market, Macmillan nurses and cricket club boot fairs, Poppy Appeal, Campaign to Save Princes Parade (against development of local green spot by the seafront), litter picking watch, Sunday worship.

– Peterborough – Took down posters including Race for Life, vegan festival, UKIP, Festival of antiques, Open Farm Vintage Weekend.

– Central Bedfordshire – Took down advertising banners for Sandy & District Allotment and Leisure Gardener’s Association, and also advertising banners for Sandy Carnival and Beeston Open Gardens.

– Rochdale – 285 posters removed in past year, including: banner advertising church attached to railings, missing dog posters, banner for artisan market, bonfire posters, fire station open day advert, circus posters, the open event fete.

– Portsmouth – Took down missing cat posters, University/freshers advertisement, political posters.

– Canterbury – Took down signs for a running club, car show, and protest against local development.

– Derby City Council – Took down posters for Brexit Party, Animal Aid, Girl Guides, Family fun day.

– Swansea – Council removed local produce and craft fayre banners, Family Fun Day posters for various Community Centres and Parks, Eastside Carnival posters, Race for Life banner, Raft Race Day Loughor estuary, Brexit posters, Labour party stickers, Independence for Wales stickers.

– Mansfield – Posters taken down included circuses, garden craft fair, tour of Britain, Chesterfield Road fair.

– Croydon – Poster for independent candidate standing in local by-election.

– Warwick – Political posters during local and national elections.

These posters reflect the whole of community life, including local and national political campaigns, open days, and local or charitable gatherings. These posters are the ways in which citizens of an area communicate with one another: they express a political view and try to win others to their campaign, or say that their building is having an open day or their allotment is looking for new members.

Other councils are using more serious powers to target posters, with several being subject to Community Protection Notices (a new-style Asbo, which issues a legal order to the recipient).  Our FOI requests found that York is using CPNs to crack down on ‘gag mag’ selling (joke books sold by the unemployed). Hastings Council also issued a CPN ordering someone to take down a handwritten note pinned to their property, in which the person referred to a dispute with the council and accused the council of malpractice. The person was ordered to:

‘Stop displaying the hand written poster detailed above. Remove the poster detailed above from view. Desist from making, creating, producing and / or publishing any defamatory written statement relating / referring to any employee of Hastings Borough Council.’

In a similar case, a man in East Lancashire was threatened with a CPN ordering him to take down ‘inflammatory’ signs on his back gate that criticised a new housing development sanctioned by the council.

Another restriction on freedom of expression comes in the use of CPNs and CPN warnings against local groups for putting up posters in public places. Birmingham City Council said that it had issued 317 CPN warnings to people for putting up posters, including some to religious and community groups. Meanwhile, Hackney Council said that it had issued a CPN warning to a charity for putting up a poster. Derby City Council issued CPNs and CPN warnings for posters for Animal Aid and for an event at a local alternative music venue.

While this zero tolerance towards community posters is unusual in British history, it is also unusual in international terms. In France, traditionally a more highly regulated country, there is nonetheless official tolerance for public postings. In the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests there were banners and decorations on roundabouts for months on end, while jumble sales and local events as well as local protests are always advertised in roadside banners. There is also public provision of open boards at the entrance to French towns or in town or village centres: these are completely open and anybody who wants to put something up is free to do so. At French election time, even the most remote mountain village has large metal boards on to which election candidates post their manifesto pledges.

By comparison, very few UK councils have notice boards available for public use. Those with noticeboards tended to have closed noticeboards, where people had to apply (or even pay) to put posters up.

We asked councils if they had a poster site where people could put up posters (for example, political posters or posters for local events). Of those able to answer (223 councils), 118 (53%) did not have a place where people could put up posters. 105 councils (47%) said that they had a noticeboard, but many of these were locked and inaccessible to the public. For example, Watford said that ‘council poster sites available to charities but not to political groups’. Basingstoke and Deane said that ‘noticeboards controlled by Festival and the Mall and have to be booked/paid for’. Cambridge said that a fee must be paid (up to £40), while Runnymede said that it had 26 noticeboards, but will not accept ‘Posters which promote or support political views or activities’.

In some cases only council posters can be displayed on public noticeboards. Wirral said that there are noticeboards in libraries and other places, but ‘The only organisations permitted to display information within any of our sites are: Council Services, Public Services (not organisations delivering on their behalf), Organisations that have booked rooms or facilities within our sites to promote their presence.’

Leeds Council has a ‘leaflet and poster policy’ for its noticeboards that it will mainly accept leaflets and posters that are concerning council services. ‘The council will not accept any posters that are campaigning, fund-raising, or political (unless these are supported by Leeds Council.) It will accept religious posters but not if they are proactive.’

Derbyshire Dales Council said that it took down all posters that did not include the council logo: ‘Our Clean & Green Team will remove posters and banners, from our parks & open spaces, if they do not include acknowledgement of District Council support / activity held on District Council land’.

This means that public space starts to become exclusively occupied by official and commercial actors. Speech by and between members of the public is squeezed out, and citizens have fewer available means for appealing to or communicating with one another. This has serious implications for local and national democracy and civic engagement.


Can you put up a stall?: The licensing of political expression

In the past, people wanting to campaign on a political cause would be able to set up a temporary stall in a public place. They would find the corner of a square, or a pavement wide enough that they did not obstruct pedestrians, and set out a small stall, with leaflets, magazines or books, a petition, perhaps a collection box. As opposed to the solitary campaigner with a clipboard, the political stall is a temporary public gathering for a cause, with a cluster of members of the public finding out about the issue, and supporting or arguing with the views stated. Twenty years ago there were no obstacles to setting up such a stall in most cities or towns across the UK.

We asked all councils if it was possible for members of the public to set up a political stall in public places. The responses from councils showed the degree to which activities in public spaces have become formally licensed and regulated.

Out of the 202 councils that were able to answer this question, only 39 (19%) of them said that people could put up a stall without payment or booking or undergoing other formal procedures. This shows that the previously universal (or near-universal)  ‘tacit consent’ for public activities has become reduced to a small minority.

50 councils (25%) said that there was nowhere for people to put up a stall in public places. Wandsworth Council said: ‘If a stall was set up this would be viewed as illegal street trading. Street trading means “offering a service” not necessarily selling anything.’

Some councils said that they had a policy of not allowing political events in public spaces. Tendring Council said: ‘The key objective of hiring space in the Town Square is to attract and retain shoppers in Clacton Town Centre, through creating a vibrant hub for shopping. Bookings are not taken for either religious or political groups.’ Similarly, Bexley Council said that ‘Leafleting of religious/political groups are not permitted in the Bexleyheath BID (Business Improvement District) Area’, and that people cannot put up political or religious stalls: ‘the use of the space is governed by the Managing the Broadway Agreement (between LBB and the BID), which states “Pitches cannot be used for religious or political purposes.”’

Walsall Council said that there are two designated areas for ‘promotional events’: ‘all applications are scrutinised and permission will not be granted for events that are political, contentious or pose a danger to the public.’ Slough Council said: ‘Our public outdoor events policy states that mobile leafleting in the town centre is discouraged as it causes a littering problem. We would prefer people to hand out leaflets from a static stall. The policy also states that no event that promotes an individual political party or religion will be allowed.’

Such restriction on political stalls severely limits local parties’ ability to reach voters during an election or at other key political moments.

62 councils (31%) said that they would charge for a political stall, and 24 (12%) said that they would possibly or probably charge.

Some councils charged large amounts for stalls, including £500 per day in Basingstoke (for use of the marketplace),  £177 per day in Brent, £200 per day in Plymouth for charity and community groups, £500 per day in Cardiff, £60-200 per day in Reading, and £50-1000 per day in Oxford. It is notable that these fees are far beyond anything paid for a market stall, which normally would be in the region of  £30-50.

27 (13%) councils required that people apply in advance and go through formal procedures such as providing risk assessments, public liability insurance, and so on.

Policy on political stalls % of councils
No political stalls allowed


People must pay for political stall


People possibly/probably would have to pay for stall


People must apply in advance/get public liability insurance


No restrictions on putting up political stall


Several councils required a political stall to apply for a ‘street activity permit’, which included vetting the event before allowing it to go ahead. Some councils appear to have made this a legal obligation through defining a political stall as ‘street trading’. Watford Council said that people must ‘request a street activities permission’: ‘It is a criminal offence to trade without having a valid consent. Tacit consent does not apply. We must give you permission for your event to proceed.’

Waltham Forest said: ‘The town square can be available through an application form… Please note that applications are considered on a case by case basis and if it does not fall within the required criteria as outlined in the application pack then it can potentially get rejected.’

East Hampshire Council required people to apply for a ‘tables and chairs licence’ (at a cost of £155 per day), while Hackney said: ‘You would require a licence to perform any activities on the public highway and this will cost £50 which covers the licence and administration of it. Please see our website for details of proofs you will need to bring with your completed application and a daily pitch fee of £40 would be applicable.’

A group wishing to put up a stall in Coventry would have to issue a formal request to ‘book the city centre’ at least 28 days before the event: ‘Any such stall would need to be compliant with legislation and be accompanied by a risk assessment and public liability insurance and the event organiser may be subject to being requested to attend an Event Safety Group (ESG) meeting to seek advice from the ESG members’ and the group ‘may also need to supply copies of any proposed marketing materials’. Therefore, even when there is no charge for putting up a stall, a group may still have to go through a lengthy and burdensome application process, which would limit their ability to respond to urgent political events.

This is a move towards public space becoming space that is officially organised and curated. Free citizen activity is seen as illegitimate and the source of dangers and other undesirable outcomes.

Bridgend Council embodied this view, saying:

Hiring of space in town centres enables organisations to carry out legitimate activities in a regulated environment. Unregulated use of town centre space can cause congestion, compromise pedestrian safety and obstructions where emergency vehicles need access. It can also adversely affect local businesses by creating noise, disturbance, fumes or litter….All activities in these streets will require a permit to be issued by Bridgend County Borough Council prior to the activity commencing.

Woking Council’s Public Realm Usage Policy divides up the town centre into a series of areas and specifies the activities that may occur in each. For example, it states that leafleting can only occur in three locations, and then only once a month for each organisation. In one case, campaigners from the Woking Palestinian Solidarity Campaign were told that they needed to get prior approval, and public liability insurance, before handing out leaflets. These specifications are a movement towards the micro-management of public expressions and activities, such that the events that occur in a city are not the result of free public volition but of the particular council codes chosen for that area.

The loss of tacit consent shows the extent to which public space is no longer considered a free space where people can gather and communicate with other citizens.




Restrictions on leafleting

A restriction on leafleting is provided by the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act, which introduced a power for councils to charge for leafleting. Political, religious and charitable leafleting is exempt from licensing powers, yet the fees still apply to small arts and community groups, such as a local theatre or art gallery.

We found that 44 councils have introduced a leafleting licence scheme under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act. The costs for licences range from £130 per year in Torbay, to £1300 per year in Leicester. Hillingdon charges nearly £10 an hour – £27.5 for 3 hours leafleting – which would mean that only very commercial leafleting would be possible. Other fees include: £26 per day in Cornwall; £100 per person per month in Oxford; £80 per person per day in Ealing; £69 per person per day in Derby;  £250 per day in Cardiff.

Since the act does not apply to political or religious groups, they should not have to apply for a licence or fall under its powers. Yet we found that several councils – Sheffield, East Hertfordshire, Cardiff, and Brighton and Hove – ask political groups to apply for a free licence, which means asking for permission, filling in a form and describing the literature that will be distributed. This need for prior application restricts groups’ ability to organise quickly and respond to urgent political events.

Wary of the negative effect that such licence fees could have on small arts and community groups, Defra introduced guidance suggesting that councils may want to consider an exemption scheme for such groups. We asked councils whether they were applying this exemption: unfortunately, not one council was. This means that a theatre group that wanted to advertise several performances throughout the year in Leicester would have to pay £1300 a year, while in Cardiff the bill would reach thousands of pounds.

Other councils had introduced additional controls on leafleting. 37 councils had introduced some kind of control on political or religious leafleting, including requiring that they ask permission first, or even subjecting them to a total ban. A further 6 have some other system of leafleting regulation, including their own charging or licensing system. This means that, out of the 279 councils able to answer this question, 87 councils (or 31% of councils) restricted leafleting.

These councils have brought through blanket bans on leafleting:

– Bexley – ‘Leafleting of religious/political groups are not permitted in the Bexleyheath BID Area.’

– Ealing – ‘Leafleting cannot be political or religious in nature and cannot be deemed offensive material.’

– Newport – ‘No leafleting in town centre.’

– Amber Valley – ‘No party political activities on council land.’

– Chorley – ‘No restrictions on highways, but areas privately owned by council do not allow leafleting, eg near market, shopping centre.’

Other councils had a policy of vetting the content of leaflets, asking people to ‘ask permission first’ and show them the leaflets they wish to hand out beforehand. For example: ‘Harlow Council do ask groups/organisations wishing to partake in leafleting to seek permission first, including a copy of the leaflet they wish to distribute.’

Some of these have developed ‘free speech policies’ which specify the kinds of expression which are permitted in public spaces. This means that speech that is otherwise legal may be stopped by the council on the grounds that it violates its acceptable speech policy.

Some examples include:

– Calderdale – ‘The Organiser of the Event should not contradict the Council’s shared values by promoting views or activities that seek to cause, exacerbate or exploit tensions or misunderstandings within the local community…. The event should not promote or incite religious, political, sexist, homophobic, racist or disablist opinion or behaviour.’

– St Helens – ‘We check all leaflets to ensure that they do not discriminate on basis of gender, race, or religion.’

– Greenwich – ‘Officers are expected to apply guidance that does not permit insensitive or politically or religiously motivated leafleting that could lead to public concern/unrest.’

– Tamworth – ‘The Council does not seek to restrict freedom of speech or the right to hold a lawful demonstration providing the request is not deemed to breach the Council’s Equality and Diversity Policy.’

Under these policies, people could be stopped from handing out leaflets if the council deems these to be ‘insensitive’, in breach of its equality and diversity policy, or promoting ‘political behaviour’. A policy document authored by a few unelected council officers could have a restrictive effect on the public life of the area.

It should be noted that the increasing tendency of public authorities to limit political expression is an inverse of the normal pattern of regulation, which tended to target commercial activity and allow freedom for political/religious expression. Now, perversely, in some councils it is possible to set up a large-scale commercial stall selling a product (albeit with a fee attached), but it would not be possible to hand out leaflets campaigning for a religious or political cause.


The private ownership of public space

We asked councils whether open-air public spaces in the town centre (such as squares or streets) were privately owned, and whether the private owners imposed restrictions upon free expression or free association. Of the 180 councils able to answer this question, 84 (47%) said that there were such areas, while 96 (53%) said that there were not.

In one case (Corby) the whole of the town centre was owned by a private company, which restricted activities including leafleting, busking, and charity collection. Runnymede Council said that a private land owner (Addlestone ONE development) imposes controls that ‘prevent the erection of stalls, display of all notices or posters on the buildings, etc without permission; political demonstrations would be directed away from development’. Chesterfield Council said that the private landowner would not allow leafleting, charity collection or political stalls.

In many other cases, however, councils were unaware whether the private landowner imposed restrictions or not, meaning that the council is no longer knowledgeable about the restrictions that pertain in public spaces in their area.

Some councils had contracted out the management of the city centre to private companies, meaning that these companies would decide how the area was run and which activities were permissible. Examples included:

– Woking – ‘Our partner, Woking Shopping, manages the town centre on behalf of the council.’

– Wolverhampton – ‘Promotional spaces managed by BID.’

– Kingston – ‘Events in Kingston Town Centre are controlled by the Business Improvement District.’

– Swindon – ‘Swindon town centre is managed by InSwindon.

– Rugby – ‘Rugby First is the contact point for anyone wanting to hand out leaflets or put up a political stall.’

– Trafford – ‘Any organisation wishing to collect within Eden Square must obtain the permission of the management of Eden Square for proposed collections within the Mall.’

A few councils reported old-fashioned private owners of public spaces, such as Royal Parks, Crown Estates, or aristocratic families. But these are now greatly outnumbered by the new privately owned public spaces, which are owned by business associations and are geared towards the management of a town centre as a space for retail and shopping.

It is not necessarily the case that private ownership means a more restrictive public space. The Manifesto Club protest against PSPOs (#ProtestPSPO) in 2016 was held in the privately owed Gillett Square in London, because this was substantially more liberal than local authority owned spaces. Nothing was banned in the square: street drinkers, skateboarders and local residents amicably shared the space and carried out their activities side by side. The protest was organised shortly beforehand with no need for insurance, and no restrictions on the amplification that was necessary for speakers to be heard.

However, when large areas of town centres are owned by business associations this tends to mean a management of the space as an area for shopping and tourism, and the regulation of other civic activities such as protests or political campaigning.


The renting out of public space

While spontaneous public expression and association is restricted, there is at the same time a move towards the commercialisation of public space. This shift is embodied in the statement by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council:

We do not encourage or permit general leafleting within our town centres, however, in Pontypridd and Aberdare we have dedicated managed promotional spaces. These spaces provide companies and organisations with the opportunity to promote their products and services, which may include the distribution of written information.

Public space is being divided up into ‘events spaces’ or ‘promotional spaces’, which are then offered for hire. This trend began around five years ago, and in some towns and cities it has reached the point where large sections of the town centre are rented spaces.

While the public is suppressed as a political actor, it is at the same time advertised as a consumer market, with brochures detailing local salaries and buying power statistics (see for example, the Reading Event Space Brochure).

There is a blurring of the distinction between true council private property such as buildings or carparks which they can buy and sell, and property such as a public space which they hold and manage in trust on behalf of the public. Public spaces such as squares or streets are becoming treated more like true council private property.

Some councils (such as Stockport) have handed over the management of public spaces to companies such as PinPointer, which take bookings and collect fees, passing on money to the council afterwards. Indeed, PinPointer has nearly 12,000 ‘bookable locations’ in public spaces across the UK.

The renting out of public space means that those who have bought the rights to the space occupy it in a more complete manner than a member of the public who happens to have pitched up with their guitar or stall. The person who has rented public space claims exclusive rights over it, and can exclude others from using it. This monopolisation of public space is shown by Nottingham Council’s Market Square ‘promotional space’, whereby even those who have paid for the right to leaflet cannot approach people within the Market Square:

Please note that you cannot distribute leaflets in the Old Market Square unless you are doing so as part of a promotional booking of the space. You may only distribute from the streets and areas around the Square and we ask that you don’t approach anyone who is taking part in any events in the area. If you would like to inquire into hiring a city centre promotional space please email

Some councils are making substantial fees from the renting out of public space. We asked several councils about their revenues from renting out public space, based on those that had said they charged large amounts for putting up stalls. These rental fees did not include large-scale commercial operations such as funfairs, but rather ordinary stalls and small-scale promotions in public spaces. These 6 councils made over £620,624 in 2018 from renting out public places (the largest earner was Cardiff, with £367,000). Tellingly, only Basingstoke said that charity and political groups would be exempt from the fees.

Council Income from renting out public space in 2018 (£)
Charges for political/charity groups?
Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council


No – only £12 application fee
Brent London Borough Council


Discount rates or sometimes exempt from fees
Cardiff Council


Y – but get concessionary rates
East Hampshire District Council


Charities not charged for using square in Petersfield; charges in other places may apply.
Oxford City Council


Y – reduced rates
Plymouth City Council





The model councils for free expression

Although the general trend is towards the restriction of free speech and association, there were some councils which took a much more tolerant approach. Some councils had liberal policies in particular areas, for example posters but not leafleting, and others were liberal in all areas. These councils show that it is possible – and indeed, beneficial – to respect freedom of expression and association in public spaces.

Some councils said that they did not regulate or control political activities, and that people were free to campaign wherever they wanted:

– Hull – ‘We do not hire out the City Centre sites for rallies, gatherings or political gatherings. This however does not mean to say they don’t take place it just means we don’t book the sites out and therefore we have been aware of some political rallies but only after they have taken place as no contact has been made with the City Council at the time.’

– Colchester – ‘Citizens can set up stalls outside of consent areas, so long as not on private land, and they do not block the highway.’

– Derby The Council section which manages City Centre Spaces does not oversee political or religious activity in the city Centre and events spaces. It is our understanding that people have the democratic right to express their political or religious views to the public.’

– LeedsPolitical parties can place a table anywhere in the City Centre, on public highway as long as they do not obstruct businesses or pedestrians.’

Other councils, such as Lancaster, provided an area for political groups or charities to use to promote their cause for free. Lancaster provided an ‘information and charity pitch’ in several town centres, with the purpose ‘to promote and/or give out information about a not-for-profit (non-commercial) organisation, cause or event including charities and political parties, or collect money for a charity’.

Meanwhile some councils had a liberal policy on leafleting, asking only that leafleteers did not obstruct or harass pedestrians or create litter. Walsall said: ‘We have not used the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to restrict anybody from distributing leaflets in Walsall. We do ask that when doing so there is no obstruction to the highway by use of tables, stands etc, and that any dropped leaflets are picked up and members of the public are not harassed.’

Several councils allow people to put up posters about community events, in some cases even providing poster boards. Tellingly, some councils were concerned about the community impact of removing posters, realising that poster removal would harm local events that they might otherwise wish to support. These councils included:

– New Forest – ‘The only action re fly posting we take is where commercial concerns place posters on or near the highway where we ask them to remove them and, if no person responsible can be found, we remove the notices. Small (0.6 square metre) signs promoting charitable and free public events are allowed. We follow the guidance issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government document “Outdoor advertisements and signs: a guide for advertisers”. We always adopt an educational approach first prior to taking enforcement action.’

– Stratford-on-Avon – ‘We have an agreement where events/ charities etc can put up to 25 notices for these events. We have not removed any posters for these type of organisations, if there are any that are not removed within the agreed timeline, we have contacted them to advise them to remove them.’

– Blackpool – ‘Where a local charity organised event is being advertised we are mindful of the community impact such removal may have and take a discretionary delay in its removal.’

– Blaby – ‘We allow posters for community/charity events to be put up in the district but expect them to be taken down within 2 weeks of the event – if they are not taken down after two weeks they would be removed. We would also not have taken action against any of the above listed groups.’

– Wokingham – ‘We only take down community posters if posted in areas that cause a hazard – eg blocking a road sign or a mirror.’

– Fareham – ‘We have 43 noticeboards to advertise community events, which are available free of charge to public.’

In addition, several councils have worked with Speakers Corner Trust to set up a ‘speakers corner’, sometimes with microphones, to allow people to talk freely to an audience. These councils included Nottingham, Leicester, Reading, and Derby. In these cases, where other parts of the town or city centre may be subject to restrictions, the council has recognised the value and need for public free expression.

These case studies of more liberal policies show that some councils have not only allowed free expression, but in some cases have sought to encourage or enable it, through the provision of free stalls or poster sites. Such councils have recognised the value of free expression for the vibrancy of public spaces, and the quality of local engagement and citizenship.


In defence of free expression and free association

In 2015, the Friends of the Library of Birmingham Campaign launched an impassioned defence of their right to protest outside the council buildings, after the council planned to bring through a PSPO ban on amplification. On behalf of the group, Alison Gove Humphries wrote:

If this order goes ahead, Birmingham City Council will be able to issue fixed penalty notices and confiscate equipment from anybody using amplification in the city centre. I am a member of the Friends of the Library of Birmingham Campaign, and we held a very successful rally on 13 June, with speeches outside Birmingham Council Chamber. Poets, union members, users of the library service, writers, academics and students were all able to be heard due to amplified sound equipment. Ironically the statement defending the council’s position was read out to the crowd. Without amplification Cllr Penny Holbrook’s statement couldn’t have been heard!

The right to be heard is surely central to any society. This PSPO is draconian and unnecessary. This ban violates the basic principle that public space is for the free use of the public. Cities should not just be about shopping or getting from A to B, with the only noise to be heard that of building works, traffic and official announcements. Street speakers and musicians all add to the colour of our lives. They inform, they educate and they alert us to proposed curtailment of basic rights. Stop criminalising social interaction and let us get on with living with each other.

The group was successful in their campaign; the council saw sense and dropped the order. The group – and other groups – are free to continue their rallies outside council and other buildings, to put their case and hear others put theirs.

The freedoms of expression and association are essential liberties, which are recognised in bills of rights and constitutions around the world. These freedoms are also essential for the quality and vibrancy of public spaces, contributing towards spaces in which people feel at home, and in which they can reach their fellow citizens for the organising of petitions, events or political campaigns.

Over the next year we will be calling on councils and private landowners to respect the principles of free expression and association. We will ask them to support measures including –

  • Withdraw PSPOs or CPNs that infringe upon the freedoms of expression and association;
  • Allow leafleting for political, religious, or charitable causes, as well as for arts or community events;
  • Respect the Town and Country Planning Act, which allows ‘deemed consent’ for temporary advertisements ‘announcing any local event of a religious, educational, cultural, political, social or recreational character’;
  • Allow or provide space for people to put up small stalls promoting political/religious/charitable causes;
  • Exempt political, community and religious groups from any system charging for the use of public space;
  • Provide a free and open community noticeboard for people to advertise local events to fellow residents.

Such measures could start to bring back public speech to public spaces. It is essential that the new silencing of public space is halted and reversed, if civic communication is once again to flourish.

This report was produced with financial assistance from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd.