By Richie Nimmo (@RichieNimmo)
I write not as any kind of expert but as a city centre resident, to express my revulsion at the City Council’s plans to introduce a Public Space Protection Order in Piccadilly and Deansgate wards, and my opposition to the current public consultation being carried out to that end. My objection is a moral one – it is obvious that in practice the PSPO will largely be used against homeless people and rough sleepers, in effect criminalising those most in need of help and support. Rather than make a long-winded argument against the PSPO, I want to deal directly with some of the arguments in support of it that I’ve encountered in recent weeks:
1. How can a consultation – asking local people what they think, ever be a bad thing?
The consultation is not neutral or objective – its questions, structure, and the associations it implies between the different issues it identifies as problems, are framed in a very particular way, and point in a particular direction. I do have some relevant expertise here – I teach social research methods and ethics at the University, and I can say without a doubt that if this consultation survey was part of an academic research project then it would not pass the first stage of ethical review, as the questions and structure are highly leading and seem intended to produce a certain result. It is clearly designed to seek a mandate for an agenda that has already been determined.
2. This doesn’t target the homeless – neither the consultation nor the PSPO ever mentions homeless people or rough sleepers.
Most of the ‘anti-social behaviours’ listed in the consultation read as thinly disguised euphemisms for rough sleepers – tents ‘used in ways likely to cause health and safety issues’, people obstructing doorways or walkways, people begging ‘in an aggressive or intimidating way’, drinking in public, etc. Aside from the fact that these vague terms are clearly open to wide interpretation and hence to abuse, even if we pretend that rough sleepers are not the intentional target, common sense tells us that in practice they will be most impacted by this, because they are the people visible on the streets, sleeping in doorways, living in tents, and so on.
3. It is preferable to the laissez faire attitude of just doing nothing and leaving people on pavements and in doorways.
Criminalising people is not helping them. Moving people on is not helping them. Fining people with no money £100, or £1000 if they cannot pay, is not helping them. The PSPO contains nothing that will help people off the streets and into secure accommodation. The City Council may well be taking more constructive action on homelessness and rough sleeping in other ways, but the PSPO should not be confused with that – it is purely a punitive measure. Opposing it does not imply a laissez faire attitude or a belief that nothing should be done, but simply a conviction that a PSPO would harm rather than help.
4. We have to do something because the situation as it stands is just unacceptable.
As a city centre resident, I agree that the situation is appalling. The numbers of people sleeping rough in the area, and some of the behaviours that inevitably surround that, are distressing to see every day. But my ‘need’ or preference not to be exposed to the living signs of this social problem does not outweigh the needs of those actually suffering it, and certainly doesn’t justify sweeping it away into less visible and commercially sensitive areas of the city, which does nothing to address the root social causes. Better to add the resources that would be required to enforce the PSPO to the efforts to tackle those root causes.
In short, I believe that a PSPO would inevitably lead to increased harassment of rough sleepers and would be wide open to abuses of power. It would be a blunt instrument used disproportionately against vulnerable people with complex needs many of whom will be unable to defend themselves. I don’t think it is the sort of thing that any responsible and compassionate Council should be doing, let alone one almost entirely dominated by the Labour Party, which is supposed to be committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society.
Richie Nimmo is a Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Manchester.
19 March 2019