Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) were first introduced in England and Wales in 2014 as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.
PSPOs give local authorities the power to apply restrictions on the use of public space, which can result in criminal convictions. The implementation of a PSPO is based on two conditions: that the activities the order aims to restrict have a detrimental effect on the quality of life for those nearby; and that the activities are likely to be persistent.
There are multiple criticisms aimed at PSPOs and anti-social behaviour legislation more broadly. For example, the implementation of a PSPO is based on public perception, so is subjective and can criminalise behaviour that is not actually harmful but merely a nuisance or annoying.
My research in a former colliery town in the Midlands also found that the social context that led to a PSPO was largely overlooked, and that the enactment of an order has implications beyond the behaviour it aims to address. Young adults are disproportionately affected by PSPOs – 32 per cent of fixed penalty notices for PSPO breaches were given to 18 to 25 year olds in the town. Other vulnerable groups are also excessively impacted, including migrants and the homeless.
The PSPO implemented in my research site was applied to the whole town in response to concerns over Polish migrant men gathering in the town’s marketplace to drink. The order included restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, possession of unsealed vessels containing alcohol, and congregating in groups of two or more in alleys near the market.
The street drinking that led to the PSPO was framed as the ‘culture’ of Polish men. This is problematic because it produces a cultural hierarchy that suggests Polish culture is inferior and incompatible with the dominant English culture.
A cultural explanation also positions this as a behavioural issue and so diverts attention away from any underpinning structural inequalities. In this instance, the men engaged in street drinking were usually living alone in single bedrooms in houses of multiple occupancy with little or no space to socialise. They were also employed on low-paid, temporary agency contracts at the town’s largest employer – the distribution warehouse of a major sportswear company. This precarious employment effectively priced them out of using the town’s few remaining pubs.
The focus on behaviour in PSPO legislation leaves structural drivers unaddressed and instead resorts to preventative exclusion. As such, already vulnerable groups are pushed further to the margins, essentially criminalising poverty. This also intensifies tensions between the established population and migrants because Polish men and their ‘problematic culture’ are blamed for social problems and for damaging the town’s reputation.
The role of anti-social behaviour legislation is largely symbolic in that it used to reassure people that their concerns have been responded to. The implementation of a PSPO also sends a symbolic message about a particular locality, effectively classifying it as a problem place.
This symbolism was made clear in my research site by maps produced by the local authority, which showed the whole town encircled by a red line, signifying the area covered by the PSPO. Some residents likened this to giving the town an ASBO. They felt that the negative portrayal stigmatised the town, giving it and the people that live there a bad reputation.
Stigmatisation of place can have serious implications for its future. The place and its residents are imagined as the problem rather than a symptom of broader social issues. This results in policies that target individuals and leave the root causes of social problems unaddressed.
Stigmatisation can also lead to disinvestment since the image of a locality influences decisions made on the location of businesses and other resources, which has clear implications for the opportunities of local residents.
Dr James Pattison is a Teaching Associate in Sociology, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham.