Public Spaces Protection Orders in the news

Helen Mills
Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Earlier this week, The Guardian led with a piece about the number of homeless people who are sanctioned by Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in England and Wales.

PSPOs allow local councils to prohibit or require specific behaviours in public places. Current PSPOs target a wide range of behaviours, including public drinking, motor vehicle nuisance, and dog control. Their use to sanction homelessness or behaviours associated with rough sleeping (such as laying out sleeping bags or begging) has been the most controversial.

It’s great to see investigative work being done on anti-social behaviour (ASB) powers. These measures require such probing.

Since ASB powers were reformulated into six measures and devolved to local areas by the coalition government in 2014, there are no centralised, routinely publicised data about how they are being used. Freedom of Information investigations such as the Guardian’s, are now the only way to answer questions about who is sanctioned by ASB powers.

I can sympathise with the heavy lifting which must have informed yesterday’s story. Over the course of the last year, my colleague Matt has issued somewhere in the region of 739 Freedom of Information requests to police forces and all local councils in England and Wales, as part of our current project on ASB powers and young adults.

What have we found?

We’re due to publish our findings in July but here’s a small preview.

When I first started thinking about a project on ASB powers there was some debate with my colleagues at the Centre about what the scope of our inquiry could best be. Undoubtedly PSPOs had received the most public attention. Should we just focus on those? Would it be possible or desirable to include all six ASB powers in our project?

In the end we opted for a halfway house, including three of the six measures in our project, all of which are those most commonly used to sanction behaviour in public places, and I’m glad we did.

By looking across three measures we found that prosecutions for PSPOs may get the most attention but the numbers being prosecuted for breaching these powers pales in comparison to those prosecuted in relation to the other two measures we looked at:

  • Dispersal powers, a routine police tool to exclude individuals from a specific area for a period of up to 48 hours, and
  • Community protection notices, used by the police, councils and housing providers to give notices to individuals and businesses prohibiting them from doing or requiring them to do, certain things

By singling out PSPOs, yesterday’s article missed an opportunity to highlight to the public the range of measures, laws and actions that are used to sanction the homeless. There is a requirement to publish PSPOs and to consult about them but community protection notices and dispersal powers have no such obligations.

Our work suggests all three measures are being used interchangeably to address similar behaviour in different areas. PSPOs are the more visible element in a wider spectrum of enforcement approaches which are being deployed with very little scrutiny.

Stop and search has annual statistics rightly drawing attention to its use. It’s interesting that the police possess similar powers through ASB powers to stop people, exclude them from certain areas for periods of up to 48 hours and confiscate their items. Yet such powers are regularly deployed with no centralised data collection about their use.

Contact Helen Mills or Matt Ford if you’re interested in this project.

Work in ASB? We are holding a series of events in June to share our findings, contact Neala Hickey for more information.