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Loitering with intent to annoy: how a new council plan could criminalise vulnerable people in Sheffield city centre

The council say a new Public Space Protection Order is needed to handle an epidemic of anti-social behaviour. Activists fear it could be used to target rough sleepers and political protestors. 

City centre pinstone street heart of the city construction

The proposed PSPO will apply to the entire area within the inner ring-road.

Rachel Rae Photography

Who is the city centre for? And what should take place there? These are two questions that are almost never asked in Sheffield, but a new plan drawn up by the council could make them central to our idea of the city, both as it is now and how we would like it to be.

Sheffield City Council (SCC) have just opened a consultation on introducing a Public Space Protection Order (or ‘PSPO’) in the area of the city within the inner ring-road, plus the train station and South Street Park behind it. If councillors move ahead with the project, it’s expected to come into effect later this year.

PSPOs were introduced by the government in 2014 with the stated aim of making it easier for councils to tackle anti-social behaviour in the UK’s town and city centres. Barnsley introduced a PSPO in 2016, with Rotherham and Doncaster following a year later, but Sheffield has held out – until now.

The council say the proposed PSPO “provides additional powers for enforcement agencies to deal with a particular nuisance or problem in a specific area that is detrimental to the local community’s quality of life, by imposing conditions on the use of that area which apply to everyone.”

PSPOs last for three years, although they can be renewed indefinitely. So what’s actually in the plan, and how will it shape who’s welcome and who’s not welcome in our city centre, as well as the behaviour that’s tolerated there?

Distress, nuisance or annoyance

Sheffield’s order focuses on five activities the council want to stamp out.

Firstly, the proposed order would ban anyone from drinking alcohol, or even carrying an open container of alcohol, anywhere within the inner ring-road (except in or around licensed premises). This would mean that students celebrating the end of term by having a few beers in the Peace Gardens could find themselves liable for a £100 fine.

Secondly, the draft order bans "verbal, non-verbal, or written requests for money, donations or goods... in a manner that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm, distress, nuisance, or annoyance". The order even goes so far as to specify that placing a hat on the ground in front of you may constitute begging.

Part of the justification for this part of the order is to "encourage visitors to the city centre." The implication here is clear: the type of visitors the council want to encourage to Sheffield are those with money, rather than those without. This narrows the definition of 'visitor' from citizen to consumer: come to Sheffield – but only if you'll spend.

City centre fargate police
Rachel Rae Photography

Now Then asked Sheffield City Council whether this part of the order includes professional charity fundraisers and they told us that it won’t – although this distinction isn’t written into the wording of the PSPO itself.

Loitering with intent to annoy

The third restriction is more worrying:

"No person within the restricted area shall loiter, in any temporary structure, in or adjacent to doorways, cash machines, banks or supermarkets in a manner that may cause or is likely to cause harassment, alarm, distress, nuisance, or annoyance to any person within the city centre".

This restriction on "loitering", and the justifications for enforcing it, are vague and wide-ranging. If the PSPO is followed to the letter, the new order will effectively criminalise standing around in Sheffield in an annoying way (of course, what anyone finds "annoying" is open to interpretation).

Part of the justification for this rule is that it will "encourage vulnerable people to access support services to change behaviour and address underlying or unmet need".

But when almost all the other justifications are oriented around boosting the local visitor economy, this reads as somewhat disingenuous.

There is also the alarming possibility that this incredibly wide-ranging restriction could be used to crack down on protests, sit-ins (like the recent one outside Barclays against their ties with Israeli apartheid) and other forms of political dissent.

“A PSPO would not affect people’s right to protest,” Cllr Richard Williams, Chair of the Communities, Parks and Leisure Committee, told Now Then when we asked the council whether Sheffield’s PSPO would effectively criminalise political activity in the city centre.

But despite Cllr Williams’ assurances, nowhere is this written into the text of the PSPO itself, and it is easy to imagine how police overreach could lead to a crackdown on dissent in a city with a long and proud tradition of protest and radical politics.

The fourth and fifth restrictions relate to drug use (possession is already a crime) and "urination or defecation". The latter states that "no person within the restricted area will urinate and/or defecate in any public space", apart from in public toilets.

Fraser cottrell AV Fu Xh Yx Fh0 unsplash

Manchester's PSPO prevents street drinking in areas such as Piccadilly Gardens.

Fraser Cottrell on Unsplash.

But almost all of the public toilets in Sheffield city centre are long gone. It's unlikely that their replacement – a Sheffield BID scheme that encourages businesses to let members of the public use their toilet facilities for free – will welcome rough sleepers. On top of this, there is an even greater lack of accessible public toilets and Changing Places toilets.

None of the potential fines that could result from the PSPO are means-tested, meaning that a millionaire would potentially be liable for the same £100 fine as a rough sleeper.

When it comes to the real reason for the PSPO, page 42 gives the game away: "A more attractive and safer city centre will bring economic benefits to the city, where people feel safe shopping and socialising."

But don’t you dare think about loitering – unless you buy something first.

Jargon and legalese

As with most consultations launched by SCC, the method by which members of the public can actually access the draft PSPO is confusing and not user-friendly. Instead of explaining what the PSPO will do in plain and simple English on their website, Sheffield residents can only access it buried in the middle of a 30-page PDF full of jargon and legalese.

This makes it harder for people with fewer digital skills or those who are digitally excluded to have their say about the PSPO, or even to understand what it is. It will be almost impossible for the people most likely to be affected by the PSPO – rough sleepers – to be involved in the process.

Criticism of the proposed PSPO has so far been quiet – but this could be because the council have made it so difficult for most citizens to find out what’s in it.

“A PSPO in the City Centre won't solve the root causes of the issues they seek to address,” tweeted Dylan Lewis-Creser, a local Green Party activist. “Instead, they will only further punish people, particularly homeless people. We cannot let this stand - respond AGAINST the PSPO.”

On 30 January Green councillors voted against moving ahead with the PSPO, in opposition to their Labour and Lib Dem colleagues. They cited the potential for inconsistent application of the new rules as one of their reasons for opposing the plan.

"A family having a glass of wine with a picnic in the Peace Gardens could well be treated differently from someone sitting on their own with a can of lager,” said Cllr Marieanne Elliot. “It is not at all clear what would be a fair application of the rules in these circumstances."

Cllr Elliot’s comments speak to one of the more troubling aspects of the PSPO – the extent to which it leaves application of its rules and orders down to the discretion and judgement of individual police officers, with their built-in institutional biases. As recently as January, the head of Britain’s police chiefs described all police forces in the UK as being “institutionally racist”.

Targeting rough sleepers

In Manchester, housing activists expressed concern about the draconian nature of the city’s own PSPO, which was renewed last year for a further three years.

In an article for Greater Manchester Housing Action, Isis Barei-Guyot writes that the order “disproportionately targets the rough sleeping population, allowing Manchester Council to bypass taking responsibility for what has been labelled a ‘homeless crisis’... and placing the responsibility on rough-sleeping individuals themselves.”

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The proposed area of Sheffield's PSPO.

Sheffield City Council.

Manchester’s order goes so far as to state that people “must move location upon valid request if causing an obstruction”. “Are all bodies that take up space therefore open to being labelled as obstructions?” writes Barei-Guyot. “Who decides if requests are valid?”

Although Sheffield’s order does not mention “obstructions”, it does contain enough ambiguity, discretion and leeway that civil liberties campaigners fear it could be misused, or applied in a way that discriminates against particular groups of people.

The order says that it is a criminal offence for a person to break any of the five conditions “without reasonable excuse”. But who decides what is a reasonable excuse? In practice, this will be decided by police officers. As cited by Cllr Elliot, there is likelihood that the behaviour of the middle classes will be more likely deemed “reasonable” than that of people sleeping rough.

Isaac Rose is a Manchester-based housing activist and author, who has studied the changing character of the city. In his forthcoming book ‘The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis’, he argues that Manchester’s city centre has been redrawn to prioritise the interests of capital above all else – and that this template will be applied to other towns and cities in the near future.

City centre winter gardens
Rachel Rae Photography

For Rose, Sheffield’s proposed PSPO echoes successful attempts in his own city to redefine the urban centre as being primarily a zone for consumers, rather than citizens.

"The moves by Sheffield City Council seem straight out of the Manchester playbook for building the neoliberal city: criminalise the homeless, the poor, the destitute and the 'disruptive' in order to expel these 'undesirables' from the city centre, and create a smooth and 'safe' space for middle-class consumption," he told Now Then.

"It would seem that rather than our leaders wishing to address the root cause of inequality, which would necessitate a confrontation with the prevailing economic model, they prefer to sweep its deleterious effects to the margins, out of sight, out of mind."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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