By Tom Jones
Anti-social behaviour has become a major problem across Manchester and, following increasing reports from concerned residents, Manchester City Council has decided to seek public feedback on a new City Centre Public Space Protection Order (PSPO).
If adopted the PSPO would cover the city centre areas of Piccadilly Gardens, Chinatown, Piccadilly and the Smithfield estate in the Northern Quarter, and would give authorities extra powers to create ‘a safe and clean city centre’ alongside their existing powers. Anyone breaching the order could be handed an immediate £100 penalty by authorities – or they can be prosecuted, resulting in a fine of up to £1,000. But what has prompted this consultation?
Anti-social behaviour has become rife across the city. Just a walk through Piccadilly Gardens at any time of the day will give you a taste of the problem but there are hard facts to support the personal experiences: After several successive years of increasing numbers of recorded anti-social behaviour incidents, Transport for Greater Manchester was recently handed the power to apply for civil injunctions to prevent troublemakers using services. Last year also saw the suspension of the Mobike sharing scheme after less than two years, with 10% of the overall cycles available lost each month to theft or vandalism. Manchester is the only city out of the 200 currently using the service to have it suspended due to crime – hardly a ringing endorsement for the city.
Manchester city centre itself has also been blighted by various forms of anti-social behaviour, which the report specifies following complaints from the public. Public drinking has become an issue – over a third of arrests in the city centre in 2018 involved alcohol intoxication, whilst street drinking, often linked to other anti-social behaviour, is prevalent. Needles casually discarded in public places have also been singled out as major issue – not just in terms of the potential health and safety impact, but the possible psychological impact. Commercial waste was identified, too, with the amount of waste from the huge amount of businesses operating in the area causing significant problems.
The other problems the PSPO attempts to contend with, however, give it a more controversial air, as they are associated with rough sleeping. These cover public urination and defecation, obstruction of entrances to premises, ‘aggressive or intimidating’ begging and ‘using a tent in a manner likely to create a health and safety risk’. Critics of the PSPO argue that it simply criminalises the symptoms of rough sleeping, rather than attempting to tackle the underlying causes. A recent investigation by the Guardian found that hundreds of rough sleepers had been fined, given criminal convictions or even imprisoned for begging and rough sleeping across the country, where over 50 authorities have PSPOs in place.
John Leech, the Liberal Democrat councillor and leader of the opposition, has used incredibly strident language to accuse the authority of ‘social cleansing’. The campaign group Liberty has spoken out against the order too, tweeting; ‘Manchester Council’s Public Space Protection Order proposals risk punishing any homeless person seeking shelter from the elements or simply taking up space on the pavement.’
Mayor Andy Burnham, who has made tackling rough sleeping a cornerstone of his tenure, pointed out that; ‘It’s a consultation so it isn’t’ a decision. And it’s not about criminalising people who are sleeping rough or people have got nowhere else to go. That’s absolutely not what this is about. And actually it’s not about rough sleeping necessarily.’ He also highlighted the supportive approach that has been taken so far, such as the Bed Every Night programme and the Housing First proposal, a new housing scheme to find 400 homes for people without accommodation and backed by £7.6m.
‘I would want to make this very clear and I’m a consultee to the consultation that’s been launched, so I have to make my views clear’ he went on to say. ‘I will never support any move that criminalises or allows people to be harassed or gone after for the simple fact that they have nowhere else to go – they should be treated fairly and humanely.’
Sam Wheeler, who represents the Piccadilly Ward for Labour, has defended the consultation. ‘Every person in need of help should be fully supported,’ he said. ‘There are people on our streets who are victims of exploitation, and we have to help them. Leaving people slumped in doorways is not helping them and allowing a situation where vulnerable people can be exploited by dealers and gangmasters while inflicting misery on Mancunians is not acceptable. We have a duty not just to walk on the other wise of the street while people are suffering.’
The final decision on whether the PSPO comes into effect, of course, lies with the public. Come the close of the consultation on the 8th of April, whatever they decide is sure to have far reaching consequences, both for Manchester city centre and those living there. Make sure you have your say here.