“I can categorically say that the leader of the council will not be the next Simon Cowell!”
Cllr Nicole Meardon (Lab, Sutton ward) was joking about a suspicion Cheshire West and Chester Council is to introduce auditions for buskers as part of a proposed Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) currently under consultation relating to a city centre zone plus parts of Newtown and Boughton.
Cllr Meardon, tasked with overseeing the PSPO process, admits to being 'a bit sad' in her addiction to X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice while her Ellesmere Port MP husband Justin Madders simply 'doesn’t like that stuff'. But the mother-of-three confirms the mooted quality assessments, which everyone thought would involve some kind of judging panel, won’t happen after all.
“If you’re not a good busker, you’re probably not going to get any money, so it can probably regulate itself,” said Cllr Meardon, who understands some beggars will produce a penny whistle if challenged by an officer. “For me, that’s people pretending to busk when they are actually begging.”
PSPOs aim to tackle a wide range of anti-social behaviour activities but have proved controversial elsewhere and Chester is no different. More than 10,000 people have signed petitions objecting to elements including the regularisation of busking and the potential to fine people for sleeping rough and begging. Civil rights group Liberty has raised concerns. And last week left wing comedian Mark Thomas held ‘a lying down’ protest in Town Hall Square.
The new Labour administration always said the consultation would be genuine and while Cllr Meardon speaks in coded language, it seems clear the original draft order and the list of proposed banned activities within the PSPO zone is likely to look quite different to what is actually enacted by the cabinet in November – she says a ban on feeding birds, for example, is unenforceable.
Cllr Meardon, who is cabinet member for children and families, said: “I cannot pre-empt the results of the consultation because I want it to be clear, open and transparent but I think the public have spoken, haven’t they?” The councillor, a qualified secondary school teacher, loves Mark Thomas’ humour and welcomes him and the 1,600 people who have fed into the consultation.
“I think the public have been quite vocal in their opposition to some elements of it, which is reflected in the responses. The rough sleeping, I think, has probably been the most controversial. But we did always make clear as a council, when we introduced the PSPO consultation that we would be looking at homelessness provision because it’s absolutely essential that provision is of a good quality and that’s not just the homeless provision but also services around mental health, alcohol and substance abuse and making sure those vulnerable people are supported. The last thing we would want is to criminalise or persecute vulnerable people.”
Cllr Meardon disagrees with the police perspective that current service provision is ‘excellent’ and refuses to generalise about the motives behind why people are on the street. “You cannot make assumptions about people. You have to look at each person as an individual and respect their story.”
And she is relaxed about the flak her administration has received for putting its name to the PSPO exercise even though it was working its way through the system under the previous administration in response to concerns from the business community and community safety partners.
After stressing the PSPO is only under consultation at this stage, she added: “I don’t think we need to apologise for having a debate because clearly there are some important issues we need to address. There’s a quite of anti-social behaviour and criminal activity – one is legal highs. We are waiting for new legislation to go through but problems are happening in the city right now and they need addressing now. There are a number of issues affecting residents and businesses such as urination and defecation, the drug-taking , the alcohol and abuse. If this is part of the PSPO it will be a good way of tackling it.”
But what would comrade Jeremy Corbyn, the new socialist leader of the Labour Party, think about the PSPO vision which was recently dubbed “right-wing” and “Orwellian” by city solicitor Michael Gray? “Consultation on a wide basis, being fair, honest and transparent is probably something he would agree with,” responded Cllr Meardon, whose MP husband has just been appointed as a member of Corbyn’s shadow health team.
People can respond to the consultation in a variety of ways:
- Complete an online survey at www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/pspo
- Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Complete a paper questionnaire which will be available from next week from the Chester Town Hall police station and Chester Library.
- Call 0300 123 8 123 and ask to comment on the Public Space Protection Order consultation.
It closes on October 15.