Views are sought over the introduction of a city centre zone aimed at combatting anti-social behaviour as a three-month consultation is launched.
Residents, workers and visitors to Chester are invited to comment on the possible scope of a proposed Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) covering the city centre, Newtown and part of Boughton.
Among the scourges already in the sights of the new Labour-led Cheshire West and Chester Council are legal highs, street drinking, rough sleeping, begging and even ‘poor’ busking. The idea is backed by the Tory opposition.
But more than 5,000 opponents have signed an online petition against the new zone with a national busking campaign and human rights group Liberty both opposed and even some Labour members privately uneasy about certain aspects.
A draft order reveals transgressors face a maximum £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of up to £1,000 on conviction at court if they continue with the banned activities when asked to desist.
Critics say it is criminalising the poor and vulnerable as well as being unworkable. And the proposal has gained coverage on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme and BBC North West Tonight.
Cllr Nicole Meardon, cabinet member for children and families, said: “The proposed PSPO has been developed by the council and the police to address anti-social behaviour issues that are having a real impact on residents, businesses and visitors in Chester.
“Our aim is to ensure everyone can enjoy our public spaces, while at the same time, ensuring that the appropriate support is in place to protect some of our most vulnerable groups.
“It is vital that we gather as much feedback as possible to inform our decision as to whether a PSPO is the right option for Chester, and if so, what form it might take.
“As well as inviting comments through the questionnaire and drop-in events, we will be meeting with a variety of people and organisations most affected by the proposals during the consultation process.”
Contentiously, it could be enshrined in the order that no person ‘would be allowed to lie down or sleep in any public space’. Similar restrictions sparked a backlash in other parts of the country. But the council insists it is committed to supporting the homelessness and that enforcement action would be a last resort.
A frustrating issue for police is the widespread use of legal highs, especially by some members of the Chester homeless community. And the draft order indicates that prohibited activities would include taking ‘legal highs’ in public with the same restriction on alcohol.
Legal highs can be bought in the high street and over the web. People who work with the homeless say the harmful effects can be worse than illegal drugs and tempt desperate people to waste their limited funds instead of purchasing basics like food.
The government plans to make these substances illegal but a report to councillors warned this could ‘take a number of months’.
A controversial element is that buskers could only perform after gaining official approval and by booking a designated pitch. This has sparked an online petition at change.org by the Keep Streets Live Campaign signed by 5,431 so far under the heading ‘Don’t make life harder for the homeless, don’t criminalise your buskers’.
Other prohibited activities could include:
■ Urinating or defecating in public
■ No begging ‘including the placing of hats or containers’
■ Feeding any bird.
Impact on people's lives
Chief Inspector Jez Taylor of Cheshire Police said in a statement: “These issues are having a real impact on people’s lives and this consultation will allow us the gauge the feeling from the public so that we can decide on the best way to progress.”
But defence solicitor Michael Gray, senior partner at Chester law firm Gray & Co Solicitors has signed the petition against the measures and points out that most issues are covered by existing powers any way.
“This is the nanny state going too far. It’s right-wing thinking, trying to tell us how to live our lives,” said Mr Gray, who believes there is a danger the PSPO would be policed according to prejudices. He asks, for example, how the proposed regime would treat an office worker lying down to sunbathe in the park compared with a homeless person doing the same.
Mr Gray, a father of twin boys, said the police would always support more powers for the state.
Society becoming Orwellian
“It’s their role. Their mind-set is different to you or I. The mind-set is you must do as I say, you must obey. That’s very dangerous in our society. What sort of society do we want? I want to be part of a fair, tolerant and cohesive society. We are becoming very Orwellian and it’s very very scary.”
Views of people in the city centre will be gathered by Community Safety Officers who will be carrying out street interviews from July 31. Two drop-in events will take place at Chester Town Hall’s Palatine Room from 12-4pm on Monday, August 17, and Friday, September 11.
And 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. Alternatively, it can be downloaded at www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/pspo. Completed questionnaires may be sent to: Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) consultation, Cheshire West and Chester Council, Civic Way, Ellesmere Port, CH65 0BE.
■ Call 0300 123 8 123 and ask to comment on the Public Space Protection Order consultation.
The consultation closes on October 15. All feedback will be collated and considered by the council’s cabinet when it meets to make a decision about whether to introduce a PSPO.