One of the first significant acts of the incoming Labour administration was to launch a 12-week consultation last summer on a proposed Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) because of concerns around anti-social activities.
But plans to fine rough sleepers and unauthorised buskers led to one of the biggest ever postbags for a consultation, sparked concerns from civil rights group Liberty while campaigning comedian Mark Thomas held a protest which attracted TV coverage.
Council cabinet members this week dropped plans to criminalise rough sleepers, beggars, unauthorised buskers and bird feeders following the wave of opposition.
Senior councillors agreed only the following three activities should be banned and subject to on-the-spot fines of up to £100 in the city centre based on the consultation findings:
■ Using so-called ‘legal highs’
■ Drinking alcohol in public
■ Public urination/defecation
Cllr Nicole Meardon , the council’s cabinet member for children and families, said the whole exercise had been worthwhile despite the negative national publicity, a 16,000-strong petition and the watering down of the draft PSPO.
She said: “I think it’s really important to recognise that this consultation gave us a wealth of data and information about how people feel about the city of Chester – whether they feel safe at night or safe during the day, some of the other issues that were concerning them.
“Although these issues were taken out of the PSPO we still recognise that they are important issues and we felt they needed to be addressed by the council and our partners but in ways other than the PSPO.”
Examples include the council working with buskers to draw up a new code of conduct and a complex dependencies programme for vulnerable people with drug and alcohol addictions.
In summing up, she said: "What we've got here is a really important decision to make which will impact on the residents of Chester and people that work in Chester and come to visit Chester but it's part of a whole range of services and policies. What's really important is we are working with vulnerable people, the homeless, those that are begging."
Tory group opposition leader Cllr Mike Jones stressed the legislation allowing PSPOs was brought in by a Conservative government but he criticised Labour’s original inclusion of certain elements and noted their ‘u-turn’.
He said: “Now clearly the cabinet made a political decision to include a number of items, the seven items to consult on and we made it very clear at the time that the concept of including an attack on the homeless, an attack on buskers was inappropriate.
“We felt it was over-the-top and utterly unreasonable particularly with the huge investment that we had put into supporting the homeless to try and resolve their root cause problems so we are very pleased this has now been taken out with that u-turn that’s been made by yourselves.”
Cllr Jones, who welcomed the clamp-down on legal highs, criticised the fact it had taken five months from the end of the consultation until the cabinet decision which for him showed ‘how ineffective the cabinet has been’ since Labour took control.