Give us some space
I have to salute [British sculptor] Antony Gormley’s’ Fourth Plinth initiative in London’s Trafalgar Square.
The ‘living sculpture’ project, in which ‘ordinary people’ take centre-stage for an hour, may not be great art, but at least the artist has offered the nation’s citizens a chance to express themselves freely, and do whatever they want in the public square.
If you are hundreds of feet up in the air, the authorities seem happy for ‘the public’ to be defiant, free, eccentric, irreverent, and act as they please.
However, once your time as a ‘plinther’ is up, you may well come back down to earth with a bump. Unless you’ve been chosen for exhibition by the artistic elite, public space is anything but free these days. And councils are leading the charge in the illiberal clampdown.
Take the issue of drinking in public. An important report, published last month by the Manifesto Club (MC), reveals that 712 local authorities have introduced ‘controlled drinking zones’, which ‘cover large areas of cities and town centres, beaches and parks’.
Robbery by the police – alcohol confiscation – and the hyper-regulation of public space exposes the fact that these zones are ‘increasing at a rate of around 100 a year’.
In this glorious sunshine, dare you decide to sit down in public with your mates and crack open up a few cans of lager, you’d better look over your shoulder. Councils have empowered police and community support officers (CSOs) to confiscate lawfully-owned alcohol from law-abiding citizens.
Once a control zone is in place, police can seize alcohol – even unopened bottles or cans – from anyone not on licensed premises. No explanation or suspicion that the person could be a public nuisance is required.
On-the-spot £50 fines are more popular. Forget civil liberties, the advantage of fixed-penalty fines is that you haven’t got that burdensome business of proving a case in court.
Why on earth are councils pursuing anyone enjoying a quiet outdoor tipple? Usually, councils’ defence is ‘it’s the Government wot make us do it guv’. In this instance, council practices go far beyond what the Government intended.
Laws giving local authorities the power to set up the zones, or ‘designated public place orders’, were introduced in 2001, at the height of the binge drinking panic. However, the law made it clear that the zones should cover only streets or city centre areas with a record of alcohol-related disorder or nuisance.
So, how can Coventry and Brighton justify city-wide bans covering vast areas where there is no record of public drunkenness?
The Home Office acknowledges there’s a problem, and issued revised guidelines in December, explaining the intention was never ‘to disrupt peaceful activities such as family picnics or to challenge people consuming alcohol who are not causing a problem’. Yet Lambeth still plans to make the whole borough a controlled zone, even Brockwell Park, a beauty spot popular with picnickers.
The award for over-zealous enforcement goes to Brighton & Hove. Its 45 CSOs are making 25 confiscations a week. One Brighton resident recounts an interesting incident in the MC report: ‘A group of us were hanging out in a pedestrianised street… celebrating a birthday with a few drinks… None of us were causing a disturbance or hassling anyone… there were a couple of excellent buskers on the street and a few people started dancing Latin-style’.
Surely, this sounds like the idyllic community streetscene so beloved of local government policy pundits? But – guess what? – ‘community police officers came round, and emptied everyone’s drinks into the drains’.
How ironic, in the name of stopping anti-social behaviour, councils end up harassing the public for being sociable.
It was gratifying to see the Brighton Salon group organising a well-publicised ‘beat the booze ban’ beach picnic in June. It has since challenged the council to a debate.
Hopefully, council leaders will say yes. It will be interesting to hear its officers justifying turning an area renowned as a laid-back, fun-loving centre of tourism into a beacon of joyless, petty-minded Puritanism.
If you want to have fun – indeed, freedom – in the public sphere, its time to leave Brighton and head for the plinth. But if the only public space in Britain free from municipal hyper-regulation measures merely five by three metres, we’re all in trouble.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas
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