Claire Fox 28 June 2011

Bill Stickers is innocent ok!

Council crackdowns on leaflets and posters are in danger of sanitising public space and killing off vibrant community life, contends Clair Fox.

Missing cat photos cause 'urban decay'; handing out leaflets for a coffee morning is classed as 'anti-social behaviour'. Ridiculous - who argues such nonsense? Councils do, I'm afraid.This is straight from the mouths of many of the 245 local authorities quoted extensively in an important and insightful report hot off the press today (June 30).

Leafleting: A Liberty Lost? a 135 page report, produced by the Manifesto Club, details how over recent years councils have launched a wholly disproportionate clampdown on leafleting in local areas, some using blanket bans, others designating specific areas where 'consent is required for the distribution of free literature'. As a consequence many councils are in danger of sanitising public space, censoring local volunteers and killing off vibrant community life.

Leafleting: A Liberty Lost? begins by citing John Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica his famous pamphlet against censorship and in defence of press freedom. That might sound a bit dramatic, but the report convincingly exposes how the freedom to hand out flyers is an important civil liberties issue.

Using the considerable powers of legislation such as the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 (CNEA), the simple passing of paper between two citizens, where no money changes hands, has become subject to more stringent controls than are applied to street traders. Worse, some councils have interpreted the laws in an even stricter manner than justified, showing 'an impulse to regulate that outstretches legal provisions furnished by central government.'

This is having a catastrophic effect on the self-organisation of groups as varied as village halls, circuses and nightclubs, not least because of the cost. Forty-five local authorities - including Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and Leeds – demand that people buy a council licence if they want to leaflet.

Many areas have time limits on licences, with leafleting permissions given for a day or an evening, effectively renting out 'public' space by the yard and hour.

On the ground this means the Leicester Comedy Festival was asked to pay £5200 per day to leaflet 'freely' throughout the city; Oxford student societies will have to buy a licence to leaflet fellow students. Music promoters in Brighton have launched a petition against flyer zones and licence fees, which they claim 'will stop many small and new promoters from being able to run nights and will therefore affect the vibrancy and club culture everyone has come to love about Brighton.'

Meanwhile local authorities are increasingly taking a zero tolerance attitude to community posters. Lewes DC’s list of the posters taken down over the past five years includes small-scale, community events such as: the Cuckoo Spring Fayre; the Needlework Festival; the Garden Show at Firle Place; the Smallholders’ Show and the Bentley Wildfowl Woodfair.

How ironic - when economic regeneration should be a priority - that people in rural Sussex are prevented from advertising their spring shows, which bring visitors and important income streams to the area. How is it positive that a Leicester Square flyer-ban has caused the closure of three West End comedy clubs?

Some councils explain they are acting to promote an atmosphere of community safety and order.South Tyneside describes postering as an 'illegal, anti-social activity that creates a negative impression on an area and contributes to people’s fear of crime.’ But surely this inverts reality.

Informal leaflets and posters are part of a free and vibrant civic space, signs of community spirit, of true sociability, of people organising things together. Is it not these bans which are anti-social as they suppress altruistic interactions since residents are prevented from appealing to others for help?

Reigate & Banstead BC's list of posters removed since 2008 includes a National Blood Service banner. An appeal for a lost cat brings neighbourhoods help and concern in response. As the report points out:'It is when we cannot appeal to our neighbours that there will be fear of crime.'

Other councils stress the mess created by all those tatty hand-made posters and photocopied leaflets.Wyre Forest claims leaflets 'make an area look untidy and uncared for.' But this 'Keep Britain Tidy' defence seems rather disingenuous.

The report author Josie Appleton points out:'The new restriction is not on leafleting as such – on waste paper or rubbish per se - but only on citizen leafleting.'

The key point is that the bans on 'unofficial' leafleting have coincided with a massive growth of official messages in public space. No lamppost in London is without an official council poster.

Cornwall, one of the most restrictive councils, explicitly admits that 'the only marketing material we should have in our own public areas is products produced by ourselves or partners.'

Ironically it spent £383,097 on leaflets last year, while Leicester CC whose rules have been disastrous for arts organisations, spent £54,206 on internal leaflets and posters and £14,361 on externally produced leaflets for 'cultural services'.

Nottingham CC even had the nerve to produce a leaflet to inform people about its forthcoming ban on leafleting and the report concludes: 'The growth of council leaflets suggests that there is free speech only for local authorities.'

The Manifesto Club calls for 'an urgent review of these council powers - and a more liberal approach that recognises leafleting as a key civic freedom.'I urge MJ readers to lead the charge.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas.

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