It’s all kicking off in Norfolk. Last week it emerged that cafe owner Kerry Radley was forced to close her business after she was accused of harassing the owners of Prima Rosa, a rival establishment just up the road. Radley’s neighbours complained to the local council, which issued her with a community protection notice, banning her from looking at the rival cafe. If Radley is found staring into Prima Rosa, she’ll be fined up to £20,000. "I burst into tears when they served the order," she said.
Surely there's something wrong there. Can councils really ban people from looking at things?
Yes, they can. Earlier this year, VICE published a report which showed that councils now have the power to ban all kinds of things, all in the name of tackling antisocial behaviour. This started back in the mid-1990s, when New Labour was keen to prove its "tough on crime" credentials. That led to the introduction of ASBOs, which were used to ban people from all sorts of activities that weren’t actually crimes, and proved remarkably popular for a few years. ASBOs were eventually scrapped in 2014, only to be replaced with a load of other far-reaching powers.
Among these new powers, community protection notices (CPNs) are the most like the old ASBOs. They allow local authorities to ban people from engaging in any activities they believe are unreasonable and will have a "detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality". While ASBOs were ordered by the courts and allowed individuals to defend themselves, CPNs can be issued directly by local authorities. Failure to comply with a notice is a criminal offence and punishable by an on-the-spot fine or prosecution, which can then lead to fines of up to £2,500 for individuals and £20,000 for businesses.
A report published this week by the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the regulation of everyday life, reveals how widely these powers are being used. Freedom of Information requests submitted to local authorities in England and Wales revealed that, between November of 2015 and October of 2016, CPNs were issued by more than a third of councils. In total, 4,376 notices were issued during the 12 months.
Writing in the report, Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton said: "Certain council officials now have the power to act as legislator, judge and jury in relation to the conduct of private citizens.
As would be expected, this is resulting in severe injustice. We have been in contact with several people who have received CPNs based on inaccurate or false accusations, often as the outcome of a dispute with a neighbour or council officer. In other cases, people are being penalised merely because their activities are disliked by some other individuals."
"CPNs have been used to tackle untidy gardens, barking dogs, shouting, swearing, bad parking and bonfires."
Homeless people are among those most frequently targeted by CPNs. A notice issued in Waverley stated: "You must not sit on the floor outside any retail premises in such a way as to appear to be begging or to encourage the gathering of alms." One individual was ordered "not to sit or sleep on the pavement, doorways or fire exits in the Crawley Town Centre". In London, councils in Greenwich, Kingston, Waltham Forest and Westminster have all issued CPNs banning begging. Over the 12 months, Westminster is reported to have issued a grand total of 227 CPNs, targeting rough sleeping and pedicabs.
Rachael Robathan, cabinet member for housing at Westminster City Council, said: "We spend more than any other council on helping rough sleepers off the streets. Earlier this year Westminster launched a five-year rough sleeping strategy which highlights our work with a number of agencies to intervene early and prevent those who find themselves on the street from spending a second night out. CPNs are used only when necessary in response to issues such as abusive or aggressive behaviour, and we understand that these are some of the most vulnerable members of society."
As the cafe rivalry in Norfolk has shown, it’s not just homeless people who’ve been slapped with CPNs. Some people have been banned from drinking alcohol in their own homes. One notice in Devon ordered an individual "not to be under the influence of alcohol at any time". CPNs have been used to tackle untidy gardens, barking dogs, shouting, swearing, bad parking and bonfires. Oh, and don’t think the animal community is exempt from all this. In Maldon, the council threatened to issue a CPN to tackle "intimidating" peacocks.
Maybe it’s time to ban councils from making up new rules.