Please work alongside buskers, peddlars, cyclists and homelessness initiatives to come up with a creative, proportionate and progressive policy response to the issues that arise in the public spaces of Oxford.
Dear Executive Board of Oxford City Council,
Today you will meet and decide whether to implement proposals to make a range of activities such as 'noncompliant' busking, 'noncompliant' peddling, pavement art, riding bicycles on restricted streets and begging in a defined Public Space Protection Order area a criminal offence punishable by fines of up to £1,000.
These plans, if implemented, will radically alter the nature of the relationship between Oxford's public servants and all those who use public space in the city.
They will have the effect of criminalising grassroots culture and creating arbitrary criminal offences such as singing songs in the wrong spot or for the wrong length of time, or drawing a picture with chalk on a pavement.
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Following the publication of this article the human rights campaign group Liberty joined the campaign against Oxford Council's draconian proposed measures and issued a legal opinion that they are unlawful. Oxford Council then withdrew the proposal for further examination and no vote took place.
According to Liberty's legal opinion from lawyers Jason Coppel QC and Deok Joo Rhee, the plans are unlawful on a number of human rights and common law grounds. Specifically, they have concluded that:
- The Council has failed to make the case for the statutory conditions that must be satisfied before a PSPO can be adopted.
- The Council has failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act 2010.
- There are further legal flaws in the plans to ban 'persistent begging', sleeping in toilets and busking in breach of the Council's code of conduct - including disproportionate interference with a number of fundamental rights protected by the Human Rights Act.
They will create a more alienating urban environment for visitors and residents alike where vulnerable and dispossessed persons can face criminal sanctions and punitive fines for begging, despite the fact that a coalition of homelessness charities have asked you to reconsider these plans.
They will create a situation where 'City Centre Ambassadors', paid for out of public money to welcome people into the City, will instead be cast in the role of enforcement officers handing out £100 fines to people for cycling on streets which buses and taxis drive down throughout the day.
The sum effect of these proposals will be to bring activities which cause no harm into the realm of criminal law in a manner which creates unnecessary and counterproductive antagonism between civic officials and those they are paid to serve.
Take the wise choice and abandon your plans
There is nothing inevitable about your decision today. It is not too late to think again as you rightly did when you decided to abandon plans to make rough sleeping a criminal offence after 72,280 people signed a petition asking you not to drive the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society into further alienation and destitution.
You also thought better of your proposals to make feeding pigeons a criminal offence which demonstrated an admirable willingness to change course. Now, on behalf of the Keep Streets Live Campaign, I am asking you to rethink the rest of your PSPO proposal, and, at this late stage, to think again.
Nearly 5,000 people have already signed a petition asking you not to criminalise 'noncompliant' busking but to work alongside the Musicians' Union and the busking community to draw up best practise guidance instead.
In addition to the petition, the majority of people who completed your own consultation, despite its skewed terms of reference, didn't support the proposals: 53% of people said busking shouldn't be on the PSPO, and only 32% said it should be, whilst only 34% of people thought that begging should be included and only 38% thought street art should be included. This policy clearly lacks public support and a popular mandate.
Buskers have worked alongside the Council in Liverpool, York, Canterbury, Cambridge and Greater London, amongst others, to implement policies that create a vibrant street culture which welcomes artists and musicians. Why can't Oxford follow in their footsteps?
You already have effective powers to prevent nuisance
With the limited resources at its disposal, the local authority should focus enforcement on the small minority of individuals who have caused a persistent nuisance rather then creating a new and entirely arbitrary criminal offence.
You have a wide range of existing powers which are more than adequate to deal with any conceivable problem that could ever result from playing music and singing songs in the streets. An afternoon of rainfall, not uncommon in England, will wash away even the most colourful chalk pavement drawing without the need to give artists a criminal record.
It is difficult to see how giving a destitute and vulnerable person who has been reduced to begging on the streets a fine of up to £1,000 will help them to improve their situation. It is easy to see how it could inadvertently lead to more people begging in order to pay the punitive fines that have been imposed upon them.
Later today I will be helping to lead a musical protest against the PSPO proposals on the streets of Oxford, but my preference is not for protest but rather for partnership. I strongly believe that by working together we can achieve more than we ever could on our own.
Instead, seek proportionate and collaborative solutions
Problems and issues will always arise where people share public space, but dialogue and negotiation are surely preferable to creating unnecessary relationships of antagonism between public officials and the public.
I have attached, once again, a copy of the guidance for busking that was agreed, collaboratively, between local businesses, the busking community, the Musician's Union and the local authority in York. It is a testament to what can be achieved by working together.
On the behalf of the Keep Streets Live Campaign and all those who have supported us I urge you to reconsider your plans for the PSPO and to instead work alongside buskers, peddlars, cyclists and homelessness initiatives to come up with a more creative, proportionate and progressive policy response to the issues that arise in the public spaces of Oxford.
Founding Director of Keep Streets Live Campaign.
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