Councils issued record numbers of “petty” anti-social behaviour orders last year targeting messy gardens, sitting on the pavement and even feeding stray cats, according to a campaign group.
“Overuse of the blank cheque powers” under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has led to legal restrictions on the public in England and Wales over other minor matters such as swearing and spitting, said the Manifesto Club.
New Covid marshals are the “latest incarnation of the yellow-jacketed busybody in public spaces” and thousands of street wardens are “absolutely primed for this role”, said director Josie Appleton.
Last year, a record 10,413 fines were issued for breaches of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) which allow councils to ban activities deemed “detrimental” to local residents.
An all-time high of 8,760 Community Protection Notices (CPNs) were also issued, which let wardens impose restrictions on individuals if their behaviour is also considered “detrimental”.
Earlier this month, pensioner Bob Mouland, 71, was given a community protection warning after painting a rusting Victorian fountain in Folkestone, Kent, reports say.
The “detrimental effect” criteria is an “unprecedented low legal test for criminal intervention”, made worse by minimal evidence or consultation needed to use the powers, which are difficult to appeal against in court, said Ms Appleton.
She told the PA news agency: “These are becoming the powers of choice because they are so easy to use.
“Some are nothing at all but they are being punished in the same way as crimes.
“Councils are not set up to be police, prosecutors, judge and jury but that is essentially what is being condensed by these powers into one.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) defended use of powers as “one of a number of ways councils can tackle persistent anti-social behaviour problems raised by local communities”.
Figures for 2019 obtained through freedom of information requests by the Manifesto Club show 8,760 CPNs were issued by 202 councils in England and Wales, up from 6,234 by 192 councils the previous year.
The largest number were for “messy” or “eyesore” gardens and neighbourhood disputes, including an artist from Barking and Dagenham issued with a notice by a council officer who objected to her “woodland-style” garden, according to the civil liberties group.
Despite Home Office guidance in 2017 not to target homelessness, 31 councils issued CPNs against acts like rough sleeping, loitering and begging, it added.
One homeowner in Nottingham was hit with a CPN after allowing a homeless man to pitch a tent on his land, and was told to “clear all items including the tent, items of waste and any miscellaneous items” from his property, according to the group.
The record 10,413 fixed penalty notices for PSPO breaches in 2019 was up from 9,930 in 2018, itself a record.
A PA investigation found the number of fines in 2015 and 2016 were 470 and 1,906 respectively.
Peterborough, Bedford and Hillingdon councils, which employ private companies to issue fines, accounted for 6,565 (63%) of the on-the-spot penalties of up to £100.
A large number were for acts like “unauthorised cycling”, spitting, swearing and idling engines, the Manifesto Club said.
In 2017, just five companies employed private companies, but there are now 22 local authorities outsourcing the service to private firms, it added.
Ms Appleton raised concerns about wardens “having an incentive to issue as many fines as possible”, calling it “a double whammy of a really broad law plus officials who have an interest in punishing anyone they can”.
Nesil Caliskan, chairman of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “PSPOs and CPNs are one of a number of ways councils can tackle persistent anti-social behaviour problems raised by local communities, such as public drinking, racing in cars and intimidating behaviour, which can ruin people’s quality of life, harm businesses or mean people are scared to visit public places.
“PSPOs and CPNs will not be suitable or effective in all circumstances, and councils will consider other approaches which may better resolve the anti-social behaviour identified.
“As with other council services, PSPOs are subject to scrutiny by democratically elected councillors, and councils must consult with community representatives under the legislation, along with the police before implementing them.”
The Manifesto Club said it sent requests to all current 338 local authorities in England and Wales and received 290 replies.
It said 227 who replied, or 78% of councils, are using one or both of these powers, showing they have “become mainstream”.
The full report can be found on manifestoclub.info from Friday.