Cheshire West and Chester Council have decided that it would be a good idea to deal with homelessness not by providing shelter for the vulnerable but by making it a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1000 to ‘lie down or sleep in any public place’.
In a wide-ranging proposal to tackle ‘antisocial behaviour’ in the city using controversial new Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) powers they are also planning to criminalise buskers who haven’t passed a ‘quality assessment’ first though the private business group CH1 BID company. This proposal turns council officials into civic Simon Cowells with a nasty twist, the power to give musicians a criminal record for singing songs on the streets. It is attack on the spontaneity and informality which is part of what makes busking such an integral part of Chester’s cultural heritage. Ludicrously, the proposed PSPO would also make it a criminal offence to ‘feed any bird’ in the defined area.
When Oxford City Council introduced similar proposals over 72,000 people signed a petition asking them to think again and Liberty issued a legal challenge calling on them to abandon their unlawful attempts to criminalise homeless people and buskers.
As Rosie Brighouse, Legal Officer for Liberty rightly pointed out in that challenge:
“If somebody is forced to beg or sleep in a public toilet, that’s not antisocial behaviour – it’s poverty. Oxford City Council should focus on finding ways to help the most vulnerable people in their city, not slapping them with a criminal record and a fine they can’t possibly afford to pay.
One of the architects of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s proposals, Chief Inspector Jez Taylor, a partnership officer with Cheshire Police, has justified them in the following terms:
“Chester is one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in the United Kingdom. Its Roman heritage and many assets including the cathedral, the walls, the racecourse, the zoo and the river…a PSPO will…improve the image of the city centre’
But this approach to policy making privileges the appearance of Chetser and surrounding areas over its’ citizens’ wellbeing, and risks treating rough sleepers, the vulnerable and even buskers as a problem to be dealt with, as an inconvenience, as a threat, rather than as individual human beings.
The Keep Streets Live Campaign is a not for profit organisation which advocates for public spaces which are open to informal offerings of art and music. We have successfully overturned policies which criminalised buskers in Liverpool and York where we now work with the councils to design best practise policies for street culture alongside groups like the Musician’s Union.
We are calling on Cheshire West and Chester Council to abandon their plan to criminalise rough sleeping, begging and busking. The council and police have strong existing powers to deal with the small minority of people who cause genuine antisocial behaviour, they have no need for the proposed sweeping and arbitrary measures. We have seen public pressure prevent similar measures being adopted in Oxford, Westminster and Hackney and know that public pressure can stop this from happening in Chester too. Please take a moment to sign and share this petition to stop Cheshire West and Chester Council from making homelessness harder than it already is.