17 June 2015
Fining people for being homeless. It’s the kind of idea that your uncle suggests at Christmas after 15 pints and a lifetime reading the Daily Express. An idea so illogical that, when you think about it long enough, it starts to acquire a kind of subtle brilliance in its stupidity. It’s the kind of idea to be filed alongside ideas like arming schoolchildren to stop bullying. Or blowing up the planet to tackle climate change. It is, categorically, not an idea that should ever become public policy.
Most people arrive at this conclusion after roughly 30 seconds. It took Hackney Council more than two months. In April this year the authority introduced a Public Space Protection Order, allowing council and police officers to issue on-the-spot fines for activities including rough sleeping, begging and loitering. Anyone who couldn’t pay would face a court appearance, possibly even prison. The policy went unnoticed for around a month, largely because it was introduced without any public consultation. Then it was picked up by the local press, and everything kicked off.
80,000 people signed a petition calling for the order to be scrapped. Condemnation flooded in from local and national charities, campaigners and pop stars. News stories appeared everywhere from the Morning Star to the Metro. Last week, the council tried to stop the backlash by announcing that rough sleeping would no longer be included as an offence. This week, it announced the order had been scrapped altogether – presumably because various people pointed out that things like loitering are also kind of hard to avoid when you’ve got nowhere to go.
Great news, but so many questions to be answered. How did this happen in the first place? How does a local authority wield the power to slip through such a fundamental change in the law? How did it nearly go unnoticed? Exactly how fucked is society when a council re-legalising homelessness feels like a victory?
Deputy mayor Sophie Linden initially sought to defend the council’s actions by claiming that, “Of course there is no point fining people who can’t pay, and we will not seek to do this,” suggesting that the Public Space Protection Order was like the nuclear deterrent of housing policy – never to be actually used – rather than a mean spirited attempt to brush a difficult problem under the carpet. Announcing that the policy had been scrapped, Linden assured residents, “We recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, and will of course consult on any future plans.” Let’s translate that: “Yes, we got caught sneaking this through.”
Is this meant to be reassuring? Democracy is supposed to rely on a system of checks and balances, not vague promises from politicians that they’re not really planning on using the draconian policies they’ve introduced by the back door. Maybe Hackney Council thought consultation wasn’t necessary. After all, they have a mandate from the borough’s electorate. But Hackney’s been under Labour control for 14 years – no other party has held an overall majority since 1971. Essentially, it’s a one-party system. Which makes it all the more worrying when councillors decide they can go around changing the law without even asking.
This was a policy slipped through with an oxymoronic title that suggested space was being protected for the public, rather than from it, in a move presumably inspired by the school of political thought which saw the bedroom tax rebranded as the “spare room subsidy”. That was bollocks, and so was this. In the face of initial criticism, the councilblamed the standard of media coverage, rather than questioning the standard of the policy. It was only a public backlash of a scale that couldn’t be ignored which forced the council to perform a U-turn. What else might slip by unnoticed?
Heather Kennedy is a member of Digs, a Hackney-based housing campaign group which fought against the council’s policy. “This is a victory for people power and shows what we can achieve when we organise and take action,” she said. “This should send an unequivocal message to the council and developers that the people of Hackney won’t stand by whilst victims of the housing crisis are conveniently sanitised from public view. Hackney is for everyone, not just the affluent few.”
She’s right. What’s happened in Hackney shows how important it is to fight for the kind of society we want. Or, at the very least, to call out the politicians who fail to do that for us.