One resident of Newcastle-Under-Lyme was banned from crying in their own home if such crying 'can be heard within the adjoining address at any time on any day'. Tameside Council banned several people from 'shouting and swearing inside your property', and four councils issued notices banning people from feeding the birds in their garden. One person was ordered to cut their grass, while another was instructed to clean their windows.
These prohibitions were imposed with a little-known power: Community Protection Notices, or CPNs, contained within the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. These orders were introduced to replace Litter Clearing Notices, a specific power to deal with those whose land was 'defaced by litter'.
However, CPNs are much broader. They allow local authority officers to ban an individual from carrying out activities that the authority believes to have a 'detrimental effect on the quality of life' of those in the locality. It is a criminal offence to contravene a CPN, which can be punished by an on-spot fine of £100, or on prosecution, a fine of up to £2500 (for individuals) or £20,000 (for businesses).
The phrase 'detrimental effect' is incredibly broad, and (unlike terms such as 'nuisance' or 'distress') has never been tested or defined in court. In effect, this means that people can be criminalised because someone somewhere finds their activities not to their liking.
Manifesto Club research found that this new power is being used widely and wildly, imposing unprecedented restrictions on the conduct of particular individuals. Between October 2014 and October 2015, 107 councils imposed a total of 3,943 CPNs and 9,546 CPN warnings.
CPNs have also targeted people's actions in public places, with three councils imposing orders on busking, and 16 restricting the homeless with notices banning begging, rough sleeping, loitering or street drinking. The London Borough of Newham issued 189 CPN warnings and 96 CPNs for rough sleeping and street drinking. Such punitive measures cannot be the right approach for individuals who are homeless and whose actions are not actually causing public harm.
A Doncaster homeless man with mental health problems was issued a CPN banning him from sleeping in woods on hospital grounds (he said that he slept in the wood because it made him feel safe). The man was subsequently found in the woods and convicted of violating a CPN. He now has a criminal record.
Hackney Council issued one notice for 'erecting encampment and loitering', one for 'sleeping in bin stores', and another to a homeless person for 'screaming and shouting persistently' in public. Meanwhile, Barnet has issued CPNs for loitering, meaning that for these individuals it is a crime to stand still in a public space.
CPNs aren't restricted to the problems of inner cities. Maldon District Council issued a CPN banning free-roaming peacocks in the village of Mayland, Essex. In spite of local demonstrations and petitions in favour of the peacocks, the owner has had to rehouse the last of the birds in order to avoid committing an offence.
Of course, some of these CPNs would have been issued in cases of genuine public nuisance. But the trouble is that this blank-cheque power provides little means of distinguishing between justified and unjustified use. There is no requirement for proving the case in a court of law, with rights for the defence and standards of proof that must be met.
This abuse of power is not all councils' fault, however. Ultimately the responsibility lies with government for creating blanket powers with almost no restrictions on their use. State powers should not rely on the good sense and self-restraint of state officers for their reasonable use. Limits should be hard-wired into law. Powers should come with strict controls, guiding and delimiting their application.
The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act is not fit for purpose and urgently needs to be overhauled or scrapped.