Leaflets have long lain at the heart of local democracy. Pamphleteers were gadflies on the body of the establishment, scattering their criticisms of Lord, Church or King around the streets of London by night. The end of licensed printing - which had meant a de facto state veto on all publications - came in England in 1695, a century or more before many continental states.
This great liberal tradition is now under threat, not now from King or Church, but from the unexpected quarter of local authority environmental officials. Over three centuries after the end of licensed printing, there is now licensed leafleting, meaning that people cannot hand out leaflets without official permission.
In many British towns and cities, handing out leaflets is no longer a matter of printing and picking a spot on the high street. Instead you must apply at least two weeks beforehand for a ‘leafleting distribution licence’, which can cost up to £50 a day. Nor can you drag along your mates: each ‘leaflet distributor’ must be registered, often having to provide national insurance numbers, names and addresses, and wear an official badge (which can cost extra).
These strictures are not such a problem for big promoters, who subcontract to specialised distributors, but they prove disastrous for grassroots and small-scale events. Leicester Comedy Festival has been struggling against the City council’s leafleting regulations since 2008: licenses are unaffordable and impractical for a fringe festival of up-and-coming acts trying to win an audience for themselves. Although the City Council gave into pressure and let the comedy festival off leafleting licence fees, it is still insisting that the festival pays £25 for each distributor badge, which for 200 promoters means a costly £5000. The event is due to open on 4 February; when I spoke to the festival director a few days ago he was still ‘arguing the toss’ with council officials.
A Westminster Council flyering ban in Leicester Square created similar difficulties for the West End’s vibrant network of comedy clubs. A protest petition by comedians reported that the ban had caused the closure of three comedy nights already, and that flyering is a ‘life and death issue for small clubs that are just starting up’. Stars are born in these small clubs. Big-name acts have promoters and an established audience, but they all started out in the room above a pub, before passersby clutching their flyers.
Other groups that have fallen foul of the new laws include travelling circuses in Newquay, jazz clubs in Newcastle, theatres and nightclubs in Brighton (who have also set up a protest petition). Even the venerable ladies of the Women’s Institute have been affected. Group members from Sawbridgeworth were stopped by East Hertfordshire council wardens from handing out leaflets for a charity fundraiser art exhibition. ‘We were shocked, surprised and very upset’, said the group’s president, ‘we had no idea handing a flyer to someone could be illegal.’
These new leafleting regulations spring from the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which (in the legal jargon) gives local authorities powers to ‘designate land’ on which a person must seek ‘consent of the principle litter authority’ before distributing ‘any free printed matter’. The ‘principle litter authority’ (ie, local authority) has the power to charge fees, seize leaflets, and issue on-the-spot fines to any unlicensed leafleters.
In theory, political and religious groups are exempt from these particular rules, but they have been restricted in other ways, as the official intolerance of leafleting closes like a pincer movement. Several local councils now require political and religious groups to register before they can leaflet, and then only allow them to leaflet in particular places at particular times.
Swindon Borough Council wrongly told local political groups – including anti-war and animal rights activists – that they fell under the remit of the 2005 Act and would need a licence to leaflet. Southampton City Council has prohibited all leaflets aside from political parties at election time.
Other local authorities have used on-the-spot-fines against political leaflets, finding their authors guilty of that all-encompassing crime of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress’. Since on-the-spot fines are not tested in court, this criminal offence remains undefined and seems to mean anything that a particular official takes a dislike to.
People fined for leaflets causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress’ include a 68-year-old campaigner against CCTV cameras in Devon; climate change activists; anarchists and animal rights activists in Liverpool; and young members of the Jewish organisation, Jewdas, who were landed in police cells for a night after handing out satirical leaflets in Leicester Square.
Local authorities seem to view leafleters, political campaigners or street sellers as messy and unsightly, ‘bringing the area down’. The public spaces sought by policy documents are clean, regenerated commercial spaces, done up for tourists and shoppers, not really spaces that people use to organise things. The ‘image’ of the area is the prime concern. It was such a mentality that drove Westminster Council and businesses to seek to bar street traders from the West End. As a spokesperson put it: ‘It is our aim to bring Oxford Street…up to the standards of the Champs-Élysées or Milan….The street sellers do not look right in the area…. Don't forget, we've got 15,000 media arriving in 2012 to cover the Olympics and we need it to look its best.’
Of course, leafleting can cause rubbish in town and city centres, but these blanket controls miss the target. Indeed, the bigger commercial firms who are responsible for indiscriminate leafleting are also the ones who can afford the leafleting licence fees. The WI and small comedy clubs are not the problem, but they bear the brunt of these rules. Brighton campaigners sensibly proposed a ‘self regulated solution [to litter], Brighton clubs, workers and flyer staff helping to solve the problem together’. They invoke a positive civic responsibility over negative threats and fines.
Even in the age of Facebook, leafleting remains a key civic freedom: this is hand-to-hand, face-to-face communication between citizens, whether for a political campaign or a local art exhibition. Leaflets don’t just cause mess; they also bring towns and cities to life, and give a feeling of hubbub, of things going on.
The idea that leafleting should be a paid for, badged activity, booked weeks in advance, is so inimical to Common Law liberties that it would have the old English pamphleteers turning in their graves. The Manifesto Club’s new Campaign Against Leafleting Bans is launched in the spirit of these irreverent, irrepressible Englishmen and women. Our aim is to rescue the principles that once made British streets among the freest in Europe, principles that have been summarily binned by a new generation of unthinking officials.