No place for the young: the towns where childhood is being criminalised

Across England, local councils are banning young people from public space.

Josie Appleton
20 July 2015

As the summer holidays begin, young people could find their activities in public spaces being restricted by a series of new council laws.

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) – which give councils powers to ban activities which have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ – are increasingly being used to target youth activities such as skateboarding, swimming, or even gathering in groups.

Each PSPO creates new criminal offences, which can be punished by an on-the-spot fine of up to £100, or a fine upon conviction of up to £1000. This means that in several areas young people can now be fined or prosecuted for the offence of standing in a group, using a remote control car, or skateboarding - and gain a criminal record as a result.

The prohibitions upon standing in groups are perhaps the most shocking, since in these cases it is the sheer presence of a young person in the defined public space which being made a criminal offence. A recent Manifesto Club briefing highlighted the councils who have brought such measures through, which include:

- Oxford Council created an order prohibiting people under the age of 21 from entering a tower block, unless they are legally resident in the block or visiting a legal resident.

- Bassetlaw District Council created a PSPO covering an area in Worksop, which prohibits 'under 16-year olds (who are not under the effective control of a parent or are responsible person aged 18 or over) gathering in groups of three or more'. (see the council's outline of the PSPO).

- Hillingdon Council has passed two orders targeted at young people gathering in particular areas ('Hayes town centre' and 'Cedars and Grainges'). Both PSPOs prohibit 'gathering in groups of two or more persons unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop'.

- Dudley Council is planning a PSPO covering a particular carpark, which would prohibit under 18s from entering the car park unless driving a road legal vehicle or accompanying a responsible adult.

- Kettering Borough Council is proposing an order prohibiting 'unsupervised juveniles' in the town 'after 11pm and before 6pm'.
No doubt there are problems in many of these areas, but the solution in every case is the same: merely pushing young people out of public spaces, whether or not they are doing anything wrong. These laws do not target actual misdemeanour – after all, there are already laws against that. Nor are officials or other adults engaging with young people, whether that is telling them off or looking out for them.

Instead, these PSPOs are criminalising the mere presence of under-18s or under-21s, who can henceforth gain a criminal record for something like ‘standing in a public space while not waiting at a designated bus stop’. This is not so much law enforcement as more like pest control, pushing young people from public spaces by any means available.

This, then, is a form of criminalisation of young people which is also a withdrawal from engagement. The authorities are not punishing or disciplining specific wrongdoing; nor are they seeking to help young people, providing football pitches, youth centres or so on.
Instead, these PSPOs abolish all distinction between good and bad behaviour, punishing the law-abiding and innocent along with the rest. This cannot be a good education in criminal justice, or a means to win young people’s respect for public authorities.

As Penelope Gibbs, Chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: ‘these proposed PSPOs criminalise everyday childhood behaviours and create totally unfair restrictions on law-abiding children. Wide-ranging new laws that criminalise all children, regardless of their behaviour, is not the answer. Blanket bans on children gathering together or being out of the house at certain times, are illiberal, unfair, and breach children's rights.’ She also makes the point that entering the criminal justice system at an early age can have ‘really negative effects’, and is an outcome to be avoided if at all possible.

There is also a second series of PSPOs targeting youth activities, making it a criminal offence to skateboard or swim in particular areas. These new laws include:

- Hillingdon Council has passed one order prohibiting 'using skateboards, pedal cycles, roller skates, roller blades', and another banning the use of noisy remote controlled vehicles and aircraft in the borough’s parks and public spaces.

Salford City Council is proposing a PSPO banning 'unauthorised water activities in any of the quays, basins or canal' and 'jumping off any bridges'. This is targeted at the young people who go swimming or jump into the quays in the summer months.

Bournemouth Borough Council is seeking to introduce an order banning skateboarding in the central square. The council says that the 'associated clattering and banging' of skateboarding is 'not acceptable'.

- Kettering Borough Council is proposing to restrict the use of ‘skateboarding, bikes and scooters' in the areas including the central market place.

Here, councils are targeting some of the more wholesome things teenagers could be doing with their time. In purely educational or pragmatic terms, these activities are surely good things. After all, working at skateboarding jumps or mastering a model car are things that require diligence and concentration, a certain training of themselves, which means they would not be kicking around tempted to cause trouble.

More importantly, however, young people playing has always been part of the life and vitality of urban public spaces. Those skateboarders may annoy council officers with their ‘associated clattering and banging’, but they will also have a crowd of watchers and admirers. They are part of the background to life in a square – a life which is not related to official control, or shopping, but to spontaneous activities, to people using public spaces to do things with others.

Urbanists have long highlighted young people playing as one of the keys to genuinely civil and communal public spaces. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the urbanist Jane Jacobs said that the key thing for a good neighbourhood was for the sidewalks to be wide enough for children to play ball. If kids played in public, there would be other adults around to step in to resolve arguments, help them, or discipline misdemeanour. Jacobs argued that playing in public helped to teach children how to behave in public, when alone, which is different to behaving well under direct control of parents or professionals.

Skateboarding, then, is not a nuisance, but part of community life. As Stuart Waiton, sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, said: ‘If we want real communities to flourish we need to step back and encourage young people to enjoy being out with their friends and encourage adults to deal with young people when they get out of hand. These laws are a nonsense that can only limit further the lives of young people and adults alike.’

Such is the current hostility towards teenage sociability that the full force of the law is mustered to remove them: to make them put down their skateboards, get out the water, to just go away. This could mean an £1000 fine for using a remote control car, or £100 on-spot fine for standing in a group. How is this proportionate or just?

Officials are severely deluded if they think that these measures will solve any problems they are having with youth misdemeanour. Instead, they will push young people further away, to more out-of-the-way spaces, and further diminish the role of adult socialisation and discipline. They will also leave our public spaces poorer, quieter, and duller.

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