"It is surprising how much can be learned about the past life of towns by reading its handbills and posters", reflects Frederick C Moffatt, introducing a collection of nineteenth-century memorabilia from two Northumberland towns. The whole spectrum of social life is captured here, including: appeals for "a number (not exceeding 50) of steam vessels"; adverts for "ladies hats" and "the 20th century cycle lamp"; local events such as a play at the Turk’s Head Inn, "followed by a comic song"; petitions, resolutions, election manifestos, calls for meetings with the mayor.
A collection of handbills and posters from today would reveal a lot less. A new Manifesto Club report[i] shows how over the past five years, local authorities across the UK have exerted an increasing control of public leafleting, such that it has become difficult if not impossible in many town and city centres. Various laws are used for the restriction of leafleting, the most significant of which is the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which allows local authorities to designate areas within which people need a license to "distribute free literature".
These licences can be extremely costly indeed, with Basildon charging £50 an hour for a Saturday and Wolverhampton charging £262 per distributor – and so are out of reach for smaller organisations such as arts clubs, fairs and many local businesses.
Some 27% of local authorities have restricted leafleting so far, and others are following suit. This is not about a practical litter problem: leaflets cause no more mess than burger wrappers or crisp packets, which are not subject to a licensing system. It is notable that areas without significant leafleting or litter issues are also bringing in no tolerance rules.
We also found a parallel crackdown on community posters, and the authors of coffee morning and lost cat posters alike have received threatening calls and fines from local authority officers. Councils started cracking down on community posters from the mid-2000s onwards, under the auspices of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act and the 1980 Highways Act.
The issue seems not to be new legal powers but an official turn against civic posters, which are held responsible for social evils including ‘urban decay’ and ‘fear of crime’. Canterbury City Council claims that "flyposting … helps give the impression of urban decay",[ii] and it cites posters by schools, charities and community groups as equally culpable of causing crime and fear of crime. All of these groups will receive on the spot fines on their ‘second offence’ of putting up a poster. When a school fête advert is seen as contributing to a ‘spiral of crime’, this suggests that everyday social life itself has become latently criminal.
At base, the crackdown on leafleting and small-scale posters seems to be driven by an official disapproval of any spontaneous and unauthorised activities. Home-made posters or flyers are looked upon with disdain and seen as ‘messy’, simply because they are not authorised or run through pre-established advertising channels.
The result is to stifle the events that are put together by people themselves. These laws favour a public space that is dominated by those businesses that can pay the licence fee or rent the hoarding, as well as official messages from councils themselves, which grow in direct proportion to the restriction of the public’s free speech.
Perversely, this suppression of local activities and economic life comes at a time when the government is concerned to stimulate both the ‘Big Society’ and economic recovery. Nor does the crackdown on posters and leaflets make sense for cash-strapped local authorities: complicated licence systems and no tolerance policing require a significant investment of time and resources. We found that council officers go to truly extraordinary lengths to punish the authors of "give blood" notices or charity bike ride signposts.
Although the repression of leaflets and posters has been rapid and thorough, there is a growing civic resistance and a new libertarian consciousness among those affected. The owner of a jazz club in Newcastle took the council to court three times, claiming that it was his "fundamental liberty" to hand out leaflets to members of the public. West End Comedy clubs have launched a protest petition against Westminster Council’s flyering ban in Leicester Square.[iii] Brighton club and music promoters are up in arms about the council’s leafleting rules, and Leicester Comedy Festival has challenged the costly licence fees that make the fringe event all but impossible.
Our report, "Leafleting: A Liberty Lost?"[iv], charts the growing regulation of leafleting, showing how a key civil liberty has been called into question in a few short years. The report is also offered in support of these present-day leafleting rebels, and their claim to liberty that stands in a long line of rebellious British men and women.