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May the pamphleteers return!

Laws which ban leafleting in city centres are destroying performance arts and an age old British tradition.

Leafleting has long been a defining part of British public culture, the primary way in which people advertised their lecture, event or exhibition. A sample of Leicester Square handbills from the nineteenth century includes clairvoyants giving their ‘outstanding revelations’ at three and eight o’clock, a demonstration of ‘Negro life in America’, a ‘Mechanical theatre’ (‘the greatest novelty ever exhibited in London’), and an anatomical and ethnological museum (‘gentlemen only’).

This long-standing practice has been all but eclipsed in the space of a few short years. The 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act allowed councils to create zones within which people must buy a licence to hand out leaflets. These zones now cover at least a quarter of all local authority areas in the UK, including the primary metropolitan centres and many towns.

Political, religious and charitable causes are except, but the restrictions have proven devastating for smaller arts and community groups, including student societies, music and theatre associations and community groups. These groups rely on leafleting to get the word out, but cannot afford the exorbitant fees charged for leafleting licences (£350 for a Saturday or Sunday in Basildon; £50 per day in Oldham and Brent, £200 per distributor per month in Oxford).

Where they have been introduced, leafleting restrictions have an immediately observable effect on small-scale events. A flyer ban in Leicester Square, London, caused the collapse of several small comedy nights and the reduction of regular audiences from 75 to 25. A Newcastle Jazz Club owner said that leafleting restrictions reduced his audiences by 50%.

At a broader level, leafleting licences have had a significant effect on the music and arts scenes in key British cities, reducing the grassroots scene and limiting opportunities for emerging artists to win themselves an audience. There has been a reduction of the music and experimental club scene in cities including Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Brighton, and upon the fringe comedy scene in Brighton and Leicester.

The Manifesto Club has joined with others – including Lord Clement Jones and the Live Music Exchange – to seek to reform this restrictive law. We set up a petition and campaign, and Lord Clement Jones introduced a private members’ bill to provide exemption where leafleting distribution is ‘for the purposes of an event which consists wholly or mainly of live entertainment and takes place in the presence of an audience of no more than 600 persons’. The Cultural and Community Distribution Deregulation Bill received a very sympathetic hearing in the House of Lords. The Bill was opposed by government, but Defra (the department responsible for the legislation) has recognised the problem and has agreed to draw up new guidance, limiting the application of leafleting licence powers. Defra is currently calling for evidence from those affected by leafleting restrictions, saying: ‘We value the contribution made to communities by small scale live entertainment and events, and do not want people to be put off organising them because of unnecessary bureaucracy. We are keen that any revision to the current guidance encourages a proportionate approach’.

May the pamphleteers return!

About the author

Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club, a campaign group for freedom in everyday life.


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