PSPOS: Protecting Public Space from the Public

First published in sp!ked

The petty policing of public spaces is inhibiting community life.

A couple of weeks ago, Walthamstow town centre was apparently in the grip of a crisis. For four hours, following reports of a ‘huge riot’ involving 200 young people, this busy part of north-east London came to a standstill as police lined the streets. It wasn’t until later that the police released a statement admitting that ‘there has been no riot’ and that officers were only responding to ‘calls about a fight’, which meant that ‘several police resources [including riot vans] were deployed’. The teenagers ‘were not committing offences but their presence in such numbers would be alarming to members of the public’, the statement concluded. By this time, wobbly video footage of girls fighting (over a boy apparently) on pavements strewn with yanked-out hair extensions were doing the rounds on social media.

You might think this bizarre event was a one-off, that the police wouldn’t usually go into full riot mode because a handful of girls, egged on by their mates, were scrapping in the streets. But you’d be wrong. The powers granted under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 effectively allow local authorities to outlaw any activities they judge to have a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’. The scope of this law, and the summary justice it allows the authorities to exercise, is unprecedented. It allows the authorities to target particular individuals or entire populations in an area subject to a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). PSPOs usually focus on those deemed an ongoing ‘nuisance’, such as the homeless, who have been targeted by councils that have introduced orders for drinking alcohol in public, busking without prior approval or for simply sleeping rough. But now anything, from skateboarding to walking your dog, could be enough to leave you facing an on-the-spot fine of £100.

There is something perverse about protecting public spaces from the public – and therefore the public from each other. It deprives public space of its content and the public of spaces in which to meet. Our over-anxious, mistrustful culture has encouraged an accumulation of petty restrictions and protections, from PSPOs to vetting anybody who comes near a so-called vulnerable person. Local authorities claim to speak on behalf of citizens, but in reality they have little to no relationship with ordinary people, with the exception of those they deem vulnerable, a nuisance, or both.

When Hackney Council targeted the homeless for sleeping rough in hipster-hotspot Broadway Market, homeless charity Crisis attacked the council for demonising the homeless because ‘they may have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse’. Homeless Link also described rough sleepers as ‘extremely vulnerable’. After much criticism, the council backed down. But were campaigners right to be so emotive? In the debate about PSPOs, both sides play the vulnerability card. But this only serves to reinforce a state-endorsed fear of ourselves and each other – depriving us all of the opportunity to interact freely.

Some campaigners reserve particular criticism for ‘privately owned public spaces’ (POPS) – those shiny new additions to our neighbourhoods that have prompted the launch of some PSPOs. But these developments are often welcomed by residents for what they bring to otherwise run-down areas. The privatisation we should really be concerned about is that which isolates people from each other and inhibits community life.

Nothing great about the welfare state

In The Welfare of Nations, the decade-later follow-up to his The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew – former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – takes us on a tour of the world’s welfare states.

It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan. He argues that the welfare state undermines old values and ‘crowds out’ both our inner resourcefulness and our sense of duty to one another – including our own families. Instead of aspiring to be self-reliant, the welfare state makes us self-absorbed. People aren’t encouraged to exercise responsibility anymore; instead, they are handed a plethora of ‘rights’. Welfare states ‘have diminished our civilisation’, Bartholomew concludes.

The welfare state has always been a problematic entity, from its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s cynical ‘state socialism’– built as much to placate the increasingly politically active masses as to attend to their welfare – to the vast systems maintaining millions of economically inactive citizens across the world today. The welfare state, as its advocates contend, always promises a better society, with higher levels of equality, but, as Bartholomew counters, it also tends to foster unemployment, ‘broken families’ and social isolation.

Some versions of the welfare state are better than others. Wealthy Switzerland has a low unemployment rate despite generous social insurance-based benefits. But, at the same time, the Swiss state imposes tough conditions: there’s no minimum wage and workers can be fired on the spot. Sweden’s benefit system is generous, too, but if you can’t afford the rent on a property, you have to move out.

In the UK, matters are equally complex. For instance, shared-ownership schemes, ‘affordable housing’ and planning regulations contribute to distinctly unaffordable house prices. Indeed, housing costs have risen from 10 per cent of average UK household income in 1947 to over 25 per cent. For the poorest sections of society, it is worse still. This is despite the fact that the state subsidises dysfunctional, workless households on bleak public housing estates.

And what of state education? Nearly one-in-five children in OECD countries is functionally illiterate. The best performing advanced countries have autonomous schools, ‘high stakes’ exams, quality teachers and a culture of discipline and hard work. Compare that to the US, where you can’t get rid of bad unionised teachers in the state schools.

Bartholomew convincingly argues that state schools’ ‘shameful’ inadequacy, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, breeds inequality. He fears that the success of the free- and charter-school movement is at risk, too, from ‘creeping government control’. Bartholomew is upfront about his own old-fashioned conservative views. He’s a kind of evidence-based Peter Hitchens, using ‘bundles of academic studies’ to show what he suspected of the welfare state all along. The care of ‘strangers’, he argues, is bad for children and aged parents alike, and damages the social fabric. Over half of Swedish children are born to unmarried mothers, whereas the family in Italy, he says approvingly, is ‘the main source of welfare’, with charity-run ‘family houses’ (no flats or benefits) for single mothers. At a time when Conservatives aren’t really very conservative, it takes Bartholomew to ask important questions about social change.

Again, southern Europe offers a useful contrast to the situation in northern Europe. Over half of single people aged 65 or over in Italy, Portugal and Spain live with their children. Just three per cent of single Danes do. Should individual autonomy trump the burden of caring for children and family members? What role should the state play? UK social workers are office-based, writes Bartholomew, and contracted care workers follow ‘rules rather than doing things from an impulse of loving care’.

By 2050 over a third of the European population will be aged over 60. Even though the age at which people are eligible for pensions is increasing, state pensions can’t be sustained, says Bartholomew. In Poland, Greece and Italy, pensions account for more than a quarter of public spending. The UK spends nine per cent of its national income on healthcare, the US an insurance-fuelled 18 per cent, and Singapore just five per cent (though Singapore has to put twice that into ‘personal’ health-savings accounts). ‘Wealth leads to better healthcare’, says Bartholomew, but the monopolistic UK system, despite the NHS’s officially cherished status, is one of the worst of the advanced countries for health outcomes, including, for example, cancer-survival rates. ‘Obamacare’ notwithstanding, millions of uninsured Americans – neither poor enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare – struggle to pay for healthcare.

Democracies, says Bartholomew, are susceptible to the fantasy that welfare states can solve our problems without consequence or cost. This is despite US public spending increasing from seven per cent of GDP in 1900 to 41 per cent of GDP in 2011. In 2012, France revealed that public spending accounted for 57 per cent of its GDP.

But it’s Bartholomew’s critique of the wider welfare culture, rather than his carps at benefits systems, which provides an important corrective to what can be a narrow and mean-spirited discussion. He also offers practical solutions: let’s increase housing supply but abolish public housing; let’s have a system of ‘co-payment’ for healthcare between state and individual; let’s allow schools and hospitals to compete in markets; and let’s give individuals the opportunity to save and insure themselves to pay for social-care needs and pensions (albeit through Singapore-style compulsory bank accounts).

So what do we do with the welfare state? As Bartholomew puts it, the welfare state, rather than capitalism or communism, was ‘the ultimate victor of the turmoil of the twentieth century’. But Bartholomew makes clear that this is a hollow victory with many millions left idle and communities undermined. So yes, let’s cut the welfare state down to size and stop infantilising its dependants. But we also need to get more ambitious than Bartholomew allows. He thinks it’s too late to get our freedoms back and argues for a minimal ‘welfare’ state only. But why stop there? If the architects of the welfare state have anything to teach us, it is to be bolder in our visions.

First published in sp!ked

Letwin attacks ‘desperately patronising’ view of social care users

On Wednesday I was delighted to be present when Oliver Letwin rubbished the notion that many users of social care are ‘incapable of making decisions about their own lives’. The Minister of State for Policy was responding to a question from an audience member following his talk on the Open Public Services White Paper. It is ‘desperately patronising and utterly wrong’ to diminish people’s capacities in this way, he said. Not that I have found mention of this among the largely negative reaction to his proposals for reforming public services. Which is a shame because it is rare you hear such an uncompromising and impassioned defence of people’s personal freedoms.

You might not be surprised to hear that I’m sympathetic with what Letwin had to say. I wrote Social Care for Free Citizens for the civil liberties group, the Manifesto Club. I’m also a member of the Personalisation Group to Revolutionise Social Care, a loose collective of social care professionals who think more can be done to really put social care users in control of their own care, and ultimately of their own lives. And the policy makers, to be fair, seem to agree with us. The Department of Health has recently published a Consultation on proposed changes to regulations for Care Quality Commission registration. Included is the proposed removal of the requirement that only CQC-licensed home care may be purchased. The ‘financial costs and the additional bureaucracy’, DH say, ‘outweighs the assurance of safety provided by regulation’. In response, a self-appointed defender of ‘vulnerable’ adults has raised the prospect of ‘perpetrators who will be willing and able to do some caring if it gets them near vulnerable adults or children‘. The vast majority of social care users – mostly older people – have undiminished mental capacity and are more than capable, with a little support, of living independent and fulfilling lives. In a society with an exaggerated sense of the prevalence of abuse, and of the vulnerability of fully grown adults, statements like this can only contribute to a limiting of the choices open to people who use social care.

The spectre of abuse should not be allowed to deny adults their autonomy or to close down debate about improving social care. As the coalition’s Vision for social care says, ‘risk is no longer an excuse to limit people’s freedom’. Which is why I am also nervous about the implications of local authorities issuing smart cards. Instead of personal budgets taking the form of direct payments into people’s bank accounts, these cards restrict what the money can be spent on and allow the council to keep tabs on people’s spending. Unless there are well-founded concerns about a person’s mental capacity, why would anybody choose to diminish the choices they are allowed to make? There are changes that can be made for the better though. A good start would be for those of us in the world of social care not to call people ‘vulnerable’ just because they are receiving a service from us. Letwin was right in his criticism of the paternalistic impulse that deprives so many so-called vulnerable adults of their independence. But we need to go much further than that and look beyond the culture of public service provision. A misplaced tendency to regard people as incredibly vulnerable and lacking the capacity to run their own lives, is fuelled by a wider fearful and risk-averse culture that affects society as a whole. If the transformation of social care is to turn ‘vulnerable’ adults into just adults, then we’ll need to get to grips with this too.

From burqa bans to botoxed-up beauty pageants, young debaters impress

I spent Sunday at the National Final  of the schools Debating Matters competition. I was thoroughly engrossed in the intellectual to-and-fro ranging as it did on topics as diverse as wikileaks, smart drugs and burqa bans. With the possible exception of the latter discussion, these young debaters put the usual so-called grown-up fare to shame.

The burqa ban round was interesting for what it lacked … any mention of religion. Those for the ban argued (predictably enough) against this ‘symbol and facilitator of the oppression of women’, those against described the burkha as ‘an integral part of their identity’ and fundamental to the ‘freedom to make a statement about who you are’. While sartorial libertarianism was all the rage – as you might expect from fashion-conscious, uniform-wearing sixth-formers – only one student (from the audience) thought to mention God. But I suspect this shortcoming was more than a youthful oversight. The obsession with identity has taken the place of more substantive matters and to be fair we’re not in the midst of a religious war.

Ours is a world of conspicuous consumption. And a good thing too in my view. ‘The world’s second largest export is coffee’ said one young debater in a curious start to the smart drugs debate. What’s wrong with wanting to be smarter, better, faster? From nose jobs to perking up knackered long-haul lorry drivers, enhancements are a win-win, argued one side. The other resorted to dystopian visions of a Brave New World of grotesque botox-injected children at beauty pageants. This lost them the argument. Or so I thought. They actually won that round. Just goes to show how easy it is to go with the side of the argument you like, rather than with the arguers that make the best of the side they find themselves on. Try that at home!

Congratulations to St Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool, for taking first prize. I particularly liked their case against the motion: ‘Wikileaks is good for democracy’. Matthew Handley was critical of the notion that ‘leaking in and of itself is a good thing’, regarding it as both irresponsible and unaccountable. Rather, they argued, things could get ‘even murkier’ as the authorities look nervously over their shoulders, politicians cover their backs and the diplomats get wrong-footed by a leaked briefing here and an unwise dispatch there. ‘If everyone hears everything, no one says anything’ said Handley’s debating partner Daniel Keeley. Thankfully the students had plenty to say.

Eton for All!

That’s what Toby Young – founder (among many other things) of the West London Free School – has called for. So said Claire Fox, director of Institute of Ideas, and chair of last night’s Voices of Freedom debate on ‘Freedom, Education and the State’. All the panelists – including Young, Tom Clougherty (Adam Smith Institute), David Davis MP, Matt Grist (Demos) and Professor Terence Kealey (vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham) – agreed that ‘excellence for some’ was preferable to ‘mediocrity for all’. This, the strapline for the debate, was more than a little leading but it did bring us quickly to the degradation not only of education today, but of the debate about education too.

Young was scathing on the previous government’s defence of ‘parity of attainment’ above all else. Defenders of the status quo, he said, complain not that free schools will fail but rather the opposite. They might succeed and prove to be good schools, and consequently show up the failings of their neighbouring state schools. Grist was also critical of the ‘misplaced egalitarianism’ that has passed for education policy for so long. Arguably, for all the ‘free, open, diverse’ schools that Clougherty and the government champion, the coalition’s social mobility strategy (as I explain here) is similarly misplaced. Still, the man from Demos, argued for a more ‘expansive’ notion of education, one that encourages something that appeals to all that is  ‘aspiring, flourishing’ in our young people. Kealey rather split the panel with his defence of the Ivy League, but his grounds for doing so – the pursuit of excellence and their removal from the patronage of both state and ‘industry’ – were, again, sound.

Indeed, I found little to object to from any of the panelists. Except. I suppose it was Davis’s argument, on the one hand, that social mobility came to an end with the demise of the grammar school. And on the other, that Young’s free school experiment is the way to go. His co-panelists had all argued in their varying ways that its the ‘model’ or the ‘system’ that counts. Its who owns the school or university, how much independence it has, that determines what happens within. But this is a distraction.  I suggested it might be better to focus on the ethos of our schools and what a ‘good education’ might look like. While a good case can be made for freeing up the school system – and the more free schools there are the better as far as I am concerned – this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what’s gone wrong with education. Less still how we are going to address it.