Oxford City Council is considering banning rough sleeping under a new Public Spaces Protection Order, a move which has been challenged by local activists and university groups.
Plans currently in consultation by Oxford City Council propose banning actions including rough sleeping, public drinking, pigeon feeding, non-compliant busking and persistent begging in Oxford City centre. The area affected encompasses central Oxford, including Christ Church Meadows, University Parks and Jericho.
During a debate aired by BBC Radio Oxford on Sunday, Oxford City Councillor Dee Sinclair said that the measures were being considered in order to make Oxford a “world class city”, by removing behaviours which made some feel “uncomfortable”.
An online petition has been launched to protest the proposed changes, hosted by OUSU’s homelessness campaign On Your Doorstep. This petition has been signed by over 330 individuals, including numerous students, at the time of publication.
Freya Turner, chair of On Your Doorstep, told The Oxford Student: “This seems to us to be an unacceptable cover up of the huge housing and homelessness crisis that Oxford faces. By shifting some of Oxford’s most vulnerable citizens out of the centre and out of the public gaze, the PSPO would gloss over the longer term issues, and discriminates against Oxford’s rough sleepers by not treating them as legitimate members of society…”
“We feel that the situation surrounding rough sleeping in Oxford is far more complex than this sweeping, criminalising measure acknowledges, and that such a ban will only have detrimental effects on the position of the homeless in society.”
Oli Dinwoodie, one of the petition’s signatories, also criticised the proposed measures: “Sleeping rough is one of the hardest tasks that any person would have to undergo. Oxford’s rough sleepers are not there by choice and our local council should be providing support rather than making life harder.”
The last official count of rough sleepers in Oxford (carried out November 2014) identified 26 individuals sleeping rough. On Your Doorstep further claims that Oxford “consistently has the second or third highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country”, with “around 50 to 100 individuals sleeping in shelters each night”.
Opposition to these changes also comes from wider sources. Josie Appleton, director the Manifesto Club, described the proposed new powers as “so broad that they allow councils to ban pretty much anything. The result is a patchwork of criminal law, where something is illegal in one town but not in the next, or in one street but not the next. This makes it hard for the public to know what is criminal and what is not.”
Appleton continued: “These orders will turn town and city centres into no-go zones for homeless people, buskers, old ladies feeding pigeons, or anyone else whom the council views as “messy”. It is astonishing that in the 21st century you could be punished for the crime of selling a lucky charm, ‘loitering’, or failing to leave a retail park within 20 minutes. This looks like a return to the meddling and moralism of nineteenth-century bylaws.”
The PSPO changes are still in the consultation stage, which runs until the 31st March. An online form for residents to give their opinions on the issues under consideration is accessible from the Council’s website.
However, this consultation form has been labelled “inadequate” by OYD.
In its current form, the consultation allows answers in a yes/no/don’t know format with regards to issues including “persistent begging” and “sleeping in public places”. The online form gives a space for individuals to make a comment of up to 200 words on certain concerns (such as “non-compliant busking”), but this is not available for those parts of the form concerned with rough sleeping and other actions associated with homelessness.
It is not known exactly when these new regulations will come into action, if at all. Oxford City Council has already issued the first PSPO in the county of Oxfordshire, preventing young people under the age of 21, who are not legal residents, from entering Forester tower block unless visiting a resident. This Order was signed in February, following new powers granted to local councils in 2014.
At the time of publication, Oxford City Council had not responded to our request for comment.