By Josie Appleton
One resident of Newcastle-Under-Lyme was banned from crying in their own home if such crying 'can be heard within the adjoining address at any time on any day'. Tameside Council banned several people from 'shouting and swearing inside your property', and others from making audible noise from musical instruments, TVs, domestic appliances or power tools.
These prohibitions were imposed with a little-known power: Community Protection Notices, or CPNs, contained within the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. These orders were introduced to replace Litter Clearing Notices, a specific power to deal with those whose land was 'defaced by litter'.
However, CPNs are much broader. They allow local authority officers to ban an individual from carrying out activities that the authority believes to have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of all those in the locality. It is a criminal offence to contravene a CPN, which can be punished by an on-spot fine of £100, or on prosecution, a fine of up to £2500 (for individuals) or £20,000 (for businesses).
This amounts to a 'fill-in-the-blank' law: a council officer can decide that your activity has a detrimental effect and write an order telling you to stop. It is a crime to not obey.
Manifesto Club research - published today - found that this new power is being used widely and wildly, imposing unprecedented restrictions on the conduct of particular individuals. Between October 2014 and October 2015, 107 councils imposed a total of 3,943 CPNs and 9,546 CPN warnings. Four councils issued notices for feeding birds in gardens, five for making noises such as shouting/crying/arguing, and 18 for messy gardens.
This amounts to a severe incursion into the private life of the home, with councils now instructing people how they are to maintain their gardens or conduct relations with their neighbours. Rotherham Council imposed a notice ordering someone to 'clean the windows both internally and externally' and to 'hack back and prune all plants, shrubs, bushes and other vegetation to the front garden so as to ensure that it is in keeping with surrounding gardens'. Poole Council imposed a CPN ordering someone 'not to make derogatory remarks about your neighbours'.
Other orders were used to defend council policy. Tameside Council issued a CPN ordering a household not to overuse their black bin, meaning that it would be a criminal offence for that person to fail to recycle correctly. A man in East Lancashire was ordered to take down 'inflammatory' signs on his back gate that criticised a new housing development sanctioned by the council.
CPNs have also targeted people's actions in public places, with three councils imposing orders on busking, and 16 restricting the homeless with notices banning begging, rough sleeping, loitering or street drinking. The London Borough of Newham issued 189 CPN warnings and 96 CPNs for rough sleeping and street drinking. Such punitive measures cannot be the right approach for individuals who are homeless and whose actions are not actually causing public harm.
Councils often claim that CPNs are used as a 'last resort' and even are a form of 'support' of the homeless. But at the end of the day, a criminal injunction is just that, as those on the hard end of CPNs have discovered. A Doncaster homeless man with mental health problems was issued a CPN banning him from sleeping in woods on hospital grounds (which he did, he said, because it made him feel safe). The man was subsequently found in the woods and convicted of violating a CPN: he now has a criminal record. One homeless man was fined £2,330 for violating a series of CPNs by continuing to drink in public in Leighton Buzzard. His offence was not causing public nuisance or harm, but merely sitting on a bench and drinking alcohol.
Hackney Council issued one notice for 'erecting encampment and loitering', one for 'sleeping in bin stores', and another to a homeless person for 'screaming and shouting persistently' in public. Meanwhile, Barnet has issued CPNs for loitering, meaning that for these individuals it is a crime to stand still in a public space.
CPNs aren't restricted to the problems of inner cities. Maldon District Council issued a CPN banning free-roaming peacocks in the village of Mayland, Essex. In spite of local demonstrations and petitions in favour of the peacocks, the owner has two weeks to rehouse the last of the birds in order to avoid committing an offence and being fined.
Of course, some of these CPNs would have been issued in cases of genuine public nuisance. But the trouble is that this blank-cheque power provides little means of distinguishing between justified and unjustified use. There is no requirement for proving the case in a court of law, with a rights for defence and standards that must be met.
It's easy to blame councils, but ultimately the responsibility lies with government for creating blanket powers with almost no restrictions on their use. State powers should not rely on the good sense and self-restraint of state officers for their reasonable application. Limits should be hard-wired into law. Powers should come with strict controls, guiding and delimiting their application.
The truth is that the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act is not fit for purpose and urgently needs to be overhauled or scrapped. Right now, it presents a blight on the rights of home-owners and the homeless alike.
Josie Appleton is director of the Manifesto Club and author of Officious - Rise of the Busybody State (published in December by Zero Books).
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.