An attempt by Conservative politicians to push through proposals to fine homeless people for sleeping in doorways in three coastal towns in Dorset has been rejected after an outcry from people across the UK.
The Tory councillors in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are arguing that a tough regime is needed to ease residents’ concerns and help boost the area’s economy, reports The Guardian. But on Wednesday the cabinet of the local authority, BCP council, which is controlled by an alliance of other parties and independent councillors, strongly criticised the idea.
The council’s leader, Vikki Slade, a Liberal Democrat, said she had been contacted by people from across the country who had asked her not to follow the Tory plan. A petition signed by more than 6,000 people – many of them from outside Dorset – was also delivered. Slade said she had now asked council officers to look at whether lockers could be provided for rough sleepers to store bedding in during the day and to examine how other areas have tackled “professional” beggars. Slade said: “What we are trying to do is treat people as humans and not as vermin, which is the way we have been perceived.”
The row centres on a plan for a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) taking in the three towns. Earlier this year BCP officers carried out a public consultation and put forward a proposal to ban behaviour such as drinking alcohol in public while acting in an antisocial manner and causing harassment, alarm or distress. At a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny board last month, Tory councillors claimed the measures did not go far enough. They argued that begging, loitering in a public place, causing an obstruction in shop doorways or car parks and leaving personal belongings such as bedding or bags unattended should also be included.
Six Tory councillors and one independent backed the idea of the stricter regime and put it forward to the cabinet. At Wednesday’s meeting, Tories insisted the regime they proposed would give enforcement officers the chance to engage and help homeless people, and that fines or prosecutions were only a last resort. The Tory chair of the overview and scrutiny board, Philip Broadhead, said the idea was to tackle antisocial behaviour. “Nobody wants to target homeless people or rough sleepers,” he said. Broadhead argued that a scheme similar to the one the Tories had backed for the three towns had worked in Poole. “It would be silly to water down the enforcement abilities,” he said.
Kieron Wilson, an independent councillor, said the Tory measures discriminated against some of the most vulnerable in the area and made very little sense. He said: “Fining those who have nothing is not only extremely harsh, it is a distraction from solving the actual problems we as a conurbation and a country face. We are in a crisis that needs solving with social housing. With some of our more vulnerable residents we need patience and persistence. Unacceptable behaviour should be punished but being without a home should not.”
David Brown, a Lib Dem, told the meeting that when the Tories were in control in Bournemouth, they had bagpipe music piped in at the station and introduced bars on benches to deter rough sleepers. He said: “Those were obnoxious steps to take. They targeted homeless people and damaged the reputation of Bournemouth.”
The cabinet voted unanimously against the Tories’ PSPO proposals and asked officers to launch a consultation on the more limited measures they had originally proposed. Lara ten Caten, a lawyer with the human rights group Liberty, said: “We need this to mark the end of cruel and misguided parts of a PSPO intended to criminalise people simply because they’re poor. If you are rough sleeping or begging, you should be able to turn to your council for help and support – something clearly supported by residents.”