This week the Conservative-led Canterbury City Council opened its consultation on a newly proposed public spaces protection order (PSPO) that threatens to substantially limit people’s use of the beach. When I say beach, I mean the area from West Beach in Whitstable to the King’s Hall in Herne Bay. The new laws will see £100 fines for a range number of new offences, including being in possession of glass bottles on the beach, using disposable barbecues, and childhood staples such as crabbing, skimming stones and taking rocks home to paint. So should we be worried?
Firstly, I have to admit I’m no fans of PSPOs. While my postbag is often full of messages from people concerned about the behaviour of others on the beach, I believe that the shift toward outlawing potentially harmful activity rather than going after people who have actually caused harm is a worrying trend. Blanket bans do nothing but encourage local councillors to be moral arbiters of locals’ quality of life: effectively deeming who is worthy, and who not worthy, to inhabit public spaces. They see us impose bans on behaviours that have been seemingly harmless for generations. Furthermore, I have always argued that these orders disproportionately criminalise the young and poor who don’t have access to private outside space.
PSPOs were introduced years ago to deal with the fact that crime was dropping and yet fear of crime on the rise. I believe these orders only do more to make victims feel that their concerns are being listened to rather than actually reduce the occurrence of crime. They are great for councillors who want to shout from their next leaflet next to a scowling hard-man photo opportunity: “Look, we did something. We took back control.” In reality, the only people who seem to benefit from PSPOs are the private companies that enforce them and pocket the fines they issue.
In a heated discussion at last week’s community committee, I implored the council to revise its proposals rather than launch them for consultation, not because I disagree with all of the proposed plans — there are one or two sensible suggestions — but I opposed going to consultation because, in its current form, these proposals are a dog’s dinner.
On short inspection, I highlighted that the council had not considered how the ban on mechanised vehicles (now extended to the mid-tideline) would affect the tractor used to launch the RNLI boat or local businesses who use quad bikes to service the oyster beds; they had not consider whether local bars that serve on the beach would now be expected to decant bottles of wine into plastic jugs for their sale and whether the ban on open fires extended to placing candles in grotters during the Oyster Festival and the lighting of Jubilee beacons on the Tankerton Slopes. In the current form of the proposals, all these things would be banned.
I highlighted the inconsistency that the new proposals now prevent tomb-stoning off the West Quay but not at the breakwater outside of West Cliff. I also highlighted that sea angling may also be at risk because legally it doesn’t require a licence in the way currently listed in the consultation. The sea-angling community are furious. Rightly so.
In response, the council did rephrase one of the proposed clauses to make it clear that crabbing wouldn’t be outlawed as interfering with wildlife, but Cllr Joe Howes, chair of the committee, admitted he’d ban it if he could. What about oysters?
Under questioning, the council was unable to explain whether a resident who has spent over £80k on a beach hut on East Quay would be breaking the law it they sat on the veranda of their beach hut drinking from a glass bottle and whether laws designed to prevent large amounts of aggregate being taken off the beach also extended to kids taking a stone as a memento of their visit. During the pandemic the community came together to paint a huge line of stones, stretching almost a kilometre along the promenade. Taking those stones home to paint and bring joy to others could now cost little Johnny £100. I hope his pocket money stretches that far.
Embarrassingly, they hid behind the argument that the council would never outlaw something it condoned such as the lighting of beacons, without explaining if it even had the legal right to permit things such as the use of Whistable Oyster Fishery Company quad bikes on a beach the company owns. The law probably doesn’t stretch that far: someone hasn’t done their homework.
Now, this is not the first PSPO we have seen our beach. But in contrast to previous iterations where we have had little confidence the council won’t enforce, the council now has a new private contractor on board: Kingdom LA Solutions will be tasked with enforcing these new laws and will receive 60 per cent of all the money raised by tickets it issues. This company has been reengaged by the council despite losing its contract in 2015 for employing tactics that deliberately focused on profit maximisation. If its previous performance is anything to go by, they’ll be tracking people who buy those crabbing buckets on the High Street and then pouncing out from behind a groyne the moment a family swings into action on the shoreline.
In engaging Kingdom, the council is actively moving away from an approach that encourages people to be warned first and learn from their actions. It seems hellbent on enforcing laws, whilst ignoring the fact that they aren’t consistently enforced and as such lack legitimacy in the public eye. Laws, if they are drawn up, should be enforced at 3am as much as they are at 3pm but Cllr Ashley Clark admits that this won’t be done.
Now, many of the concerns in the PSPO are real. We do see nails left on the beach after pallets are burnt after dark, we do see people report cuts to their feet because of broken glass; but ask yourself: will the PSPO stop this behaviour or just criminalise people who generally try to do the right thing? On previous attempts the council has rejected specifying that it should be a crime to smash glass bottles on the beach because it highlights that this is already classed as littering — now it wants to outlaw anyone who is in simple possession of one.
Are the new laws also proportionate? These laws have not been drawn up based on independent evidence, i.e. the number of call-outs the fire service has to attend to beach barbecues. New laws should be evidence-based; as someone at home regularly reminds me: anecdote is the worst form of evidence. Anecdotes, the missus often shouts at parliamentary debate, are interesting: when it comes to law-making, however, they are a crutch for the lazy.
Making law by anecdote is simply ridiculous and must stop. Accidents happen, and terrible stories are not right cause to ban an action for everyone. For one person hit by a stone thrown by a child, there are thousands of stones skimmed into the water perfectly safely. Outlawing stone-throwing in a situation likely to cause alarm, injury or damage does lead you to ask who defines what is alarming, given that many of us respond very differently to threats. I guess it would be up to Kingdom to decide, as their operatives pop up from behind a groyne again, if your thrown stone was alarmingly thrown. If things are policed this way, every time my mum takes a turn with a right-hand throw that hasn’t improved since year one, Kingdom is going to be rich.
The council consultation on these PSPOs closes on May 8, and it is not too late to have your say. For many of us, enjoying a glass of wine and a barbecue on the beach is one of the simplest pleasures we have in our town. I’ve loved lighting grotters with my children for Oyster Festival. I’ve toasted in the new year with many friends sea swimming and then gathered with them round a roaring brazier, searing sausages to keep ourselves warm. For law-abiding people who dispose of their glass bottles safely and safely take away their barbecue at the end of the night, there is no risk: so why should we all lose our rights to fun on the beach? This fun-policing is overreach, pure and simple: it must stop.
You can read the draft PSPO in full, and respond to the consultation by completing our survey on the council website. Alternatively, you can email your comments to [email protected] or write to Mike Bailey, principal policy officer (engagement), Canterbury City Council, Military Road, Canterbury CT1 1YW.