1. Governance
June 4, 2015updated 03 Aug 2023 1:55pm

Hackney is planning to tackle rough sleepers by, er, fining them

By Barbara Speed

Rough sleeping is a big problem in London. The last set of government statistics, which reflect a single night “snapshot” of the number of people sleeping on the street, showed a 37 per cent rise in a single year. As of autumn 2014, around 27 per cent of the total rough sleepers logged in England were in the capital. 

This graph shows the rise in London over the past four years: 

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But fear not – because one plucky London council has a solution. Hackney council has moved forward with plans for a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), which would ban rough sleeping, along with begging and street drinking, in anti-social behaviour “hotspots”. PSPOs, in case you haven’t had the pleasure, are nifty bits of legislation local councils can pass in order to tackle activities they deem harmful in public spaces for a period of up to three years. Those who break the rules are usually fined, but can be prosecuted, too.

Leaving aside the fact that rough sleepers are, on balance, unlikely to have the £100 initial fine to hand (let alone the maximum £1,000 it can rise to in court): this is unlikely to be a popular move among locals, either. Only one other council, Oxford, has tried to ban rough sleeping under a PSPO since their introduction in October 2014. It was forced withdrew the plans after a 72,000-strong petition accused it of “criminalising homelessness”. 

Even if one did buy into the logic of “disincentivising” rough sleeping in this manner, targeting certain areas in a single borough is unlikely to be terribly effective: those with no option but to sleep on the street will, presumably, just go elsewhere.

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For Hackney, though, this could well be the aim. Homelessness figures are broken down by borough – so if Hackney appears to have tackled its problem it may be able to dodge investment in other schemes to get people off the streets.

This map shows rough sleeping across London neighbourhoods. Hackney doesn’t have a particularly dire rough sleeping problem compared to other boroughs like Hillingdon or Hounslow, or even neighbouring Islington: 

Inevitably, there is already a petition calling for Hackney to ditch its plans to ban rough sleeping in these areas (Hackney Downs, London Fields, Broadway Market, Mare Street and Regents Canal). It has almost 3,000 signatures at time of writing. The petition’s authors note:

It is absurd to impose a fine of £1,000 on somebody who is already homeless and struggling. People should not be punished for the “crime” of not having a roof over their head – there is nothing inherently “anti social” or criminal about rough sleeping.

It remains to be seen whether Hackney will go ahead with its ban, but either way, the fracas raises an important point about PSPOs in general: they do little to target the causes of anti-social behaviour, and are likely to simply shunt it to a different location. Handy for councils, perhaps; not much help for the rest of us. 

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