Banning annoyance? Oh, let’s sleep on that…

HERE is a reason not to visit Gravesend. Or another one.

According to Rosie Brighouse, the legal officer for Liberty, sleeping is banned in the Kent town.

Not all sleeping obviously, otherwise the place would be filled with red-eyed zombies bumping into lampposts. Or maybe it is. It’s a while since I visited.

No, the prohibition extends in the town’s parks and public spaces. And in its parked cars, too. “Unless you’re ‘homeless or a vulnerable adult’, you are banned from sleeping in any of the town’s open spaces – as well as in any vehicle, caravan or tent,” according to an interesting article by Rosie on the website.

This seems unduly harsh on the occasionally dozy. Sometimes I have taken a nap in parks or gardens, thanks perhaps to half a lifetime of bad sleeping habits.

Slumber will sometimes occur, perhaps if we are visiting a garden (what a lot of gardens there in this country). After an hour or so of traipsing round on a warm day, I will leave my wife to her horticultural homage and find a bench. Or the branches of a tree to lie beneath. It’s a pleasant thing to do. But not in Gravesend, apparently.

Gravesham Borough Council has declared war on “recumbence and repose”, according to Rosie’s report. And what a nice turn of phrase she has there.

Anyone who lies down in public for a sleep in Gravesend risks a fine of £100. And that is asking for trouble from the somnambulant and the sluggish. And you don’t want to cross that sleepy-eyed lot, believe me.

Rosie’s report extends beyond the ban on sleeping in the town’s public spaces. Her wider point is that councils throughout the land are banning all sorts of activities, under something called a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), a little-known new rule created by 2014’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.

At the time of their introduction, Liberty, the cross-party, non-party civil liberties charity that monitors “fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK”, warned that PSPOs were too broad and vaguely worded, and allowed councils to ban almost anything they deemed to have a “detrimental effect” on people in the area.

These rules are not “a formal part of the criminal law of the land”, according to Liberty, but if you don’t pay the on-the-spot fine of £100, you could face a court appearance and a penalty of £1,000.

All for having an open-air nap, at least in Gravesend. Elsewhere the offences are many are various, and likely, according to Liberty, to mostly affect “the vulnerable and the voiceless”.

In Ferndown, East Dorset a space the council itself calls a “playing area of open space set aside in perpetuity for sport and recreation” now bans “cycling, skateboarding, model aircraft, ‘annoyingly’ flying kites and excessive noise”, according again to Rosie’s report.

How does one fly a kite annoyingly? Who knows, apart from those who drew up these ludicrous rules. The few times I have flown a kite, the annoying part comes when they crash to the ground. So is that now to be an offence in East Dorset?

The restrictions roll on. In the Forest of Dean – a place that will always be Dennis Potter-land to some of us – the council is consulting on criminalising anyone who lets their sheep enter the village of Bream, even though sheep have grazed there for centuries. Lancaster and Bassetlaw prefer a wide-brush approach, banning anything that causes “annoyance”.

In Kettering, the under-18s must be home by 11pm or risk fines or even a criminal record, while in Bassetlaw again, the under-16s cannot gather in groups of three or more if they’re “causing annoyance”.

And so it goes on. Annoyance is a funny thing. We can all be annoyed by all sorts of behaviour. Maybe I’d like to ban people who believe all those contradictory health stories in the Daily Mail. Or those who swallow a single word printed on the front page of the Daily Express. Or people who look like they voted Leave. I am not impressed by smokers who sit too close to where I am sitting outside. Or those who picnic on smelly takeaways.

But being at large in society demands a degree of tolerance and an acceptance of others. And allowing councils to ban whatever they fancy banning, that’s just open season for general intolerance.

And with that I am off to Gravesend for a nap.

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