In the headlines: fines for swearing? WTF?!

You may have noticed that Rochdale has been in the media for not so salubrious reasons. Yesterday saw a scattering of (suspiciously) similar news articles released about Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council’s proposed Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO).  These articles focused on a favourite moral panic: swearing. Here’s a selection if you missed it:

There is form in Greater Manchester for these sort of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO), one was introduced by Salford City Council in 2015 covering the Salford Quays* area. However, there seems to be no evidence nor figures to hand (save for sending Freedom of Information requests which I’ll leave to investigative journalists to utilise) as to:

a.) the number of those who have been fined by breaking any of the prohibited activities,

b.) whether any of this has worked and cut down on any “f” bomb dropping or the like, outside places such as the Lowry Outlet centre. (Excepting, I would assume, statements like “how the bloody hell can you justify charging £30 for a stinky candle“.)

By “WTF” I mean “why the fuss” or “what then follows”? Dig a little deeper into the subject matter and it’s not just about swearing; there is more to the proposal than the headline focus on “foul and abusive language”  – an easy win for a news hook and a gift for subeditors’ headline writing skills.  The proposal is a call to undertake a consultation – a bit more boring than “we’re banning it right now so pay us £100 arrant knave” – and the issues that the Council will seek to cover include:

  1. Control of commercial or charity collection or soliciting for money in the street
  2. Consumption of alcohol on street
  3. Those under 18 in the area 11pm – 6am
  4. Driving/ using a car in an anti-social manner
  5. Obstructing the highway/or loitering
  6. Anti-social parking
  7. Unauthorised distribution of printed material/leaflets
  8. Use of Skateboards, bicycles and scooters
  9. Begging on the Street
  10. Foul and abusive language

(From ‘Proposed Public Spaces Protection Order – Rochdale Town Centre’, my numbering.)

(I’m not a legal expert nor seek to be one, however, there are a few in there that *should* already be covered by law. Such as: 2 (alcohol control/exclusion zoning under DPPOs) , 4 (see here and here), 6 (see Greater Manchester Police “Operation Considerate”). To some extent number 10 should be covered under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.)

Rochdale Town Hall 2014-11-09 14.24.45

A PSPO acts to control space, a bit like a geographical ASBO, and are a subject of concern for human rights group Liberty.  A troubling aspect within the text of the proposal is firstly the purpose and delegation of powers to other agencies as well as the police, and, secondly, on where the zone would be if this proposal were implemented (appendix two is not visible in the document so it could be here or here, it will be interesting to see when they do publish the final proposed area**).  The purpose of the order is:

…to assist the Council and its Partners to provide an appropriate and robust response to anti-social behaviour issues in Rochdale Town Centre.

…The proposed Public Spaces Protection Order will give the Council, supported by [Greater Manchester Police (GMP)], the relevant powers of enforcement needed to tackle the issues specific to the local area and make our community a safer, more pleasant place for anyone who visits, lives or works in our town centre. The Council, taking joint responsibility with GMP, is committed to improving the quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors to the town centre.

(From ‘Proposed Public Spaces Protection Order – Rochdale Town Centre’)

This raises a few questions.  What is “appropriate” and who decides this – the law, the whims of the council of the day? What form will this “robust” action take – verbal warning, handcuffs, Taser deployment.  If the on-the-spot fine cannot be paid how will this escalate – with further court fees, with incarceration?  The PSPO will allow the policing of public space and widen out who has the authority to move people on.  While the proposal states that ‘council officers, and other groups the council may designate, but principally police officers and PCSOs, can undertake enforcement’, it is not clear as to whom the groups are who will receive the power to penalise -private security, enforcement officers such as bailiffs. And there are questions over who would be accountable to whom which hopefully a consultation would address and seek to answer.

Who are the Rochdalian “Wrong ‘Uns”?

The council’s 2016 – 2019 Corporate Plan for Rochdale prioritises people, place and prosperity. The proposed PSPO could contradict any spirit of “encouraging and supporting people and communities to be independent and resilient, developing a culture of social responsibility where people help themselves and each other” if certain groups are ostracised.  So, who are the people who council leader Richdard Farnell has dubbed “n’er do wells” and the local MP Simon Danczuk labelled  “wrong ‘uns”  (BBC Ulster, 1:08 onwards).  Well, from the proposal, as well as troublesome poorly parked, car bass thumping petrolheads, they include:

  • The poorest: ‘any person on a street in the Prohibition Area is prohibited from, at any time, placing themselves in a position to beg or solicit money’.

Anyone who has to do this is probably not rich and hasn’t chosen this lifestyle for the lols.

  • The young: ‘any person present between the hours of 11pm and 6am (“the relevant hours”) in public areas of the Prohibition Area (being an area to which the public ordinarily have access between those times whether or not a business owner can exclude access) and being unable to provide evidence that they are 18 or over, must leave the Prohibition Area or return to and remain in that person’s place of residence if such residence is situated within the Prohibition Area, and any such person shall not again be present in the public area for the duration of the relevant hours.’

Yes, that’s right, this is a curfew. Sound the horn and ready the spotlights, I’ve spotted two coming home from the late showing of Star Wars XXXVI.

  • Campaigners planning on explaining a protest / belief with flyers unsanctioned by the council: ‘Any person is prohibited from distributing free printed matter in the Prohibition Area without being in possession of an authorisation from the council’.

Have dreadlocks and hate fracking?  Well, hippie, you’d better not stop people shopping with your pesky planet loving…

Jokes aside, I don’t think that it’s wrong to say that this proposed order will target those who are most vulnerable (substance abusers, the homeless, the mentally ill) and bored children (if you’re worried about skateboards why not stick a skate park in, Stockport’s done it and there’s one in Balderstone Park too).   And this is not so-called liberal hand-wringing; as well as working with young people, I’ve run creative writing sessions for homeless and vulnerable adults.  At times this was enjoyable yet challenging work, at other times felt like a thankless task.  I understand how hard it can be to know how to engage and support individuals who are angry, aggressive, high or all of the above.  I don’t think that controlling what people can do in public spaces is the answer and I really don’t think that fines are a panacea; some of the people targeted, who have very little anyway, will be unable to pay these, escalating already precarious situations.

Rochdale is written and understood in many ways

Through my research I’ve been able to show that there is more to Rochdale than the news headlines: there is a rich treasury of stories, poems, maps; there are good people doing fantastic, grassroots community work who work within and without the council.  Rochdale has been imagined and written about in myriad ways (from Edwin Waugh’s bucolic moorland rambles and William Baron’s “sweater’s den” mills to Trevor Hoyle’s comic book swearing racists). I’ve been responding with my own writing, however,  I’ve sought a low profile during my research and writing, and I’ve tried hard not to rant during these last few years, however, I feel that the proposed PSPO goes against the spirit of shared public space.  A PSPO encloses places and, at worst, is an example of draconian top-down place-making.  Whatever anyone thinks of the imagined future Rochdale (shops + Lego-esque cladded breezeblock and glass) in my humble opinion it should not be a sanitised fantasy place where social problems are ignored and at worst criminalised rather than treated.  A PSPO distracts from the heart of the matter: how we all get along and how we, as citizens, deal with social problems.  Dividing communities into Them (the “wrong ‘uns”) and Us (not “wrong ‘uns” until someone else in power deems us so) is unhelpful.  Perhaps there are other ways that people, including the young and the most vulnerable, can feed into this consultation rendering any need for “the stick” of a PSPO void.  Finally, going back to swearing, there is a rich body of research on profane vernacular and on the constantly evolving English language.  There is still freedom of speech and freedom of thought.  And thank  F_____ for that! (I’m invoking the Norse goddess Freya, what did you think I meant?)

Further reading on swearing research

There is a caveat to this selection of material: due to time constraints (I’m currently writing up my thesis) this sample of scholarly literature is not exhaustive, it’s just some of the recent-ish research on swearing that I’ve pulled out:

  • A whole gamut of articles from The Conversation, an online “magazine” written by academics for a wider audience: Articles on Swearing (contains – big surprise – a cornucopia of profanity research).
  • McEnery, A. & Xiao, Z. (2004) ‘Swearing in modern British English: the case of fuck in the BNC.’ Language and Literature, 13(3), pp 235-268.  (Link to the journal article is here and information on the British National Corpus is here).


*  The PSPO covers mostly privatised public space, much of the area is owned by Peel: see these links to the company’s commercial and retail and leisure portfolios that feature within the zone covered by the Order.

** The places that are mentioned in the proposal include: the Transport Interchange, Metrolink, Number One Riverside, the Riverside Retail and Leisure Development (building work due to start in 2017 with 2019 completion).  While these places may not be part of the final prohibition map, the inclusion of them suggests that these may fall within the area.


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