Warminster Area Board’s January meeting at the town’s Civic Centre had to confront the current hot topic of homelessness and street dwellers when a placard-waving crowd, reportedly more than 100 people, disrupted the meeting.
It was described by one local resident as “the most rowdy public meeting I have attended since the days of the poll tax in the 1980s.”
Unhappy about Wiltshire Council’s perceived attitude towards rough sleepers, many protestors were angry that changes which replaced Designated Public Places Orders (DPPO) with Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) on October 21 last year widened the scope of legislation. They claimed it gave greater powers to authorities to move homeless people on, and could cause the vulnerable homeless additional hardship.
The gathering of disgruntled people, fronted by Labour activist Tony Free, wanted to highlight a general lack of support from Wiltshire Council for the homeless locally. They had raised the topic at the previous board meeting.
Despite assurances from Wiltshire Council officers this was not the case, the row rumbled on and Police Inspector Andy Fee had to intervene when one man accused another of assault over a dispute about taking a photograph.
Mr Free said: “If you can have the item on the agenda, it gives you the power to withdraw the order – that is what we are asking.”
But Wiltshire Council head of services Ceri Williams said: “The PSPO is a continuation of what we have had since 2010. It is not going to be used to punish the homeless but will help Warminster police address anti-social behaviour.”
Pressed on the issue by board chairman Cllr Andrew Davis, Mr Williams said the purpose of the order in Warminster was to ‘make sure public spaces are free of anti-social behaviour which is alcohol related.”
The officer’s view was not accepted by everybody, and Labour activist Mike White asked how often the powers were used in the year before 2017 and was there really a need? Mr Williams promised a working group would look into this and other aspects, and report back to the area board.
The board was also told of the help provided face-to-face on the street by outreach worker Sarah Johnson who, during the past 18 months, had helped street-dwellers to get a fair deal from banks, health services and the Department for Work and Pensions.
In a statement to Valley News, Baroness Scott of Bybrook OBE, leader of Wiltshire Council, said: “The Government’s directive to change the name of Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs) to Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) has not changed the focus of the orders, which remain to make places safe. The change has been used by the Labour Party to scaremonger, and their recent activity does not reflect factual information.
“Their claim that Wiltshire Council is trying to criminalise rough sleeping has absolutely no basis, and is totally misleading and unacceptable. We have not criminalised rough sleeping, and have no intention of doing so. In fact, we work extremely hard with our partners to address issues that cause people to become homeless, and, we recognise that issuing them with fines would not solve their situation, or address the issues.
“The Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) are available to help manage anti-social behaviour, which can include alcohol or drug-related crime and anti-social behaviour within towns. These orders help to make town centres and other places safer, and somewhere people will want to visit without fear of anti-social behaviour. The orders also help to identify those who would benefit from support, such as access to Wiltshire substance misuse service.”