Tiffany Jenkins: Keep bureaucrats off the grass

Glasgow’s proposed new rules for its public parks are just one example of how laws and regulations are proliferating, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Glaswegians out in force to enjoy the weather at Kelvingrove Park. Picture: Robery Perry
Glaswegians out in force to enjoy the weather at Kelvingrove Park. Picture: Robery Perry

GLASGOW’S parks, the green lungs of the city, have witnessed all manner of human activities in their time. Used as a meeting place for lovers, protesters, down-and-outs, bored teenagers, families and singletons, these are our common public spaces, where neither the state nor the market dominate, where we can let off steam and enjoy ourselves.

But not for much longer, it seems. Glasgow City Council has issued new “Parks Management Rules” – currently at consultation stage – in order that we “enjoy our parks and open spaces safely and responsibly”. But the risk is that they will outlaw or at least regulate the most ordinary behaviour.

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For example, you will not be permitted to gather without authority if your group numbers 20 or more. Everyone and anyone: students, children, parents, and layabouts will need “prior written consent from the director” if they want to get together in groups large enough to play a game of football. If you want a drink, a nice cold beer on a summer’s day at, say, a picnic, forget it: alcohol cannot be consumed in any park, unless you have prior written consent.

Anti-social behaviour will not be allowed, which sort of sounds reasonable; people can be inconsiderate, but what do they mean by anti-social? The proposal describes it as “any conduct, action or course of conduct committed” that is “likely” – note the “likely” – “to cause alarm or distress, nuisance or annoyance to any person using the park or any of its facilities.” That’s a very broad and subjective description. It encompasses pretty much anything any human being could do, say or sing, and with weasel words like “likely” you don’t even have to have actually caused anyone “annoyance”, it’s enough that someone thinks you might.

What else? You have to leave and enter by the proper entrance. Fine. You cannot litter. Fine, although emptying the bins regularly might help. You cannot discharge a firearm. Also, fine, and already illegal. And there is more. Under the new parks regime no person will “organise or take part in any performance, event, ceremony, exhibition, assembly or procession or such activity”. Suffragettes, chartists, trade unionists, church groups and environmental campaigners have for centuries used parks to demonstrate, celebrate and congregate. Why prevent this now? This is not fine. It is an offence against freedom of speech and association.

The restrictions continue. No one will be able to exercise more than three dogs at any one time. All canines must be kept close at heel or on a short lead, defined as a maximum of two metres long. Why? It’s not that I want lots of uncontrolled dogs running around, but do we need our betters to tell us the length of the lead we use? Are dog walkers now to be treated like public enemies?

These proposals seem motivated by a general unease about you and me. What we might do if we aren’t properly supervised. And not all of the history is pretty. The Kelvingrove “riot” in 2011 saw a party get out of control and more than 20 people were arrested. But there were laws in place to charge them and it is not necessary or proportionate as a consequence to monitor everything people do outside.

Another fear seems to be that some may make a few pounds whilst in the park, because there is a whole section in the rules on “Commercial activity”, which basically outlaws it. But this includes “nursery or kindergarten activities” and “guided walks”. God forbid anyone running a school, walking dogs, or providing a tour of the city bring children, adults or puppies on to a green space. That’s except for the council, of course, who reserve the right to convert the park into a commercial enterprise.

There is more. You cannot hang washing on a line or shake or brush a carpet, but in parks like Glasgow Green, close to the River Clyde, people have hung wet washing for centuries. And, as it happens, washing is rarely hung out today – there is no need for these rules. But still they continue. “Where permitted” – if permitted – “vehicles must be driven safely”. You don’t say. You cannot “display or distribute any advertising material or any written or printed paper of document”, nor “play or practise any organised sport”. Nor can you “make use of any part as an aerodrome or landing ground for aircraft”, which has the benefit of being sensible but probably hardly applicable. There will be no military recruitment, drills or practices. And without prior, written consent, you shall not “play any musical instrument”. Cycling is “welcome”, apparently – good to know something is – but cannot “exceed five miles per hour”, although how this will be enforced is unclear.

Even though these proposals could rid our public spaces of boring mime acts, annoying beggars, preachy evangelists, mouthy politicos and groups of irritating teenagers, not to mention footballers and noisy pipers, they are excessive. What about a bit of diversity, a bit of live and let live? In most instances we get along fine without lists of what we can and cannot do, and can organise ourselves. So many activities are ruled out, it’s hard to see what we will still be allowed to do in our parks. Sit quietly on our own perhaps, or better still not go out at all. Unless we protest, and many have. And rightly so, because the future of civil society looks like it will be over-regulated and it is vital that this encroachment and codification of everyday life is resisted.

This is not an isolated case of one council getting carried away. Public space across the country is less and less our space. Laws and regulations are proliferating. Private security guards crop up everywhere. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which has just gone through the House of Lords, applying mostly to England, will provide local authorities with unprecedentedly wide-ranging powers over public space. Local authorities have already banned rough sleeping, begging and spitting.

The rules for Glasgow parks are at consultation stage. Now is the time to say loud and clear: rip them up. This is not what we want for our park life.