Carinya Sharples, April 16th 2011
Anyone passing Westminster Cathedral on Sunday 20 March would have observed a hive of activity in the Piazza, as opponents of Westminster City Council’s proposed ban of soup runs and rough-sleeping staged their protest picnic.
The gathering was one of a number of actions decided by homeless people, groups and charities at a meeting on 3 March, organised by Housing Justice in response to a letter outlining the council’s controversial plans. Word of the picnic (and the reasons for it) spread rapidly, through media reports and interviews, Facebook, Twitter and the Simon Community’s mail-drop to local residents.
On the day of the event, as churchgoers attended mass in Westminster Cathedral, some 500 protestors peacefully gathered outside. A band of Hare Krishna musicians and a London drumming group provided musical accompaniment, while protestors in ‘Don’t feed the homeless’ t-shirts mingled with residents, representatives from homeless charities and rough sleepers, all tucking into the free picnic.
The protest was organised by charities and groups including Housing Justice, Open Cinema, The Pavement, The Simon Community and The Sock Mob. In addition to the picnic, there was a flashmob outside the nearby offices of the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is believed to back the council’s proposal. Sock Mob volunteers handed out questionnaires that have been issued by the council as part of its four-week consultation process, which ended on Friday March 25. Two hundred were filled in before they ran out.
The proposed bylaws
The end of the council’s consultation marked the beginning of a tense waiting period, while Westminster City Council councillors make their decision. If they decide to go ahead with the ban, new bylaws will be created to forbid rough sleeping and the distribution of free refreshments in the Victoria area of Westminster.
Exceptions will be made for free refreshments distributed at sporting events, in licensed premises, for marketing campaigns or by the council or any health authority.
Anyone found breaking these laws will be liable to a fine of up to £500.
Westminster City Council’s preliminary letter about the proposals, dated 24 February, states: "The council believe that homeless people should make use of building based services (via the commissioned street outreach teams), rather than living rough and making use of soup runs. In addition, the council and its voluntary sector partners are clear that soup runs are detrimental to rough sleepers in the long run and prolong the length of time that people spend on the streets."
Opinions on the proposed bylaws
Alison Gelder, director of Housing Justice, responded to the council’s announcement, saying: "While we completely understand the problems experienced by residents in this area, this bylaw, which is an attack on civil and religious freedoms, is a completely over-the-top response. It also cuts across the successful work that Housing Justice and others are doing to reduce both rough sleeping and the need for food distribution on the streets."
Housing Justice are far from alone in their opposition, with The Passage, The Simon Community, Crisis, The Methodist Church and others all issuing statements voicing their support for the anti-ban campaign. Hilary Benn, shadow leader of the House of Commons, has also described the proposals as "the shocking face of 21st-century Tories in the richest borough in the country, supported by the Communities Secretary." Benn added: "Their Big Society hides a big, nasty, spiteful stick."
Thames Reach and St Mungo’s are frequently cited as backing the ban, yet their support appears cautious or partial. St Mungo’s is in support of the council’s efforts to find out what the public reaction is to a bylaw that prohibits soup runs. However, the charity has said: "St Mungo’s will be expressing to Westminster that the bye-law should not seek to ban rough sleeping. Rather, St Mungo’s is reiterating its call for government to introduce a Right to Shelter."
Thames Reach chief executive Jeremy Swain, meanwhile, told The Guardian that it was reasonable that the council to seek to introduce a bylaw covering the specific area of Westminster city, while at the same time using resources to work towards ending rough sleeping in the wider borough. Swain pointed out: "This is not a borough-wide ban, which I would oppose."
Westminster vs soup kitchens: Round One
This is not the first time Westminster Council has attempted to sanction soup kitchens. In 2007, the council proposed a new London Local Authorities Bill that would close soup kitchens and make it illegal to give free food to the homeless in Central London. However, in the face of strong opposition and lack of support from other London councils, Westminster was forced to scrap the proposed bill.
Despite opposition in 2007, Westminster City Council’s drive to close soup kitchens continued. Two years later, in 2009, the council joined forces with Crisis to commission the London School of Economics (LSE) to carry out a study into soup kitchens. While research was being carried out, the council published the Westminster Cathedral Piazza Draft Action Plan.
Giving an early hint of the council’s current plans, the Draft Action Plan proposed that the evidence gathered by LSE could be used to support bylaws controlling the distribution of free food, an early hint of the council’s current plans. The document repeatedly refers to the ‘problems’ supposedly caused by soup runs and their users, such as ‘street urination, street fouling and litter.’
Westminster Cathedral Piazza’s £2.8m development
While Westminster City Council has long been against soup kitchens, the timing of its latest proposal is no coincidence. The Westminster Cathedral Piazza Draft Action Plan mentioned above announces a major development of Westminster Piazza and Wilcox Place. Significantly, the area earmarked for development falls in the centre of the designated area of the ban.
Planned improvements include "designing out crime and anti-social behaviour" and introducing public concerts and attractions, such as a second-hand book market, a rolling public-art programme and musical performances by the Cathedral School Choir. The Pavement added together the projected costs cited in Draft Plan (ignoring the estimated revenues) and calculated that the Piazza development would could around £2.8m.
Planned actions affecting rough sleepers and soup kitchens include: seeking planning consent to align the nursery school gates of St Vincent de Paul Catholic Primary School with the front of the neighbouring St Paul’s bookshop "in order to prevent rough sleeping and other anti-social behaviour that blights this space" (£50,000). Compared to this, getting rid of soup kitchens is cheap, with "no anticipated costs" associated with introducing bylaws that ban the kitchens "for the good governance of the Piazza".
Having received feedback from the consultation, Westminster City Council officers will now present a report to the Full Council, made up of the council’s 60 elected members. At Housing Justice’s initial campaign meeting, Westminster Councillor Adam Hug (Labour) said that the consultation summary would be presented to the Full Council at their May meeting, scheduled to take place on 4 or 18 May.
Campaign-wise, additional ideas drummed up at the Housing Justice meeting are now being implemented. An open letter was printed in The Guardian on March 17 and a list of alternatives to the council’s proposals has been published on the Housing Justice website.
Jad Adams from Croydon Nightwatch is also compiling a list of soup run organisers who have pledged to defy the ban if it comes into effect. The campaign against the ban has picked up more than 450 votes of support on leading campaigning website, 38 Degrees, and 3,434 members on the Facebook page, Do Not Make Feeding the Homeless Illegal, set up in 2007 when the ban was first attempted.
Though the consultation period is over, Alison Gelder, director of Housing Justice, advises those who oppose the ban to lobby the Full Council members - particularly the 48 conservative councillors - by attending their MPs’ surgeries.