Council twats ban swearing at Salford Quays

Bet these cunts are at it, too. Image: Getty.

Oh for fuck’s sake. What ludicrous, unenforceable bullshit have those bureaucratic cunts come up with now?

From the Manchester Evening News:

A council has been accused of taking the p*** – by trying to outlaw SWEARING in the streets at a posh docklands development.

Salford council has brought in a Public Space Protection Order to cover the Quays area in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour.

Part of the order says it will be deemed a criminal offence if anyone is caught “using foul and abusive language”.

Cracking down on this sort of thing is a decent enough notion in theory: if you were having a nice walk through Salford Quays, only for a complete stranger to scream, “No, fuck you!” in your face, then that would seem pretty anti-social.

But there’s a problem here. See if you can guess what it is.

...the order fails to give any guidance on which words will be considered “foul and abusive” enough to constitute a criminal offence.

Anyone breaching the conditions faces an on-the-spot fine.

Righto.


What kind of swears might get you a fine is not exactly clear. Expletives generally break down pretty neatly into three groups: they relate to sex, bodily functions or religion. As Sam Leith once noted when reviewing a history of swearing for the Guardian: “Really, this book should have been called ‘Holy Fucking Shit’.”

But which of those categories – and which words within them – are most profane has often been subject to change. Blasphemy, which would once have got you a stint in the stocks, is now seen as largely inoffensive. Meanwhile the venerable old English word “cunt”, which Geoffrey Chaucer cheerfully used as a quaint source of puns, is now seen as the very worst word of all. All too often, offence is in the ears of the listener as much as the mouth of the speaker.

But that’s fine, because Salford council will obviously be doing their best to clarify all this, right? Rosie Brighouse, a legal officer with civil liberties campaign group Liberty, wrote in to ask:

“Does the language have to be both foul and abusive to breach the PSPO, or is its purpose to ban both language that is foul but not abusive, and language that is abusive but not foul?

“What is the difference between language that is foul and language that is abusive?

“What legal test will be applied to determine whether language is foul and/or abusive?

“If someone uses foul and/or abusive language in the area covered by the PSPO, but there is no one present to hear it, will that amount to a criminal offence?”

The city council hasn’t answered those questions, at least publicly (which is a bit of a bummer for anyone planning to pop over to Salford and swear). But it did give the Manchester Evening News this statement:

“Liberty are fully aware that breach of a PSPO is only an offence if a person does a prohibited act without a reasonable excuse. That allows all the circumstances to be taken into account.

“I appreciate Liberty want publicity for their campaign against these orders but Salford City Council is not going to apologise for using national legislation to help Salford residents when their lives are being made a misery by anti-social behaviour.”

This, despite the weirdly exasperated tone, seems rather to be missing the point. The problem is not that battling against anti-social behaviour is bad – it’s that the law should always be clear.

At the moment, it’s very, very unclear what would constitute an offence under this order. And the fact people haven’t been nicked en masse for loud uses of the word “fuck” since the order was put in place last August does not mean that they won’t be in future. “Allowing” circumstances to be taken into account is not the same as guaranteeing it.

A map, showing Salford Quays (bottom left) relative to Manchester city centre. Click to expand. Image: Google.

The ban covers the Salford Quays area, which is near Manchester United’s football ground at Old Trafford. It also contains the Lowry arts centre and Media City UK. Luckily, football fans, arts professionals and journalists are three groups of people who are famously unlikely to swear.

Anyway, activist and comedian Mark Thomas is playing The Lowry, and

...has prepared a list of words he intends to use which he is sending to the council – to see if they breach the order.

Fucking hell. This should be fun.

Jonn Elledge edits CityMetric and tweets.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.