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Increasing social control in Nottingham (George Orwell) | 06.07.2011 10:55

There is a growing tendency for Nottingham City Council, the police and other authorities to seek ownership of and the right to regulate and control public space in the city. The redevelopment of the Market Square has meant that the former centre of public life in the city has been taken into the ‘ownership’ of the City Council for fee-paying markets and attractions. Ever increasing concentrations of CCTV cameras monitor everything and everyone, and now there is a proposal to monitor everyone’s car as well. Meanwhile, so-called Community Protection Officers patrol the streets, looking for people to harass for standing on the wrong steps, taking photos or providing entertainment. Whose city is it? Ours or the Council’s? Isn’t it time we refused to be controlled?

The plight of Slab Square

Nottingham’s Old Market Square has been the focus of the city’s civic life for centuries, hosting the centuries old Goose Fair until 1928. It has been the site of many important political and community gatherings throughout the ages.

The square was redeveloped by the City Council between 2005-7 at the cost of £7m. The redesign included a controversial ‘Speakers Corner’ which some saw as enshrining freedom of expression whilst others claimed it was an attempt to sideline political protest. Since the redesign, the Council has sought to rent out ‘our’ square out to the highest bidder. As a result there is usually little space left for public gatherings. Nottingham’s Mayday organising team have asked for the Market Square as a site for their annual event every year and are always turned down. Likewise, the unions asked for permission to rally in the square on J30 but a commercial market was already in place so they had to make do with the arse end of the Cornerhouse AKA Trinity Square. Organisers of events in the square cannot bring their own equipment – they have to hire tents from the Council at great expense. Only big money concerns can afford this and the public liability costs of putting on an event in the square. The historic gathering place of the people of Nottingham has been enclosed and sold off by the authorities.

Cameras, cameras, everwhere

If, against the odds, you do manage to gather in the square, your movements will be watched by the many hundreds of CCTV cameras that litter the city centre. Nottingham is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in one of the most heavily surveilled countries on the planet. Even the CPOs have got cameras on their hats here. But that’s clearly not enough for the City Council whose latest scheme is to send a camera-equipped car round to record every car’s numberplate and location. As one wag commenting on the Nottingham Post put it ‘Maybe the 100k Super Spy Car could be used to take pictures of, and record information about, the allegedly dodgy Joco and his closet Executive Group. Nottingham might then become a little more transparent in its governance arrangements.’ Whilst ordinary people are surveilled intensely, it should be noted that the Council are still refusing to publish their spending details and still turning down Freedom of Information requests right, left and centre.

Half coppers

While it would certainly be nice for the Council if they could automate all of their social control, they do still need some humans to do the dirty work. A small army of CPOs and PCSOs regularly patrols the town centre looking for excuses to throw their weight around. It could be standing on the steps of the Council House, it could be riding your bike where it’s not permitted… or it could be something really serious like busking. Whilst these actions are framed as ‘community protection’ their real aim is social control (and making a few bob for the Council while they’re at it).

Fight back

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is important to remember that social control is resorted to because the authorities are afraid of what we are capable of. Nottingham has a history of rebellion from the historic Reform and Cheese Riots to the anti-Poll Tax campaign and Reclaim the Streets. Even in the last few months the apparatus of social control has been attacked by direct action against a surveillance company.

Redesigning the city centre to stop us from gathering, attempting to record our actions and sending armies of goons to harass us are all setbacks to free expression and autonomy but they do not constitute total control. We can find ways to organise ourselves that evade these measures and undermine them. It is vital to the future of any dissenting movements that we do fight against these controls and overcome them. (George Orwell)