by Cllr Sandra Bogelein
Personally I cannot track back where this proposal has come from in the first place: to ban skateboarding in Norwich’s city centre. But as councillors we soon started to receive emails from concerned residents and representatives of the skate community. They regarded this measure of a ban to be a clear overreaction to the problem it wanted to address: damage to the war memorial and memorial gardens. They all felt that protecting this heritage could be achieved without criminalising skateboarders.
Now I just want to make this absolutely clear (again, and I am sure I will nevertheless be accused of not wanting to protect our heritage): the majority of skaters and concerned citizens (I am tempted to even claim all of them), my Green Party colleagues (yes, all of them) and me all want to prevent damage to the war memorial and the memorial gardens. BUT, people supporting the campaign against the ban saw a number of things that were fundamentally wrong with the council’s proposal:
- Overreaction: Proposing a skateboarding ban to a large area in the inner city seemed to many of us as a solution quite a bit out of proportion.
- Lack of evidence: The ban was explained to be a reaction to the FACT that skateboarders damage the memorial. To date (and we started requesting information weeks ago) we have not seen any evidence that damage is caused by skateboarders. The council is rightfully aiming to adopt evidence based policies… now this principle is of little help with no evidence at hand. And if there is evidence (which there might be) then even a freedom of information claim from skateboarder’s representatives has so far not been able to tease it out.
- Jumping the waggon: Yes, the council has jumped the waggon (and then got hit by it afterwards): if a problem, like damage to the war memorial, is identified we should try and find a collaborative solution together with everyone involved, rather than coming up with a draconian solution behind closed doors. In this case two of the interested parties are skateboarders and war veterans. When they got together over a cup of coffee on Saturday before the council meeting they were more than capable to come up with a whole list of suggestions to solve the problem (none of them criminalising young people). All these ideas were sent to the responsible cabinet member and the leader of the council… but let’s devote a whole separate bullet point to the persistent silence from both of them.
- A wall of silence: A large amount of questions, requests for evidence and letters regarding the proposed ban were sent to the portfolio holder and the leader of the council. Almost all of them were met with complete silence. (An exception was an apology and a clarification following the infamous “tosh” email).
- The consultation: To be fair, the council did consult on the skateboarding ban. Unfortunately the ONE consultation question was so leading they might as well have asked: we are not interested in your opinion, are you okay with that. Yes or No. What they did ask was whether people wanted the area of the ban to be bigger than proposed or not.
As a reaction to all these issues one of the quickest set up and most creative and bottom up campaigns we have experienced in Norwich for a long time got rolling. A petition was set up that received around 6000 signatures and on social media almost 400 skateboarders were mobilised to participate in a demonstration against the ban before the full council meeting on Tuesday the 25th.
I cannot stress this following point enough: The absolute only reason that the council did not debate and vote on a skateboarding ban on Tuesday is the incredible mobilisation by the campaign, the clear display of people power. The message was crystal clear: there were many, many people in Norwich objecting to this ban.
The result: Come Monday morning, just after 9 o’clock we were presented with a new proposed solution. The skateboarding ban was off the table and appeared had a proposal about a public space protection order (basically a way to fine skateboarders who are seen skating on the memorial or the gardens). But would the council admit this U-turn is due to public pressure? What? No! Of course it was rather inspired by a new legislation that someone in the council remembered during a nice long shower on a Saturday afternoon (or a similar scenario).
The really worrying thing is: even under a hot shower the solution he or she came up with is not a collaborative one, but another restrictive enforcement measure. So instead of finally opening the debate and asking skaters and war veterans for solutions, the council quickly presented a different version, to avoid admitting a mistake. Can we not for once stay in that wagon, did we have to jump it again? To a lot of people this new solution seems like jumping from the sauce pan into the fire. So the campaign continues.
We are still fighting for a real consultation, for a space where we can meet with war veterans and the council to discuss common solutions. We are still fighting for our part in real democracy. And I hope we see many more public actions like the demonstration on the 25th of November: Hundreds of creative, interested, interesting and well organised young and formerly young people coming together to fight for their right to be part of Norwich’s street scene, to contribute to a vibrant fine city.
The really exciting thing about this campaign is that a lot of young people experienced active citizenship and engagement with democracy potentially for the first time in their lives. That alone is a great achievement and my hope is that they continue being active members of their community and continue to make their voices heard. I also hope the council will change its approach towards these young people, will value and acknowledge their visions and involve them in future decisions.
Sandra Bogelein is a Green Party city councillor for Wensum Ward, Norwich.