Before moving to the substance of this posting, I want to acknowledge the efforts made by many Greater Manchester Police officers to ensure good relations with the LGBT community. Similarly, in previous dealing with PGH security and Manchester city council, there have been many capable and sincere members of staff. However, the way in which aspects of Pride 2014 were handled have (in my opinion) left all parties appearing sub-standard and may – again rightly in my view – bring the current structure of Pride into account.
Again, I recognise the good work and contribution to a number of charities made by Manchester Pride. However, that isn’t the issue at the heart of my criticism. A fairly minor, some would argue pedantic but important point of law appears to have been selectively ignored and overlooked because it challenged the business model of Pride.
To give non Manchester (or UK) readers some context here is a little background. Manchester Pride (having grown organically from Mardi Gras) is one of the north west’s largest and most successful celebrations of gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles. It raises funds for a variety of charities and is focused around the ‘gay village’ in the city.
An area of the village is fenced off with security controlling entry and exit to the area. This is managed by buying a wrist-band for the evening (or weekend). If you have a wrist-band you get in – if you don’t have one then move along please.
Many (though not all) of the premises within the fenced off area are gay venues taking part in the Pride celebrations. However, there are also residential blocks, a few convenience stores, some fast-food restaurants and some venues not taking part in the event.
This situation has been in place for some years (10+) and hasn’t in fairness caused a problem. However, a few people started to ask the basis on which public streets could be fenced off and an entry fee charged to enter the zone. Many (including some council and police personnel) simply reverted to answers which were (in terms) – ‘We’ve always done it like this and nobody’s complained before’. Whilst that may be true, it doesn’t make it a credible legal basis for justifying the restrictions.
A small but persistent and competent group were unconvinced by this answer and started researching the legal basis for the closure of the roads. There was no dispute over the closure of the roads to vehicles – but could pedestrian access be prevented where there is a right of way over public roads.
There is no requirement in UK law to explain why you wish to walk down a particular public road nor where you are going at any particular point in time. Those protesting the closure of the gay village remained unconvinced and sought guidance from the Department of Transport who are ultimately responsible for the legislation covering road closures by local authorities.
Advice from staff within that department was clear. The road could be closed to vehicles for Pride under the legislation. However, any attempt to extend this to pedestrians or operate a two-tier pedestrian entry system based on whether or not you wore a wrist band was beyond the scope of the legislation. In simple terms, members of the public could still exercise their right of way through the closed off roads.
Several exchange of letters then followed between local council, police, protestors, organisers and interested parties. It appears clear that all parties became aware of the Department of Transport position. Reassurances were issued by both the police and the council that rights of way would be respected.
Fast forward to the day itself and (as shown in this and related vidoes) contracted security staff can be seen running the entry point gates. Whilst acknowledging the letter from the Department of Transport and despite the previous assurances from councils, organisers and the like the right of way is denied and the zone is described as holding a ‘private party’.
Whether or not a private party was indeed taking place (which is disputed) this doesn’t explain why contractors believe they can prevent anyone walking down a public road. It wouldn’t impose a requirement that the public explain where they are going or why. Nor would it provide a power to prevent residents (or visitors to residents) returning to their own homes without being ‘accredited’ and sanctioned by the organisers of Pride.
In the four videos which record some of the protestors encounters police are seen nearby but not getting involved in the matter in any way.
At one point the senior contractor repeatedly refers all questions to the website for the organising group for all questions, complaints, criticisms etc. However, it also appears that they were unwilling to engage with the substance of the challenge, nor were the police willing to engage with the protestors which of course only made the situation worse. Interestingly, the approach of police personnel was reported as variable depending on who was on duty and what advice had been given by local briefing Inspectors.
Regardless of the merits (or not) of the protestors case, the rather heavy handed and paternalistic view of the contracted stewards is deeply unattractive. Similarly, the police appear (at least to me) to have abrogated their responsibility to uphold the law impartially. I acknowledge the complexity of managing a major event and there is certainly an element of proving a point by the protesting group. However, simply ignoring members of the public wishing to exercise their right to walk the public street and seeming to side with organisers in the face of both legislation and common sense seems unlikely to be the best approach.
I doubt this story which can be followed here will simply go away over the coming weeks. The larger issue of closing public roads and spaces for community event is actually quite significant. My personal view is that an objective review of this incident would find the behaviours of both some contracted staff and some police officers to be wanting and inadequate at best – potentially unlawful at times. The circumstances also call the business model of Pride (and similar events) into question. I suspect we may see some significant changes to the future shape of community events of this type in future years.