A thirty hour about turn on the policy is confusing

UPDATE: Saturday 28th March

The Chief Constable called for it to be closed, the council appeared to agree through Pat Karney, and then less than 36 hours later the call to close Piccadilly Gardens was reversed.

Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said on Thursday: "Everybody knows that Piccadilly Gardens has been a hotspot for homelessness, for drug dealing and for some of the crime issues that we find as a real challenge. Sadly that has continued and is exacerbated in some way because everybody else isn't there. It's far more visible, what's going on. So I've asked my team to work with Manchester City Council today to close Piccadilly Gardens. Why can't we use Heras fencing, get it all closed down? It's a public space. Other public spaces are closed. It will disperse some of the issue. It will enable us to deal with crime in a different way because we can't be running to Piccadilly Gardens every two minutes arresting people."

That was then. Somebody has had a word. One suspects this comes from very high up in the council, certainly at Confidential we thought the line about about dispersing the issue would have made alarm bells ring. Perhaps more importantly the government has asked councils that all the homeless and those in hostels should be housed by the end of the weekend.

On Friday afternoon it was sad to cycle through the Gardens and see three separate groups of dealers working on the homeless and supplying drugs. They were all in groups over four or five and standing next to each other. As Confidential watched a police van drove right past them.

Let's see how the situation develops next week.

Yes, of course we have to be serious about these troubled times but sometimes you can’t help smiling at the relentless portentousness of the media coverage about the emergency.

The opening gambit of Chief Constable Ian Hopkins, yesterday, on BBC Radio Manchester justifying the closure of Piccadilly Gardens, was unintentionally a total scream. He must have some ace police intelligence to make this claim.

Hopkins said: “Piccadilly Gardens has become a hotspot for homelessness, for drug-dealing, for some of the crime issues we find as a real challenge.”

At which point it felt so right to exclaim, “No shit, Sherlock!  It’s been like that for more than 20 years.”   

I’ve cycled around the city centre and there are those who flagrantly flout the government guidelines

Serious faces back on now folks. The news is the police and the city council are going to close Piccadilly Gardens with immediate effect because numbers of people are still gathering in groups, whether it’s the homeless or nasty drug-dealers or even people who live in a bizarre bubble of foolish unawareness.

Fences will go up. Given the hullabaloo last month about part of the Gardens’ Berlin Wall coming down, this is ironic to say the least.

2020 03 27 Picc Gardens
Chief Constable Ian Hopkins

Yet, it is right to close the place. The Chief Constable might have had serial failures of articulacy in his interview, but he has a point. During my daily exercise, solo on my bike, I’ve cycled around the city centre and there are those who flagrantly flout the government guidelines and walk about in groups. Piccadilly Gardens is the worst. Of course this isn’t just a city centre problem, people have been gathering up on the moors and having group picnics, people have been inviting other people round for barbecues.

What is the most worrying aspect of the actions of these individuals is they threaten the way the country has been dealing with the emergency. The Continental approach has been different with forms to fill in if you leave the house, hefty fines, and extremely tight limits to the distance you can move when outside. This is typical of the statist way those countries have historically dealt with emergencies; ID cards, ‘papers’ and all that. The more liberal approach of the British government is similarly typical, trusting us to respect the rules rather than being coerced into obedience.

That might be changing. The fact Home Secretary Priti Patel on Thursday doubled fines to £60 for people breaking the largely voluntary code at present in place while expanding the powers to arrest people and use reasonable force to enforce the coronavirus lockdown could mean one of two things. Either, the government is still pursuing the same policy but tightening up or in the end we will be in the much more extreme lock-down imposed in Continental Europe. Please no. That exercise moment is very important for those without country estates.

2019 08 07 Priti Patel
Tougher measures from the Home Secretary

People keep comparing these times to the ‘blitz spirit,’ everyone pulling together and all that. That period in history has been mythologised, but it’s probably true that as a society Britain felt much more cohesive.

A huge factor in that is the way in which we receive news and information. Today we can go mainstream - The BBC, the Guardian, The Times and so on - fully edited, serious media. Or we can go to the wild side with erratic social media rumour. Back during the blitz in 1940 there was the BBC. This was via the radio and the whole nation listened in. My grandparents told me how the family would clump around their ‘wireless’ and wait to hear what officialdom was informing them. Then they complied - usually. There are layers of our less homogenous society in 2020 who are simply choosing to say ‘fuck you.’

The media has changed too in the way it disseminates news and information. There is so much sentimentality in the reporting and coverage and so much of that basest aspect of the 21st century condition, virtue-signalling. 

2020 03 27 Picc Gardens Radio
Back in the day, clumping round the wireless

The mainstream media has changed too in the way it disseminates news and information, attempting to become a little more like social media. There is so much sentimentality in the present reporting and coverage and so much of that basest aspect of the 21st century condition, virtue-signalling. Some of the BBC coverage of coronavirus would have been charged in 1940 with spreading alarm and despondency.

That aside, while we can disapprove of the rule-flouters in Piccadilly Gardens and elsewhere, we also don't want the rise of the snitch and busy-body. I felt both alarmed and despondent when I heard on one Radio 5 phone-in a story about a person who called the police because they’d twitched the curtains and spotted their neighbour had been out for two runs not one as part of his exercise routine. He was alone both times. There were other examples on the show of snitches. Closing Piccadilly Gardens is one thing but even more sinister is a form of informal Stasi where neighbours report on neighbours for minor misdemeanours. 

2020 03 27 Picc Gardens The Day After The Fence Anouncement
On the day after the fence announcement open drug dealing is still taking place between groups standing close together

Truth is we live in an altered situation, one in which while most people comply, some in a less deferential society don’t; let’s truly hope they don’t bring down more draconian measures on our heads. 

Chief Constable Hopkins has proved one thing though. 

In these dangerous times Piccadilly Gardens is being as reassuringly consistent as ever. It’s been crap and dangerous for ages, it's crap and more dangerous now. Maybe when this pandemic is over Hopkins can police the hell out of the place and sort out its simpering undercurrent of criminality. That would be something to look forward to for Mancunians.