PUNT WARS: Battle of the barge poles
The next chapter in the Cambridge ‘Punt Wars’ saga has emerged, with human rights and civil liberties now being invoked.
The River Cam has transformed into a battlefield for the protection of what may be the most important Human Right: the right to punt.
Picture the United Nations but with blankets and bargepoles. New regulations are being implemented by the local council to ban some punt companies that exhibit antisocial behaviour.
However, according to human rights groups, this is a step too far, with fears that Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) are being used to criminalise ordinary, legal behaviour.
The council intends to use the PSPOs, to ban punting companies who exhibit intimidating behaviour when touting their boats. PSPOs allow councils to enforce bans on anything with a “detrimental effect” on “quality of life” with on-the-spot fines and potential criminal sanctions. They’ve been used by other councils to ban magic tricks and singing in the street.
Pushing yourself down a river with a giant stick, cheap prosecco in hand in a post-May-Ball-state is a virtual right of passage for Cambridge students. But this historic tradition may be in jeopardy as the River Cam has become a vehicle for the debate on Human Rights.
A group of independent punt operators has accused the Council of trying to drive them out of business and that “offensive and defamatory” allegations have been used to make the case for PSPOs. They have submitted a formal response to the council’s consultation which challenge’s the legal basis of the Council’s actions.
Cambridge Traditional Tours Ltd submitted a separate paper. They said “In the context of three million visitors each year and thousands of punt trips each week, the City’s case does not justify banning and criminalising otherwise-normal business activity.”
Tom Arnold, who runs Cambridge Traditional Tours, cited worries about the future of his business if the proposed changes go through. He said “I think here is a wider implication here. What’s next? Are people not going to be allowed to meet up in a public place because it is seen as antisocial – it is not a pleasant message.”
Councillor Lewis Herbert, Leader of the Cambridge City Council hit back at the critique. He said punt touters are a “real nuisance” especially in the summer and “this is potentially an appropriate and effective route because this is a problem that needs cracking.” The council plans to ban specific companies first, and will discuss the issues of civil liberties after the decision has been made.
With 33 formal complaints issued in the past year and claims punt companies have been “harassing” members of the public, it seems easy to see why the Council wants to act. But some claim these statistics are misleading. Not all of these complaints issued, for example, were regarding dry-land punt-touting, but concerned punts crashing on the river.
This issue comes in light of a meandering year of regulation on the Cam, with safety regulations implemented earlier this year due to several crashes caused by self-guided tours and tour guided boats alike, and accusations of destructive ‘punt-wars’.
Soon Cantabs may be able to walk down King’s Parade without having to ignore, dodge and even shout at overly-eager punt touters. But is a peaceful stroll to Sidgwick really worth the implications of local councils infringing upon and controlling civil and commercial liberties?
Will the punt wars end up in the European Court?