The curious demise of the street party
When Prince Harry married Meghan Markle on a day of glorious sunshine there were street parties all over England. Yet the media struggled to find any in Northern Ireland. It was puzzling because there was no other evidence to suggest that the Royalist portion of the population lacked enthusiasm for the event.
Northern Ireland’s largest council Belfast City Council says it has yet to receive a single application to hold a street party this year – given that the government guidelines state that applications should be lodged three months in advance that suggests that there may not be any street parties on July 11 in the city this year or indeed over the summer.
Something strange is happening.
Everyone in government supports the idea of street parties, they bring neighbours together and have been shown to promote social cohesion, to combat loneliness and isolation and to make communities and neighbourhoods stronger.
They are a good thing, and it has been heartening to see the growth of them right across the UK in recent years, with the Eden Project’s The Big Lunch, which takes place this Sunday 3 June, at the forefront in encouraging and developing them.
On the 25 January 2017 – the day that the Stormont Assembly collapsed - an Order was issued to enact The Roads (Miscellaneous Provision) Act (Northern Ireland) 2010 it came into force in September last.
Up until that point people wanting to hold special events that required the closure of a road had to apply to the PSNI who would decide whether or not to give permission.
The new legislation transferred responsibility to local councils, bringing the law in line with that which applies in England and Wales. It was brought in after requests from local authorities, local authorities and the burgeoning film industry and was subject to public consultation. It has not been in any way controversial, just an example of government responding to perceived need. It is also in line with the general policy of extending powers to local authorities.
It does not apply to parades which still come under the auspices of the Parades Commission.
This seems sensible enough. After all street parties have come to be a valued neighbourhood tradition in many areas and it is hard to see neighbourly get-togethers as a policing matter.
They almost invariably take place in cul de sacs and other quiet streets and so long as they are well managed by the people that live there and that bus routes are not disrupted or car parks blocked it is hard to imagine any reasonable objections to them.
The previous regime was straightforward enough. It could vary between police districts, but generally speaking it was a matter of contacting the police, providing reassurance that the neighbours on the street in question were in favour of the party taking place and acted on advice as to how and for how long the street would be closed. There was no fee involved and no requirement for insurance.
Sadly the new legislation which also applies to street closures for filming and sports events such as fun runs is inevitably more bureaucratic.
Guidelines have been provided for promoters of events which contain a special section for street parties. It specifically acknowledges them as an important community tradition and is clearly attempting to make it a simple process. However they do provide councils with the authority to charge organisers for their administrative costs, insist that street closures need to be advertised in local papers in advance, dictate the appropriate road closure signage that should be used and strongly advise the need for public liability insurance.
Whilst all of this is sound and sensible on one level, for local people just wanting to share a meal together on their streets it is a lot of work, a lot of bureaucracy and potentially a significant cost. For all too many it appears to be proving to be too much hassle.
There is a form to be put in, a lot of notice needs to be given and an informal gathering becomes an exercise in event management requiring many skills ordinary people lack.
Councils do appear to be aware of this. Belfast City Council is waiving all its costs, including stumping up for any advertising required and is even prepared to offer grants from its small grants scheme to community street events that fit the appropriate criteria. But that has still not led to any applications.
What seems particularly ironic in the context is that if, instead of wanting to close a street for a party the group concerned wanted to organise a parade the matter would be much more straightforward.
A simple application would be made to the Parades Commission and if the route in question was not contentious then a swift decision would be made at no cost. Where parades are held annually permission can be renewed.
These are very early days for the new legislation, councils will only just have developed their processes for dealing with applications and all new laws take time to bed down. No party is to blame here but it seems clear at this early stage that councils need to review the process to ensure it is made as simple and cost effective as possible.
There is a clear need for councils to consult with residents on how best to ensure that in the future people feel confident about making applications at no or minimal cost. The process needs to be streamlined and provision made for renewing applications previously made year-on-year. Some local authorities in England are especially good at this and already have simple templates up and running which clearly work well.
It would not be unreasonable for the starting point to be for councils to make it as simple and cost effective for neighbours to share sandwiches and ice cream on their own street as for groups wanting to run non contentious parades on the public highway.
The alternatives are not attractive – people will either ignore the law and organise street parties in any event or else take the view that it looks too much like hard work – and we will see the demise of a growing and enjoyable tradition which brings people together and makes neighbourhoods come alive.
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