‘Tramp shelters’ for ‘rough sleepers’ – why York fitted bars on street benches

A man sleeps under the bars installed on a bench at a Rougier Street bus stop. Photograph: Jack Gevertz / YorkMix
24 Jul 2015 @ 7.45 pm
| News

Officials referred to a bus stop as a “tramp shelter” and ordered arms to be fitted to benches to stop “rough sleepers lying down”, we can reveal.

Internal correspondence obtained by YorkMix under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the controversial bars attached to street benches in York were first considered in 2013 – and that their initial installation opposite the York Railway Station was linked to rough sleeping.

The cost of fitting bars to the York Railway Station bus stops was estimated at £300 while the cost of fitting the bars to Rougier Street bus stops was estimated at £400.

The decision to attach them was taken between council officials and North Yorkshire Police.

One official, working under the previous Labour administration, referred to a bus stop opposite the York Railway Station as a “Tram(p) shelter” in the subject line of his email while another said that drinking should be dealt with in a similar way to begging.

YorkMix first revealed that bars had been fitted to benches in June, causing widespread dismay among many who regarded them as an ‘anti-homeless’ measure.

The council told us that they are a measure taken to reduce anti-social behaviour and not targeted at homeless people.

That prompted our FOI request for all the correspondence between officials on the subject.

What the emails contained

April 26, 2013

In an email with the subject line “Problems with rough sleeping/drinking opposite York Station”, one official from the street environment department wrote that rough sleepers and drinkers were causing problems including “abuse towards people waiting for buses”, “aggressive behaviour towards each other” and “littering and spillages in the shelter”.

One person, it says, is “banned from entering the city centre” but keeps coming back.

May 12, 2013

The street environment official asks if the benches opposite the station could be removed because of the “misuse by rough sleepers and drinkers”.

May 16, 2013

But a reply, sent on by a council official from the sustainable transport service, rejects this proposal as the shelter is of “historical interest”.

May 17, 2013

A separate response, sent by a council official from ‘communities and neighbourhood’, then suggests attaching arms to the benches so “rough sleepers would not be able to physically lie down”.

Tram(p) shelter

June 3, 2013

It was an email sent by a council official from the sustainable transport service which has the subject line “Tram(p) shelter”.

It says they have met with police to discuss issues of “rough sleeping and drinking at the station”. The email response regards the main issue as the “attraction of the benches both in the tram shelter and under the station canopy”.

A proposal is then put forward asking for arm rests to be added to “deter people from lying down”.

March 28, 2014

Another email, sent on by a council official from the same department, says that the bars “look OK” but that there was nothing to “stop people sleeping on the floor”.

April 21, 2015

In a separate piece of communication just weeks before the local elections, a council official, whose department isn’t stated, says that drinking should be dealt with in a similar way to begging.

The email, released to YorkMix, says:

I have wandered past twice and noticed people drinking on both occasions.

I raised it in a meeting yesterday as some work is going on with begging and the effects it has on the public would appear to need a similar approach which was agreed in principle at the meeting.

Rougier Street ‘a dump’

April 23, 2015

A reply, sent on , from a council official who appears to be a street cleaner, says that the bus stop on Rougier Street is a “dump” and “always will be”.

The email signs off by saying: “Sorry if I sound negative but this place, along with High Ousegate Lane, has been the bane of my CYC life for far too many years!”

Fresh emails sent after the election show the issue of attaching arms to benches arise again, but this time communication refers to “anti-social behaviour street drinkers”.

May 12, 2015

One, sent by a council official, says:

The Police are hoping to have some alterations to the seating in Rougier Street bus stop to prevent drinking and sleeping on the seats as it is becoming problematic and intimidating for people waiting for buses.

May 14, 2015

A response says that the arms will stop “people lying down and sleeping in there.”

Only one individual, Andy Binner, the former head of highway infrastructure, was named in the emails because of data protection laws.

Meanwhile, in separate communication obtained by YorkMix, it can be revealed that the benches with bars under the shelter at the railway station are to be removed after scaffolding is put up to build an extension to Roman House. A date for this isn’t yet known.

Record response

‘Maybe help the homeless instead’ – graffiti written on the bars fitted to benches on Rougier Street. Right: former council leader Steve Galloway
‘Maybe help the homeless instead’ – graffiti written on the bars fitted to benches on Rougier Street. Right: former council leader Steve Galloway

After we revealed the issue of “anti-homeless” bars being attached to benches last month, the decision by both the current and previous councils was branded “disgusting” and “sickening”.

Steve Galloway, the former Liberal Democrat leader of the council from 2003 to 2008, called for officials to “come clean”.

A petition protesting at the move was said to be the largest ever handed in to York council, with almost 5,500 signatures.

A protest was then held in St Helen’s Square with residents symbolically sleeping rough to demand their removal.

‘Who is running the council?’

Taking things lying down… a clever way to make the point. Photographs: Richard Bridge
Taking things lying down… a clever way to make the point. Photographs: Richard Bridge

York council’s Labour group today declined to comment on the correspondence, insisting it was a decision made at “officer level as an operational matter” which “didn’t involve any input from councillors”.

However Cllr Stuart Barnes, deputy leader of the Labour Group, said that the issue was now on their agenda:

Given the strength of public feeling through the current petition, Labour councillors will be meeting in the near future to discuss the matter

Richard Bridge, the creator of the petition, said the communication “throws into question who is actually running the council and who is setting the strategic direction of policy”.

He added:

Clearly if officers have made decisions without liaising with councillors that throws into the question the democratic nature of local government.

Decision ‘wasn’t taken lightly’

City of York Council issued a long statement in response to the FOI release. We reproduce it entirely here:

The decision to install bars on the benches at Rougier Street bus shelter wasn’t taken lightly. The problem we had, as a local authority, was that the location was being used by two groups of vulnerable people, whose uses of the facility were mutually exclusive.

As a local authority we have a duty of care to both groups.

On the one hand, the bus shelter is used by many thousands of bus passengers a day. The bus passengers represent a spectrum of society and include elderly people, people with medical conditions, young people, parents with pushchairs and so on.

Many of these people need to be able to sit down when they are waiting for their bus, and the benches in the shelter are for them to do this.

We also received numerous complaints from bus passengers about street drinkers at Rougier Street being aggressive, drinking in this location and fouling the footway, something which is a public health issue and needs to be tackled under any circumstance.

Despite concerted efforts by ourselves and the police to minimise anti-social behaviour at this location (e.g. issuing warnings and confiscating alcohol), we had to take action to remove the street drinkers from this location, because of the public health and nuisance issues.

The street drinkers are themselves a vulnerable group – but it should be pointed out that they are, on the whole, not homeless. In terms of homeless people, we are not aware that the shelter is used as a location to sleep rough overnight.

Having consulted with the police about the problems at Rougier Street – and the council’s own Anti-Social Behaviour team, we were advised that the most appropriate action to tackle the street drinking problem at Rougier Street was either to remove the benches entirely or fit them with arms/ underbars.

Removing the benches would harm all users of the passenger shelter, many of whom are elderly or have restricted mobility (or may simply be carrying heavy shopping), so the action taken was to (a) put arms on the benches/ bars underneath them and (b) to improve the cleaning regime for the shelters to tackle the public health issues – and this is the action we took.

The police’s view

A spokeswoman for North Yorkshire Police said:

It is important that members of the public know the real reasons for the introduction of the bars.

They are one of a number of measures put in place to address the issue of street drinkers and drug users who cause antisocial behaviour around the bus shelters.

A number of complaints have been made to the City of York Council about drunk, aggressive and intimidating behaviour, as well as unsanitary conditions caused by the street drinkers.

The majority of the individuals, if not all of them, who contribute to these issues are not homeless.

North Yorkshire Police work with the City of York Council to address antisocial behaviour so that local residents and visitors can go about their daily lives without fear or intimidation.

There are also a number of initiatives in place to help people who are homeless, those with mental health vulnerabilities, and to address alcohol and drug misuse.