Leafleting: A Liberty Lost?

MC-Leaflet-imageWriting previously on Culture Vulture about what Leeds City Council could do to help facilitate and promote the city’s independent cultural sector, I suggested the removal of restrictions on the use of public space, including ‘expensive licensing procedures for leafleting in and around the city centre’. Public space should be just that: space we can use without charge or official sanction; but, as a new report by civil liberties campaigning group The Manifesto Club shows, Leeds is not alone in placing restrictions on leafleting in and around city centres. This is, in fact, an anti-social activity indulged in by many local authorities.

Leafleting: A Liberty Lost? charts the steady growth of local authority controls over public leafleting and fly-posting in recent years, in particular since the introduction of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 (CNEA). This act allows local authorities to designate areas within which people must have a license and/or authorised badges to distribute free printed material; the cost of which can run into hundreds of pounds.

In West Yorkshire, for example, Kirklees Council charges £100 and Wakefield £150 per distributer per year; while Leeds City Council has an ascending scale from £75 for a single badge to £175 for four or more badges per year. In addition, leafleting restrictions are often enforced by fixed penalties that are largely unregulated, with council officials acting as judge and jury. Licensing also gives local authorities unprecedented control over the content of literature, including the specification not to be ‘offensive’; which, in today’s you-can’t say-that culture, could really mean anything.

Most importantly, however, is that such regulations and restrictions amount to an attack on centuries old civic freedoms and traditions. As the Manifesto Club report says: leaflets, handbills and posters have been a part of British urban and democratic culture since 1695 when ‘the pressure of liberal opinion won the day, and the licensing of printing was finally ended’. While local by-laws soon developed that prohibited ‘unreasonable leafleting’, this was only to prevent wilful obstruction or harassment of passers-by, not to restrict our freedom to pass pieces of paper between one another. This remained the case until 2002, when the government report Living Places – Cleaner, Safer, Greener set the scene for subsequent regulations on leafleting.

Living Places responded to real problems of urban decline by focusing on removing various kinds of ‘mess’ from the urban environment, ‘with an obsessive focus on litter – whether dog mess, graffiti, chewing gum or leaflets’. This was inspired by the ‘broken windows’ theory of urban decay that was influential in the UK and US in the 1990s, according to which signs of disorder encourage further anti-social behaviour. For the Manifesto Club, ‘the problem with such thinking is that it greatly exaggerates the importance of something like litter in influencing an area’s fortunes’. In fact, rather than signs of decay, ‘leaflets and posters can be signs of community spirit and things going on’; but, as their report argues, the regulation of leafleting actually has little to do with litter.

Instead, the crackdown on leafleting and posters is driven more by ‘an official disapproval of everyday social life’ and a ‘general desire to regulate’ spontaneous and unauthorised activities. This tendency is evidenced by local authorities’ inventing of their own ‘pseudo-legal’ regulations, and even ignoring exemptions in the CNEA to allow leafleting for ‘political purposes’, ‘a religion or belief’, or ‘by or on behalf of a charity’. So protestors opposing planned changes to Leeds’ Corn Exchange, for example, were fined for handing out leaflets without a license, as the police chose to interpret political leafleting as applying to registered political parties only. While Hull City Council operates a blanket ‘no leafleting’ policy.

But even where leafleting is permitted, the licensing process can be arduous, involving the completion of lengthy forms. In fact, ‘the simple passing of paper between two citizens, where no money changes hands – has become subject to more stringent controls than are applied to many street sellers’. As such, licensing schemes effectively reduce city centre promotion to those companies that can afford it; thereby disproportionately affecting those smaller commercial or cultural initiatives which arguably need it the most, and eliminating an element of spontaneity from what should be an easy way to pass along information. The biggest loss though ‘is the notion that leafleting is a public freedom … rather than an activity which is carried out only with the sanction and under the control of public authority’. As Leafleting: A Liberty Lost? says, under the likes of the CNEA, councils are behaving like private landlords, setting conditions for the use of public spaces as they see fit; and in doing so, shift the law from ‘punishing people who are behaving in an unreasonable or obstructive manner, to regulating everybody’.

Leafleting restrictions prevent the free use of public space for the exchange of ideas and information. They are expensive, bureaucratic, and suppress an important and longstanding aspect of civic life. So far, there have been only a few isolated examples of resistance; and a broader ‘alliance against leafleting controls’, as the Manifesto Club suggests, would be required to reclaim public space from over-officious local authorities. However, it would be far better for everyone if councils simply abolished these restrictions altogether.

Leafleting: A Liberty Lost? A Manifesto Club Report (2011) is available to buy or download here.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon and argues Leeds is a ‘City of Debate’.


  1. I’ve given this some thought (you’ll be pleased to know :)) over the weekend. I think you make some good points, about civil liberties and so on. But I don’t know that it’s enough.

    I currently live in Hyde Park. I get on average 5 menus through my door a day. It’s a tad irritating, as I just scoop them up on my way out and put them straight in the recycling bin. It seems no one can do anythng about this massive waste of paper. So in that respect, leafleting is less irritating, because you actually have to take the paper off someone who handing them out. Or not.

    However, being the lesser of two evils is never a great thing.

    Living where I do, I have to walk past the uni to get into town. I don’t know if you walk this stretch often, but the floor is littered with bits of paper. It doesn’t look very nice, and frankly, when a sea of arms are pushing paper in your face it’s not a nice experience either. I curse these guys under my breath every time. And those muppets who hand leaflets to my 15 month old baby? Yeh, not that funny.

    We are living in a world that is fast running out of resources. It’s time to be a bit cleverer with what we have left. If you need to pass a message on, do so. Do it differently and I might even pay attention.

    1. Laura

      Thanks for your considered reply.

      I’ve had to suffer many a leafleteer at sometime or other – including past the university – blindly pushing their flyers at me. However, one of the perverse effects of leafleting regulation (which the report goes into) has been the commercialisation of leafleting, and growth of leaflet distribution companies – who deal with all the forms and legal hassle.

      The problem is that these companies tend to be less discriminating about handing out leaflets than those running an event. Hired leafleteers only aim is to get rid of the leaflets to whoever – even 15 month olds. Whereas those involved in an event are more likely to discriminate and talk to people before giving them a flyer. Get rid of the regulations on the free use of public space you get rid of – at least – some of the need for these companies, and allow those more likely to care about who they’re handing their leaflets to re-take over.


  2. I have to agree with Paul. The unintended consequences of legislation and charges are far worse than the original problem. It also penalises the smaller organisation that has limited funds.

    When I used to be in a band it cost us money to produce leaflets, the last thing we wanted to do was ‘throw them away’ by giving them to people who would have no interest in what we were doing. I don’t see why people can’t stand in the street, with a sign and a bag of leaflets and have people ask for a leaflet. I believe the same thing applies to charity collectors—they’re not allowed to ask for donations, people have to volunteer them.

    As much as I think leafleting is old fashioned and ineffective, I still think the basic right of allowing people the freedom to do it should be kept. There is an insidious movement by the authorities to control everything in life; it is both dangerous and terminal. It started with the loss of the commons and soon the authorities will seek to ban anyone even raising their voice in a public place to voice their opinion.

    I urge everyone reading this to become aware of the threat and to support the Occupy Everywhere movement.

  3. This issue was unknown to me until a few months ago when I attended a protest in Leeds city centre. There only about 10 of us using banners, talking to people attending the event and some imaginative use of props. A private security company & police did their best to obstruct the protest from even seeing it. I agree leaflets aren’t always effective but sometimes people haven’t got time to stop and discuss & actually want to take something away with them. Believe me I’ve tried qr codes & quick web links but these don’t work for everybody. So we tried offering (not giving) leaflets to those that wanted them. The police then threatened the one person doing this with arrest. They even took leaflets off people who had voluntarily taken a leaflet or even asked for one. This seems like general suppression of the right to protest which is plain wrong.

    I do agree that leaflets should be offered not foisted on people but hey we have litter laws & many people won’t take a leaflet when they dont want one. Worth losing hard fought for democratic rights for?

    1. Jon

      Apparently it could get worse. Students at Leeds University are proposing a motion to request that the Uni authorities and Leeds CC ban leafleting in and around the University. The main reason being that some find it ‘harassing’ and ‘annoying’ – which of course it can be. But so can many things in life – living in a ‘free society’ does mean occasionally having to put with thing we may not personally like. It also means treating people as adults who can deal with those potential annoying situations rather than running to the authorities for bans on longstanding civic freedoms.

      In the internet age, leafleting is less important than it was but is still, nonetheless, an important means of passing information and directly engaging with people. And, as you say, is ‘a hard fought democratic right’. I agree leaflets should be offered not foisted and that many people won’t take a leaflet when they don’t want one – we are capable of ignoring them. I’d add, even if foisted we’re big enough to say ‘no thanks’ or ‘go away’. Unfortunately, some Leeds Uni students seem to lack that robust view of themselves and each other and want something they don’t like banned to stop them being harassed and annoyed. Someone should leaflet the university about it.


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