No-one could quite believe it. Four schoolgirls from St George's High School wanted to organise a march to protest at the closure of their school. Then an estimated bill arrived - for £2500, including payments for "Cones x50, Signage x12, Vehicles x2 (with drivers), Manpower x6".
The girls were totally shocked. "It's ridiculous" said Lizzie Finch "There were ten thousand police marching through the centre of London and they didn't get charged a penny to protest, yet we're getting charged to save our school."
A couple of weeks later and the actual cost of the march arrives - and it's a mere snip at £1866.45, which includes £176.25 for switching the traffic lights to red for a few minutes, and £1267.20 for vehicles, manpower, signage etc. That's nearly two thousand quid to basically march for half an hour, crossing only one main road. So, who's imposed these charges? Who is responsible for imposing a price on democracy? The police, perhaps? No.
"Planning for events both on and off the highway is the responsibility of the Local Authority under the Traffic Management Act" a GMP spokesperson told us. It's Salford City Council.
"There are real costs to the Council in organising the necessary road closures" said Jill Baker, director of Children's Services "costs that need to be met from some source."
These "real costs" were calculated by Urban Vision Partnership Ltd, a joint venture public/private company. Salford Council has a 19.9% share in Urban Vision, while a company called Morrison Highway Maintenance Ltd has 30% and the huge multi-national, Capita Symonds has a 51% stake.
In the year ending 2006, Urban Vision made £6,795,275 gross profit and one of its directors, David Spencer, was paid £122,696 in "emoluments" and "pension contributions". Urban Vision charges the Council the going rate for any work done and the profits are divided between the partners. Thus Salford Council will get a split of the profits for charging the schoolgirls to march.
Charging the organisers of demonstrations for peaceful protest marches goes way beyond the St George's School campaign and has major implications for democracy nationally.
Alex Gask, a human rights lawyer with Liberty says:
“These girls simply wish the St George’s students’ voices to be heard, and are engaging in a peaceful demonstration as is their democratic right. The decision by the very Council they are demonstrating against to charge four schoolgirls two thousands pounds undermines their right to protest. So much for local democracy…”
Photo: Kate Furnell
Words: Stephen Kingston