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Harlow Council’s ‘biker injunction’ faux pas

Published: 28 May 2016

Updated: 27 May 2016

An Essex town’s council have caused an internet furore over the past week by issuing an injunction that stops groups of motorcyclists gathering there – and they have no one to blame for the ensuing indignation other than themselves.

The internet lit up as indignant motorcyclists stormed social media channels to express their anger over Harlow Council’s seemingly astounding decision to issue an injunction against all and any motorcyclists riding and gathering in the Harlow area.

In force in Harlow for the next 10 months, the injunction bans groups of two or more people from taking part in unauthorised rideouts between 10am and 12midnight on any public land or public highway in Harlow. Anyone breaking the injunction would be in contempt of court and may be sent to prison.

Extraordinarily that means that if you and your mate meet up and ride to Harlow Town Park for a good natter and a sarnie on the grass – you could be in contempt of court under this injunction for driving in a convoy within the town limits.

The Harlow Council statement clarified that the injunction covers:

  • Excessive noise
  • Danger to other road users including pedestrians
  • Damage or risk of damage to private property
  • Any nuisance to other persons not participating in the unauthorised ride out
  • Driving at excess speed
  • Driving in convoy
  • Racing another motor vehicle
  • Performing stunts
  • Sounding horns
  • Playing loud music
  • Dropping litter
  • Shouting or swearing at, or abusing, threatening or otherwise intimidating another person

Of course, every one of these issues is already covered by some form of legislation, and could already be addressed by Essex Police if anyone were deemed to be in breach of whichever law relates to the offence – so why the heavy-handed blanket injunction?

The root of the problem, and the perception of the cause, are – as is often the case – two different things. Groups of anti-social individuals making a nuisance of themselves on powered two wheelers (PTWs) is a very different issue to that of ‘problem motorcyclists’. Not all bikers are law-abiding citizens, true, and groups of them can be a threatening presence (as much as any lawless gathering will be), but tarring all motorcyclists with Harlow’s problems is misuse of the brush of indignation.

It’s the same simplistic mentality that sees the national press label gangs of thieves raiding a jeweller’s as a ‘biker gang’ just because the little scrotes have sussed that scooters provide the perfect urban getaway vehicle. They’re no more motorcyclists than I am a gourmet chef because I once added a splash of red wine to a spag-bol. It’s an infantile level of misdirection.

But the problem is real enough. Police received 121 calls about motorbikes, quad bikes, pit bikes and mopeds being ridden illegally or in an antisocial manner in Harlow between March 18 and May 18. This compares to 74 during the same time last year. And officers have been patrolling hotspot areas, and working with schools to educate youngsters about the law around riding off-road vehicles.

One such law that covers the problem Harlow – like so many towns – is suffering is Section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which outlaws PTWs being “ridden on common land, moorland, land which is not part of the road, a footpath, bridleway, restricted byway or private land without the owner’s permission.” A law which surely needs no further support by a blanket injunction.

The Harlow Star reported Essex Police’s Insp Paul Maleary as saying: “We have seen a marked increase in reports of nuisance vehicles, of which at least three quarters are about off-road motorbikes. Bikers are riding on roads and common land in a manner that can only be described as reckless, posing a danger to themselves and members of the public.

“They also carry out stunts and ride around a high speed, with many not wearing any protective gear and often without driving licences or insurance. We are worried there could be a serious injury incident or a fatality and take this very seriously, which is why we are working in partnership with Harlow Council to tackle this issue robustly.”

Note the iteration of the common misconception that these riders are ‘bikers’ – ie the same as all other motorcyclists. They’re not bikers, they’re people riding bikes. A kid kicking a ball against the windows of every shop in Harlow high street isn’t a ‘footballer’, either.

So, in an attempt to clamp down on the socially offensive behaviour of society’s less attractive humans who see fit to ride pitbikes, motocross bikes – and whatever else they can lay their hands on – on public land, pavements, through housing estates and on the road, Harlow Council decided to issue what appeared to be a dictum against all motorcyclists, despite existing legislation already covering these offences.

Cue the splattering sound of the brown stuff flying through thousands of fast-spinning electric fans as motorcyclists everywhere rightly reeled with indignation, and vented their spleens at this apparent persecution.

The rising tide of bile, and questions from the press and riders’ rights groups – such as MAG – has now forced the Council to issue an apology and clarification of their intent.

The official statement says: "Harlow Council is very sorry that this issue has upset and angered the wider biking community. This was never our intention. Harlow Council and Essex Police wants to make it clear that anyone riding bikes lawfully in Harlow on the road to either meet up with friends, including driving in a convoy; drive through the town; learn to ride or teach others, or take part in a charity event, will not be served with the injunction. This is the same for anyone driving a motor vehicle."

"The main aim of the injunction was to stop an unauthorised rideout event taking place on Saturday, May 21, which would have attracted hundreds of young people on motorbikes and bystanders.

"The injunction also aims to target a growing problem of groups of people creating a nuisance by riding bikes illegally on the streets, public highways and on green spaces in Harlow.

"It is these unauthorised rideouts, and these only, which are the target of this injunction. Not only do these unauthorised ride outs cause nuisance to communities, they also put the safety of the wider public and the riders at serious risk.

"The injunction will therefore only be served and enforced on people who are gathering and causing a nuisance and carrying out antisocial behaviour.

"The injunction does not distract from the police's existing powers. It is simply one of a number of measures in place to deal with this specific problem being experienced in Harlow.”

Insp Maleary reiterated the council’s assertion, saying: “Essex Police fully supports the injunction held by Harlow Council. This clarification statement makes it clear that neither Essex Police nor Harlow Council intend to target those persons engaged in lawful activity.”

Which is good of them, obviously.

On release of this olive branch to the offended, MAG Chair Selina Lavender commented: “The clarification by Harlow Council is helpful and we welcome the included apology. We are cautiously confident that this injunction will not become an issue with implications broader than the one it was conceived to address, but we are calling upon the council to rescind this unnecessary court order.”

And we’d echo that call.

So, to be clear, the injunction is only in existence to target people breaking the law. Which is also what all the existing laws are already in place to do. So real motorcyclists using Her Majesty’s highways may do so with impunity in Harlow, so long as they’re behaving. As was already the case. And, oddly, anyone wishing to organise an unofficial rideout between midnight and 10am may continue to do so without fear of contravening the injunction.

And, of course, the people likely to be riding a motorcycle illegally in a public place, without a licence, insurance, protective gear or any regard for their fellow humans, are exactly the people who care not a jot for the laws they’re already breaking – and are unlikely to be shocked into decency by a new injunction. So while it’s succeeded in causing a healthy storm of indignation, the legacy of the injunction seems destined to be nothing more than an ineffectual waste of everyone’s brainpower and stress reserves, the court’s time and some public money.

Which rather begs the question – rideout anyone?

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