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Kerbing outside drinking

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The government is granting more powers to tackle alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour, but will it work?

Next month sees the implementation of alcohol disorder zones, the latest in a series of government measures to crack down on drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour. The end of November also sees the second anniversary of the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003, which relaxed restrictions on pubs and bars' opening hours.

A shift in government thinking, away from the laissez faire approach enshrined in the 2003 act, is already taking place. Prime minister Gordon Brown used his keynote speech at last month's Labour Party conference to promise a fresh crackdown on the problems caused by under-age drinking.

So how is the act working? And will the zones give councils an effective tool for tackling drink-fuelled rowdiness?

The government's review of the 2005 licensing deregulation, recently announced by Mr Brown, is likely to be a mixed verdict. "There isn't enough evidence to make a judgment on whether the Licensing Act has had an impact one way or the other," says Srabani Sen, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Concern.

In terms of tackling alcohol-related crime and disorder, one of the act's stated aims, the reform's impact has been marginal.

The latest annual British Crime Survey, published in July, showed a 7,000 increase in the number of violent disorder, criminal damage and harassment incidents recorded between 6am-6pm over the year, following the act's November 2005 implementation.

"There appears to have been an increase in violent crime, but it's not statistically significant," says Rachel Seabrook, a researcher at the Institute for Alcohol Studies.

The survey shows a larger rise in the number of such offences committed between 3am-6am, up by 10,000 to 57,000, but this represents just four percent of these types of incidents. "Before we got longer opening hours, there was very little happening in terms of crime at that time of night, so from a very low base we have seen a significant increase," says Ms Seabrook. The volume of the most serious disorder offences, meanwhile, has fallen.

"Generally senior police officers are saying it's been very successful the problem is that it's stretched out resources. But if they were really worried about it, they would be up in arms," says Alistair Turnham, director of the Erskine Corporation, an evening economy consultancy.

A major cause of concern for councils remains the cost of administering the new licensing system. A review into the financing of the new regime, carried out by former Gateshead Council chief executive Sir Bill Elson for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) earlier this year, shows that councils are collectively£97m out of pocket. And this position is likely to have worsened, given that the figures it is based on were collected at the beginning of 2006. So far there has been no response from the DCMS, a source of frustration for local authorities.

But apart from this major financial beef, Marion Roberts, professor of urban design at the University of Westminster, says that the new local licensing committees are working well. She adds that operators seem content too with the handover of licensing powers from magistrates to councils. Most people would say that local authorities have done a good job and have taken a sensible approach"

But the medical profession remains concerned about the deregulation.

Among the adult population, hospital admissions resulting from alcohol misuse have doubled in the past 10 years, up from 89,380 to 187,640. Alcohol Concern's Ms Sen says: "If you look at accident & emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights, seven out of 10 of the people are there as a consequence of alcohol. The impact on the local NHS's resources is phenomenal."

Most concern is focused on under-age drinking. Figures recently published by the NHS Information Centre for Health & Social Care show that almost one in 10 of all 11-13 year olds are knocking back more than 10 units a week, a figure which has doubled over the past five years. But the same statistics show that the proportion of similar aged children never to have touched a drop has risen from 39 to 45% over the past three years, suggesting that young peoples' drinking habits are polarising. Ms Sea-brook comments: ""It's not that they are all out there getting drunk, it's more that those who are, are getting drunk more."

Partly in response to such concerns, the government is giving councils and the police powers to tackle geographical 'hot spots' of drink-related anti-social behaviour. Within areas earmarked as alcohol disorder zones, councils will have the powers to impose a levy on licensed premises to pay for measures to tackle drink-fuelled disorder, including extra policing.

But the process for designating an area as an alcohol disorder zone will be a long-winded one.

Before an area is designated, licensed premises will have a minimum of eight weeks to get their house in order. If they don't, the council or local police force will have to undertake a consultation with businesses likely to be affected. Only once this has happened can an area be designated as an alcohol disorder zone, and then only on a temporary basis.

A Bradford City MDC response to the DCMS' 2005 consultation on alcohol disorder zones highlights concerns: "While the concept of an alcohol disorder zone may appear superficially attractive, there would appear to be a number of potential practical problems associated with its implementation."

A licensing source says the designation process is likely to be open to legal challenge and the guidance for councils is not clear. "It's a last resort, if you think you have exhausted all of the other options," she says.

It's hardly the case that police and councils lack powers to deal with drink-related problems. The police already have powers to take cans and bottles off problem drinkers under the Anti Social Behaviour Act 2003 by imposing a Designated Public Place Order. The same act gives police and councils powers to disperse groups causing distress or harassment in problem localities.

Samantha Cunningham, operations manager of Westminster Civic Watch, says: "We don't need new powers. We need the resources and the time to make a difference."

Hannah Mummery, policy and research officer at the Civic Trust, believes that alcohol disorder zones are too broad brush a measure.

"It may be a quick fix in the short term, but a lot of people are going to be punished for a very few problem premises," she says, adding that by designating somewhere as an alcohol disorder zone, there is a 'risk' of 'real damage' to whole town centres.

The Erskine Corporation's Mr Turnham agrees: "It gives an area a bad name. There are other, much more positive ways to work with licensees," he said.

Alcohol Concern's Ms Sen defends the government's proposals. "If you are running a business, you should be doing it within the constraints of the law. If [licensed premises] are being run appropriately, you won't have anything to fear."

Overall, there is widespread scepticism that the alcohol disorder zones will prove to be an effective tool. Ms Mummery says: "I can't think of many places where it would work. It's not the way to go."

Mr Turnham agrees: "Few people think it's a good idea apart from the government who introduced it. They will disappear as an initiative. People won't remember what they are in five years time. Most people realise that they are not the greatest piece of policy we have ever had."

Mr Turnham suggests councils need to think much more strategically when shaping their responses to alcohol-related issues, rather than just focusing on symptoms.

"Local authorities have a duty under Planning Policy Statement Six (PPS6) to produce a coherent approach by planning their evening economies and ensuring their town centres are vibrant, dynamic and sustainable places,"he says.

"Few authorities have seriously understood the implications of that and are grappling with the need to plan for the evening economy. It's only starting to happen now."

Prof Roberts says that one group that must be involved is transport officers. "You can't run late-night buses when you don't have as many people as you have in central London," she says. And she points out that many problems of disorder can be nipped in the bud by improved road layouts.

But the most important relationship to get right is that between council's licensing and planning functions, by ensuring that the two are working together effectively.

This kind of approach is common in Continental Europe, the much-vaunted model for Labour's deregulation of the licensing system, she points out.

Prof Roberts says: "Where they have longer hours, they have more controls over the size and type of units. People think that they have a lot more freedom, but there are more controls, not less."

"Local authorities should be putting pressure on central government to see what can be done to tackle the problem. Older people would come out if there were more quiet places to drink in."

But as long as the market is in the driving seat, cash-generating mega bars will continue to dominate the high street, she warns.

"When the government looks at PPS6, they should look into whether we want this extreme competition on our high streets. We should be looking at them as places where they can do more low-profit activities.

"We should not be looking at our town centres just as machines for making money," Prof Roberts says.

Once upon a time Bournemouth was a by-word for gentility - the elderly nature of the town's population led to the town being dubbed 'God's waiting room'.

But that has changed in the past 10 years, following the opening of the new university, which has turned the south coast town into a magnet for clubbers. "We get a big influx into the town centre of people partying on Friday and Saturday nights," says Andy Williams, Bournemouth BC's licensing team leader.

And concerns about anti-social behaviour are magnified by the fact that the town's relatively high proportion of elderly people prefer a more staid environment.

Since July, Bournemouth has had in place a designated public place order (DPPO), covering the whole of the town centre.

"It is illegal to drink alcohol in an anti-social manner. It doesn't mean people can't have a glass of wine in the garden or sit outside, but if they are behaving in an anti-social way they can be arrested," says Mr Williams.

The order was introduced partly as a result of pressure from the local police force, following an upsurge in complaints about drink-fuelled nuisance behaviour.

Mr Williams says it is too early to assess whether the order has been a success. "The end of the summer is a very difficult period anyway," he says, "We expect it will have more of an impact now the summer holidays have finished."

The main impact of the order has been to nip anti-social behaviour in the bud before it degenerates into more serious violent incidents, he notes.

"The police have been getting people much earlier, trying to deal with low level offences and disorder before people get carried away and it starts getting into serious violence."

Overall, he says, Bournemouth's experience post-Licensing Act has reflected the national picture.

The old peak in incidents at pub closing time has flattened out. "It's changed the time it happens, so it's spread out over a longer period," he says. "Less is going on, but it does mean that there is a need for a greater police presence throughout the night."

The council is drawing up a master plan for the regeneration of the town centre to encourage a mix of venues for a wider range of age groups.

But this will be linked to a firmer line on enforcement following a change of control to the Conservative Party at last May's local election, according to Mr Williams. "We are going to look more harshly at licensed premises where there have been problems."

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