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LGC FEATURE - NONE FOR THE ROAD

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Bans on public drinking have proved effective in tackling street violence. A new Bill will make them easier to imp...
Bans on public drinking have proved effective in tackling street violence. A new Bill will make them easier to implement. Audrey Thompson reports.
It is an image everybody is familiar with. Eleven o'clock on Saturday night in the centre of town and the drunken hordes are pouring out from the pubs still carrying a pint or a bottle of beer. Or there is the park or rest area that has long since been claimed by the town's youths and down-and-outs as their watering hole.
It is the reality behind images like these - the intimidation, the fights, the vandalism and the crime that often results when people congregate and drink openly on our streets that is gradually building the momentum for more bans on public drinking.
Home secretary Jack Straw said: 'Drunken yobs cause misery to individuals and blight communities across the country every weekend. It is essential that police officers have adequate powers to deal with these thugs.' The government's Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which had its second reading in the commons last month, will make it easier for both the police and councils to instigate such bans.
Up till now, street drinking has been banned by only a few councils using by-laws. The Coventry Alcohol by-law of 1988 was one of the first in England and Wales after serious problems with night revellers at Christmas time. It started as an experiment, with a maximum fine of£500 for being convicted, but became permanent two years later.
Coventry City Council says local consultation showed 86% of the public believed a ban to be a good idea and public support continues today as incidents of anti-social behaviour, drunkenness and verbal abuse have been greatly reduced.
The ban led Coventry to implement a number of other alcohol-related measures, such as identity cards for young people, a pub watch scheme which keeps an eye on troublesome pubs, training for prospective licensees and registration and training for door staff.
Bedford BC, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester City Councils, and a small number of London boroughs have decided to follow the same path. Liverpool and Merseyside police felt a ban would help them combat the number of glass-related injuries and attacks that occurred in the city centre. Malcolm Kelly (Lib Dem), chair of the licensing committee, says: 'The city's streets are littered with discarded bottles at the weekend. People only have to pick one up and they immediately have an offensive weapon.'
The ban on street drinking began in March last year, followed in June by police powers to confiscate - after a warning - any bottles and cans still being used. In December the council introduced mini bottle banks to encourage the prompt disposal of alcohol.
Liverpool's city centre manager Colin York says: 'Because the public were aware drinking on the streets is not desirable, the police have not had to use their powers that often. The barometer for how much street drinking still goes on is how full the mini banks get, andquite often when it is time for them to be emptied there are very few bottles in them.'
In August last year Manchester City Council introduced its ban as part of its city centre safety campaign. Since the IRA bomb in 1995 and the reconstruction of the city centre, there has been a 242% increase in the number of pubs and bars in the area. At the same time, the number of injuries and assaults reported to police had increased by 225%. This created a need for much heavier policing than previously and the bulk of it concerned preventing street violence.
Kath Robinson (Lab), deputy leader of the city council, says: 'At any one time we will have 120,000 people in the city centre on a Friday and a Saturday night.
The majority of them are fine, coming in for a good night out. But at the same time it's about how we make the centre safe and the alcohol by-law is one part of the strategy.'
Now anyone refusing to hand over alcohol being consumed on the streets can be fined up to£1,000. The council has worked closely with bars and clubs to encourage the use of plastic containers when serving alcohol instead of glass. It is hoped the by-law will help reduce violence in the city centre by 9% by 2002.
Every indication, says Ms Robinson, is that the by-law has been so successful that councillors and the public all over Manchester cannot wait to have the scheme in their areas. It has even had a knock-on affect on the crowds of football fans who parade the streets before and after a big match.
Lambeth LBC has had a street drinking ban for two years. Lambeth's idea was that when the police want to tackle street drinking the legislation would be in place. But it is up to the police to decide their priorities and street drinking may not be as important as other crimes. Lewisham LBC has adopted a ban, though it has still to be ratified by the Home Secretary - probably in April.
Going though the process of implementing a by-law can cost councils anything between£10,000 and£15,000. It involves a cumbersome legal process through the courts and can take months to get up and running. It is also, despite the close co-operation between councils and the police, principally a council-led procedure.
But the new Bill streamlines the process. It gives councils the adoptive powers to designate no street drinking areas, and will give the police new powers to confiscate alcohol from street drinkers, along with a host of measures for closing premises where disorder often occurs.
Street drinking bans appear to be very effective. Now they will be much easier to implement.
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