Is enough being done to tackle street drinking?

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The days when one could take a walk along the high street and not be met with the unwelcome sight of a posse of street drinkers with cans in hands and bottles in carrier bags is becoming all the more rare.

The sound of drunks squawking from one bench to another along Terminus Road is becoming almost as common-place as the chorus of seagulls that previously provided the soundtrack to our seaside town.

The groups of men and women choosing to pass the hours guzzling an off-licence’s slightly less-than-luxurious supply of liquor are becoming a blot on Eastbourne’s infamous tourist landscape and questions are being asked about whether enough is being done to stamp out the problem.

It’s been a continuous battle between Sussex Police and the small army of street drinkers in Eastbourne. Rules have been introduced, enforced and ultimately, broken – but how do the authorities keep tabs on those who seem set on drinking away their days on the town’s streets?

Recent information released in an East Sussex Public Health Directorate made for concerning reading: street drinking in Eastbourne saw a rise of 46 per cent between November 2011 and October 2012 and has remained at that high level ever since. Compared to the rest of East Sussex, Eastbourne has a higher rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions and has a significantly worse rate of alcohol-attributable violent crimes compared to the UK average.

The report highlighted seven key problem areas in the town, stretching from Eastbourne Railway Station, Grove Road and Terminus Road to Trinity Trees, Grand Parade and Burlington Place. Langney Road, Susans Road, Pevensey Road and Bolton Road were also singled out as problem areas, while the zone with the most reported incidents of street drinking was Gildredge Road, Lushington Road, Cornfield Road and South Street, with 37 incidents during November 2012 and October 2013. During those 11 months, there were 290 reports of street drinking in Eastbourne altogether.

Authorities have been collecting data to try and spot behavioural patterns and similarities in the characteristics of street drinkers and their day-to-day movements in an attempt to tackle the issue.

However, as the problem becomes more widespread, any routine is gradually starting to disappear. In previous years, there was a peak in the number of incidents of street drinking reported during June and September and low figures were seen during December. Over the past 21 months though, street drinking has become a year-round problem, rather than one predominantly experienced during spring and summer months.

The time of day has also altered in recent years. Where previously there would be a solitary peak at 12pm-3pm, there are now high points recorded as early as 9am right up until 6pm.

In Eastbourne, nine per cent of adults admit to drinking every day, with more than half drinking at least every week. More shockingly, one in four Year 10 school pupils, who are aged between 14 and 15, are drinking at least once a week and 11 per cent claim to have got drunk in the last week.

The problem with street drinkers is not simply an annoyance at their rowdy behaviour giving our town a bad name but also includes fears for health, safety and straining the public purse.

Norman Baker, Minister for Crime Prevention Correspondence, said, “Alcohol is a key driver of crime and disorder and a major public health challenge, estimated to cost around £21bn per year. This includes the costs of alcohol-fuelled crime (around £11bn) and NHS costs (around £3.5bn). I am sure you will agree that these costs are unacceptably high. I am keen to ensure that all tools and powers to tackle these alcohol harms, for example on sales to drunks and the new anti-social behaviour powers, are used fully.

“For the last three years, the problem of street drinking in Eastbourne has been an issue that the Police in the town and their partner agencies have been keen to tackle.”

To this end, dispersal orders were introduced in the town.

The purpose of such is to try and discourage individuals and groups from undertaking the aforementioned activity and thus reduce the impact it has on businesses and individuals affected by their behaviour.

In Eastbourne, dispersal orders have been put in place from the junction of King Edwards Parade and Silverdale Road to the junction of Royal Parade and Channel View Road. It also stretches north to include the area bounded by Devonshire Place, South Street, Gildredge Road, Terminus Road, Upperton Road, Enys Road, Eversfield Road, Upper Avenue and Cavendish Place.

The orders allow police officers to move on groups of two or more people where their presence or behaviour has resulted, or is likely to result, in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed. In an authorised area, a police CSO may either tell people in the group to disperse immediately or at a stated time and in a stated way, tell people who do not live in the area to leave the area either immediately or in a stated time and in a stated way or tell people who do not live in the area not to return to the area for a period of up to 24 hours.

Dispersal orders were reinstated in the town on July 21 last year and in the first month, up until August 12, 37 people were dispersed under a section 30 dispersal order, five people were arrested for breaching the dispersal order and one man had been charged with breaching a dispersal order.

Inspector Rachel Barrow, of Eastbourne’s Neighbourhood Policing Team, said, “Eastbourne has Designated Public Place Orders (DPPOs) covering the town centre, the seafront and an area broadly defined by Whitley Road Recreation Ground in the east, the Western Lawns in the west and Upperton Road going north. It also includes Gildredge Park.

“It is not an offence to drink alcohol in a designated area, but it is an offence if someone fails to comply with an officer’s requests to stop drinking and surrender alcohol without reasonable excuse.

“From Monday (October 20) new Dispersal Powers come into force across the country which, on the authority of an inspector or senior officer, can be used to exclude offenders from an area for up to 48 hours.

“These are more flexible and include means for dealing with other forms of anti-social behaviour, not just street drinking and problems of disorder associated with the night time economy. There is an additional power to confiscate items associated with the behaviour of the person being directed to disperse, for example alcohol, offensive material or noisy equipment. We will be aiming to incorporate them in our approach to street problems, which it must be stressed, are dealt with holistically rather than simply punitively.

“We recognise that many drink-related incidents arise from people’s vulnerabilities in other directions, for instance mental health and homelessness, and so we shall continue to work with other agencies - health, social services, the borough council – to help resolve such issues in the longer term.”

The current DPPO in Eastbourne could be amended to something called a Public Space Protection Order, designed to stop individuals or groups behaving in a way that has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality, but this would be up to Eastbourne Borough Council to decide.

The council has considered the implementation of a local scheme encouraging the removal of higher-strength beer and cider products from local shops. With 20 off-licensed premises with a 1km radius of Bolton Road, in the town centre, it was an idea that was thought to have been effective in nipping street drinking in the bud.

However, under licensing law, any such conditions should be evidence-based and tailored to specific premises. Should such a measure be introduced, the council would run a high risk of contravening competition law.

And so it’s back to the drawing board. Dispersal orders are seemingly effective in moving on street drinkers at a certain time and place but with nothing yet in place to support these orders, the enforcement falls flat when the culprits return 24 hours later. Legislation was introduced earlier this year to ban the below-cost selling of alcohol but a positive knock-on effect of this has not yet been noticed.

The root of the problem no doubt lies deeper than the bottom of a beer can but the fight will go on until street drinkers are no longer a blemish on our beautiful town.