Against booze bans

Giving police the arbitrary power to prevent people from drinking in public is an attack on everyday freedom.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

The proliferation of booze bans in towns and cities across Britain has been a key focus of the Manifesto Club’s Freedom Summer campaign against the ‘hyperregulation of everyday life’, and has been comprehensively documented on spiked (1). Responses to our campaign have been mixed, from enthusiastic support to bewilderment that anyone should think this is a worthwhile issue, and indeed straightforward disagreement from those who believe booze bans are a good idea.

This last response is typically offered with a shrug rather than real enthusiasm, however, and the issue has yet to break out of the local media and be subjected to serious scrutiny, so it is all the more disturbing that the proliferation of bans continues with such indecent pace. A proposal to serve a Designated Public Place Order (DPPOs) on the whole of the London borough of Lambeth is an intriguing case study in the development of this peculiar form of regulation, not through authoritarian or prohibitionist zeal, but rather bureaucratic drift.

A DPPO has already been in place since 2003 in Lambeth’s Bishop’s Ward, so called because it includes Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s also the area where I live. The council’s reason for singling out this area, however, is more likely to have been the relatively large number of homeless people who hang around in small groups near Waterloo Station, sometimes begging and occasionally shouting or abusing one another. In fact, I didn’t even know about this DPPO till I looked into the current proposal to expand it. I can’t think of a time I’ve drunk outdoors in the area, except immediately outside pubs, and since I like to think it’s obvious I’m not a homeless beggar, it’s perhaps unlikely that I’d have been bothered anyway.

Legally, though we describe them as ‘booze bans’, DPPOs don’t outlaw the consumption of alcohol; instead they give police and Community Support Officers the power to require people to stop drinking in a ‘designated public place’, and to seize any alcohol they have on them, whether in open or sealed containers. No particular reason is necessary. The logic behind DPPOs – aside from any Talibanesque objection to public drinking per se – is that they make it easier for police to deal with ill-defined nuisance behaviour by focusing on drinking as an activity often associated with everything from begging to fighting, rather than having to show people have committed particular offences. Further, police can ‘pre-empt’ antisocial behaviour before drinkers have a chance to indulge in it.

There are two problems with this. First, it means people are pushed around and have alcohol confiscated for no good reason. As Josie Appleton has shown, local authorities often wrongly present DPPOs as outright bans (though Lambeth is not guilty of this), and there are abundant examples of police confiscating booze without good cause, which though not in the spirit of the legislation is perfectly within the letter (2). This brings us to the second problem, which is even more serious: these bans reverse the burden of accountability between citizens and the state. Since the police don’t have to show or even charge that someone has committed an offence before confiscating alcohol, we are permitted to drink in public places only at the discretion of the authorities. If we look respectable and don’t get visibly legless, we’ll probably be left alone, but legally we don’t have a leg to stand on.

It is this just-in-case, better-safe-than-sorry attitude to policing, and a concomitant disregard for citizens’ liberty, that lies behind moves to serve DPPOs on whole towns and boroughs rather than particular trouble spots as first intended. Lambeth is a typically diverse south London borough, stretching from the South Bank and Waterloo Station in the north, through Vauxhall, Kennington, Clapham and Brixton, and down to Streatham and Norwood. No doubt there are examples of alcohol-related nuisance of various kinds in all of these areas, but the borough is hardly in the grip of drink-fuelled anarchy.

The immediate reason proposed for introducing a borough-wide DPPO is not that something needs to be done about a pressing problem, but rather that wider booze bans are all the rage among other local authorities throughout London and beyond. The ‘Safer Lambeth Executive’ cites as evidence in favour of a borough-wide DPPO the success of the measure in neighbouring Southwark, as well as Hammersmith and Fulham in west London. This success is measured quite crudely: a reduction of 27 per cent in street drinking in Southwark, and a reduction of 62.7 per cent in street drinking levels in ‘hotspot areas’ in Hammersmith and Fulham (3). It’s hardly surprising that encouraging the police to stop people drinking in the streets reduces the number of people drinking in the streets, just as enforcing a curfew might be a reliable way to reduce loitering. That doesn’t make either of those things desirable.

Lambeth has held a public consultation on the proposal, the results of which are to be considered before the council makes its decision in October. Apparently 80 per cent of the 300-odd responses were positive (mine was one of the 20 per cent, then), but it is doubtful whether this means anything. My attention was drawn to the consultation not through posters, leaflets or the local media, but by non-Lambeth resident Josie Appleton, who came across it in the course of her research into the expansion of DPPOs. The proposal is hardly the talk of the borough’s pubs and streets. As elsewhere, few people have any idea this is going on.

Indeed, it is the poverty of public debate about quality-of-life issues more generally that allows us to be led along by bureaucratic drift rather than considered public determinations. This has combined with a vague moralism that precludes the questioning of anything proposed for our own good to bring about the bizarre situation where a ‘designated public place’ is one where the public is subject to arbitrary coercion. Rather than official consultations on acronymed measures to contain us, we desperately need to assert the free use of public places as a public good, not to be meddled with at the whim of state functionaries.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group the Manifesto Club and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas. He is chairing the session Rethinking freedom at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 31 October and 1 November.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton showed how drinking control laws allow the police to behave like gangsters. Suzy Dean raised a glass to freedom of choice. Brendan O’Neill questioned the politics of misbehaviour. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Tim Black argued that Scottish plans to tax drinkers amounted to a sin tax.Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

1) Read about the Manifesto Club’s campaign against booze bans here; also see, for example, Across Britain, police are behaving like gangsters, by Josie Appleton, 11 November 2008

2) Robbed by the Police: Alcohol confiscation and the hyperregulation of public space, Manifesto Club [pdf]

3) Designated Public Places Order: delegation to the Drugs and Alcohol PAG Safer Lambeth Executive, 28th July 2009 [pdf]

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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