What’s criminal about a drink in the park?

As part of spiked’s series of law-busting demands, a Brighton resident explains why he’d like to free the city of booze bans.

Nicholas Thorne

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In response to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s ‘Your Freedom’ initiative, spiked contributors are putting forward suggestions for which illiberal laws should be consigned to the shredding machine of history. Here, Nicholas Thorne puts the case for pouring booze bans down the drain.

The gay capital of Britain, home of the country’s most radical university, the constituency of the first Green MP, the starting point of a nudist bike ride and served by buses running on cooking oil. I’m talking, of course, of Brighton, which has long been known as an alternative, hippy haven, where activities frowned upon or just considered unusual in the rest of the country are an accepted part of everyday life.

So it comes as a surprise to find that Brighton is also at the epicentre of the strictest, most heavily enforced public drinking bans in the UK – this despite the fact that Brighton doesn’t have a particularly high crime rate. Still, it is in Brighton – a place where during the warm summer months, thousands head to the parks and beaches to enjoy, among other things, a cool glass of beer or a bottle of wine – that the council and police have cracked down hardest on public drinking.

It was the Criminal Justice and Police Act of 2001 that gave councils the power to create so-called ‘designated public place orders’ (DPPOs), zones in which the police can take alcohol off you. Home Office guidance recommends this should only be done in cases of public nuisance, but in practice the police have had carte blanche to confiscate alcohol as they please. By the end of 2009 there were 766 DPPOs in the UK, and most of the centre of Brighton had been made one such designated zone. It is not illegal to drink alcohol in these zones, but many Brighton residents, myself included, have experienced and reported having alcohol taken off them while having a simple picnic and blatantly not being a public nuisance.

This ban hasn’t come out of the blue. It follows bans on public performances of music featuring hate speech and restrictions on the distribution of flyers and rights to demonstrate. While Brighton and Hove council claims that these policies have strong public support, there has been very little public consultation, and the council has on various occasions even claimed that the alcohol exclusion zones do not exist, or are ‘exceptions’. Clearly this is a self-contradictory issue – if the booze ban was popular, the logical approach of the council would be to embrace public consultation and publicise their policies while seeking re-election. But given the secretive way in which Brighton and Hove council have brought in the new ban, one can only assume that this is not the case.

Talking to a cross section of people in Brighton you find very different responses to the ban. Some support it on the grounds that it leads to them drinking less. Others believe the ban is a necessary tool in the fight against young louts and their rowdy behaviour. This is certainly the view of the police. While I was campaigning in Brighton, I spoke to an officer who told me that there is a fundamental link between alcohol and crime, and that confiscation powers allow them to nip problems in the bud. The DPPOs are not designed to stop everybody drinking, he claimed, but are simply a fantastic instrument enabling the police to keep the streets safe.

However, other people have given examples of cases in which they were sitting on the beach, downing a beer with some friends, and told to pour their beer away by the police or one of the community support officers (CSOs) taken on by the council. As one young woman in Brighton explained, ‘we were sitting on the beach. The police said, “you shouldn’t be drinking here” and made us pour it away. From what they said, I thought people were banned from drinking in public.’ There are no signs on the beach to inform you of the new laws, and like many others, this Brighton resident thought she was in the wrong when in fact she was not.

Another Brighton resident David McMinn had a similar tale to tell: ‘A group of us were hanging out in a pedestrianised street in Brighton celebrating a birthday with a few drinks. The police came round and emptied everyone’s drinks into the drains. None of us were causing a disturbance or hassling anyone.’

There are dozens of cases like this in which people had their alcohol confiscated without being drunk or doing any harm. They were clearly not being a public nuisance, and the police were therefore overstepping their rights and abusing their new power. To quote Josie Appleton, convenor of the Manifesto Club, the police are ‘cracking down on normal behaviour in the name of public security’.

A parliamentary briefing from 2009 outlines the details the DPPOs, and points to Brighton as a case study of an city in which the ban has been a success. However while the briefing claims the public drinking bans to be a success, it fails to produce any statistics to show a correlation between the introduction of the bans and a fall in crime. According to the police officer I spoke to, there are not even any statistics to show how much drink has been confiscated. With no figures to show what the introduction of the DPPOs has achieved, this seems a spurious definition of success.

The more research one does, the less the Brighton booze bans make any sense. There is no rational explanation as to why Brighton has become the place with the highest level of enforcement. The parliamentary briefing claims it is due to Brighton’s ‘night time economy and and high concentration of licensed premises which have led to problems with drinking and alcohol misuse’. And statistics do show that while across the UK there is an average of 15 violent attacks per 1,000 people, in Brighton there are 20. Nevertheless it is indisputable that many cities have far greater crime problems than Brighton but don’t have so many DPPOs or such exaggerated enforcement.

There is no sensible reason why Brighton council has reacted in this way, and this is perhaps the most frightening element to the booze ban issue. The 2001 Act enables councils to introduce bans that criminalise ordinary and harmless behaviour and change the atmosphere of a city such as Brighton, on a totally arbitrary basis and with virtually no public consultation. If Nick Clegg really wants to get rid of petty and illiberal laws, the public drinking laws should definitely be on the list.

Nicholas Thorne is a student at Sussex University, and a research intern with the civil liberties group the Manifesto Club.

Previously on spiked

Patrick Hayes predicted further anti-drinker measures from the Lib-Con coalition. Dolan Cummings urged us to stop seeing drinking as a social problem. Mick Hume looked at the recent crack down on drinkers. Brendan O’Neill said Nutts to the anti-alcohol experts. Tim Black criticised Scottish plans to eradicate cheap booze. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth.Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

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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