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What's criminal about a drink on the beach?

The gay capital of Britain, home of the 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. Brighton has long been known as an alternative, hippy haven, where activities frowned upon or just considered unusual in the rest of the country are accepted and form part of everyday life. So it comes as a surprise to find that Brighton has the heaviest enforcement of the new public drinking bans. Despite the fact that Brighton doesn’t have a particularly high crime rate, and that with the best climate in the UK, thousands head to the parks and beaches to enjoy, among other things, a cool glass of beer or a bottle of wine, it is here that the council and police have cracked down hardest on public drinking.

The Criminal Justice and Police act of 2001 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 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 being taken off them while having a simple picnic and blatantly not being a public nuisance.

It is important to point out that this ban hasn’t come out of the blue. It follows bans on public performances of music including hate speech, and restrictions on the distribution of flyers and rights to demonstrate. While Brighton and Hove council claims these policies have strong public support, there has been very little public consultation, and Brighton 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. 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 the view of the police. They say 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, they claim, rather a fantastic instrument enabling the police to keep the streets safe. But it  is already a crime to be drunk in public, and to ‘disturb the peace’ – sufficient legislation to combat the louts.

There are many cases in which people 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. There are no signs on the beach to inform you of the new laws, and many people believe they are in the wrong when in fact they aren’t. There are dozens of cases 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, head 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 example in which the ban has been a success. It concludes “the use of 45 CSOs has worked well”. However while claiming a success, it doesn’t produce any statistics to show a correlation between the introduction of the booze ban and a fall in crime. There aren’t even any statistics to show how much drink has been confiscated. With no figures to show what the introduction of the DPPOs have achieved, this seems a spurious definition of success.

After more research, the issue of Brighton and the booze ban makes less and less sense. There is no rational explanation as to why Brighton has become the place with the most 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.” Statistics show that while across the UK there is an average of 15 violent attacks per 1000 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 logical reason why Brighton council has reacted in this way, and this is perhaps the most scary point in the booze ban issue. The new government legislation enables councils to introduce on a totally arbitrary basis and with virtually no public consultation, bans which criminalise ordinary and harmless behaviour, and change the atmosphere of a city such as Brighton. In July, Nick Clegg made an appeal to the public to suggest laws they think should be scrapped. The public drinking laws are definitely on my list.

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