Yesterday (6th August 2014) I was asked to say a few words at an event that was looking at street drinking and anti-social behaviour. Uncharacteristically, I prepared a script, normally preferring to speak with just a few notes. Feedback suggests I might have been overly critical of the commitment to abstinence by other agencies, being assured that recovery and abstinence are at the core of the retendering process currently underway for alcohol and drug services in Brighton and Hove. I am very happy to accept that. Here is what I had to say:
So here we are again. Every 5 years or so for probably the last 20 years I have been invited to similar events to address this issue. Little changes other than more strategies are written. I have no doubt we have many of the best written, and the most impressive strategies anywhere in the country.
No one could disagree with the outcome stated in current strategies, that there is less health and social damage caused by alcohol use, and alcohol-related crime and disorder is reduced. It is worthy, but so lacking in ambition. The real problem is that it just hasn’t worked otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here again today.
Successive strategies have been ineffective because of a stubborn refusal in certain quarters to accept one key thing – the need to have an over-arching, unambiguous, unqualified commitment to promoting abstinence to this group.
I say this based on listening for more than 25 years to the frustration expressed by former street drinkers in BHT’s Addiction Services who say they could have become alcohol and drug free much earlier if all agencies were promoting abstinence.
My starting point is one of ambition for street drinkers – that a different, better life for each is possible if they address their addiction. My ambition for the city is that we can all feel safe and comfortable in, and enjoy using, our public places.
All efforts by the council, NHS, police, and third sector organisations should be aligned to the outcome that street drinking (and using) is ended through various measures and the consistent promotion of abstinence.
Here are some ideas for consideration to make street drinking a more difficult choice:
- Divert resources to trading standards and licensing – the only two functions of the Council that, in my opinion, have ever achieved anything of significance;
- Resource NHS and other social care initiatives such as the Hostels Alcohol Nurse where there are demonstrable benefits for clients who are accessing detox and abstinence-based treatment, and demonstrable benefits for the ambulance service, A&E, the wider NHS, policing and the criminal justice system, as well as traders, local residents, and social and private landlords;
- Proactive policing, that action is taken each and every time known street drinkers are seen with alcohol in a designated public place. Having input from Cllr Graham Cox would not go amiss since his time as Division Commander in Hove was one of the few, probably the only time, I can recall when street drinking was effectively addressed;
- Shift the allocation of resources from policy and strategy writing, and the squandering of time and money on wasteful initiatives such as the ill-feted Independent Drugs Commission, and deploy people onto the streets, such as re-introducing parks police;
- Learn from elsewhere where sales of super-strength beers and ciders have been targeted, not through voluntary schemes but as mandatory licensing conditions.
For example, in Ipswich there have been no closures of outlets due to the ending of the sale of super strength beer and ciders. Retailers say overall sales are not down, with drinkers switching to lower strength alcohol. There has been reduced anti-social behaviour and less shoplifting, and as a recent Equinox report on their work in Brighton has highlighted, reducing the strength of alcohol makes it far easier to engage with clients and to help them access treatment.
A mandatory licensing condition, that alcohol greater than 6.0% strength will not be stocked or sold, is now standard in Ipswich, as is having CCTV which retailers are required to keep for 28 days and make available to police and the local authority
Let’s learn from London Boroughs where the use of ASBOs has had a mixed impact, depending on the approach used:
In the London Borough of Westminster, ASBOs against street drinkers specify no open containers in public places. There have been many breaches and the approach is regarded as being ineffective.
Meanwhile in Waterloo, ASBO’s have been issued saying that the individual may not be in possession of alcohol with strength greater than 6.0%. This has been agreed by a District Judge. There have been relatively few breaches as individuals have switched to lower strength alcohol. There is no evidence of increased consumption and, again, support agencies have reported better outcomes with their engagement activities.
Also in Waterloo, a licensing condition that retailers cannot sell single cans has had a massive impact, with a reduction in crime of up to 80% by the target cohort, attributed largely to purchases needing to be in multiple packs. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it is harder to get the cash required to purchase a 4 pack.
I would propose that:
- Sensible on Strength should not be a voluntary scheme;
- All licences should have a condition that there may not be stocks or sales of super strength beers and ciders (greater than 6.0%);
- No window or entrance displays;
- No Buy One Get One Free or special offers; and
- No single can sales.
But first and foremost we need that commitment to promoting abstinence.
I finish by paraphrasing my closing line from a previous event such as this: If we don’t change our approach we might as well put in our diaries now, 2 hours on August 6th 2018 for a further summit to address why we have such an entrenched problem of street drinking in Brighton.