The explosion of alcohol-fuelled violence as a result of binge drinking on our streets has been one of the nastier developments in urban life during the last twenty years.
In March we saw the government proposing a series of voluntary measures to deal with alcohol-related crime and health problems. In the same week we had the Metropolitan Police warning that the new alcohol licensing laws are likely to result in much-increased violence on London’s streets.
The proof as they say will be in the pudding. But in the meantime central London residents stand to suffer the consequences of binge-drinking for some time to come. Last year I spent umpteen days over many months in the Standing Committee of the Licensing Bill trying to ensure that licensing controls remain in the hands of local people. The Licensing Act with its freedom for 24-hour drinking is now law and some districts in the West End in particular face the future with grim expectations.
At one time there were claims from the alcohol industry that problems of uncontrolled and rowdy, drunken behaviour were caused by our outdated licensing laws requiring public houses and bars to close before midnight. The more liberal licensing in the Mediterranean countries does not seem to have any positive effect on Britons holidaying abroad where their all night drunkenness is a reluctantly accepted feature of many continental resorts.
Westminster City Council has fought long and hard alongside its local police to tackle disorder on central London streets. Under its Civic Renewal Strategy the Council has set out its approach to refuse to accept the "lesser" crimes of aggressive begging, flyposting and vandalism in order to cut away at the roots of serious crime and the fear of crime which continues to dominate our community.
I believe that much of this painstaking progress is being undermined by the lack of controls on binge drinking and the opening up of the floodgates to allow the alcohol and entertainment industries to prompt havoc being wreaked in our town centres.
The problems are not solely for city centres. Today drunken disorder is growing in suburban areas and in smaller market towns, in many cases encouraged by wrong-headed revenue hungry councils. Once new pubs and bars are opened, often given lucrative planning permission consents, there is a general expectation that the under-resourced local police forces are responsible for keeping some kind of control of the mess that is created.
The absurdity of the current situation is that we have now created laws to make it easier for people to drink for endless hours and then we are given a series of voluntary measures by the government to control disorder. It is madness and will surely increase the alcohol-related crime levels throughout the country. This at the same time as the Home Office promotes policies to clamp down on anti-social behaviour.
What needs to be done is for councils to be given a greater share of the local business rate in order that they can improve CCTV and other preventative measures on their streets. Local people know their area best and it should be left to them to control the licensing applications rather than allow companies within the alcohol and entertainment industry to compete by increasing the number of bars in any area and maximise the density of pubs and clubs until a saturation point is reached and too often surpassed.
Finally it is clear that local councils need to have more democratic control of their local police force so that there can be joint initiatives to control any burgeoning growth of alcohol related premises in the area which can encourage binge drinking and all the anti-social problems it brings with it.
With freedom must come self-responsibility which I am afraid is in short supply in this country today, eschewed as it is by the current government. It is going to be a long hot summer for councils and police alike.