Public Drinking

Public Drinking

This FAQ has been added to cover a frequently asked question about the Police and Council powers in regards to public drinking.

Unfortunately this is an area of law rife with misconceptions, urban legends and misinformation.

The information here regards the law as it has been explained to me by Police Officers and Council staff over the years.

It is NOT illegal to drink in public spaces in the UK.  Until a couple of years ago you could open a beer or a bottle of wine or an alcopop and drink it in any public space and there was nothing whatsoever that the Police or anybody else could do about it.

There are a couple of clarifications to that statement:  You had to be old enough to drink, of course.  And the ability to drink it public pertains only to that – drinking alcohol – not to antisocial behaviour that may come after the fact.

The main reason people, even the Police in some areas, and certainly many Councils got into a muddle is because of the confusing terminology used in the rules for making a DPPO (Designated Public Place Order.)  These were introduced in 2006 and allowed Councils to designate a particularly place with the DPPO which gave the Police some additional powers.  When they first appeared and for several years afterwards, Police and Councils thought the additional powers allowed them to ban drinking in those areas.  In some areas they even put up notices suggesting that – although close inspection of the text on those notices would generally show that they were cleverly worded so as to suggest, rather than insist that such a ban existed.  In fact, it did not.  Not ANYWHERE.

In fact what a DPPO allowed a Police Officer to do was to take alcohol away from people in the DPPO area under special conditions.  Those conditions were that there was evidence that the alcohol would lead to antisocial behaviour.  It was not good enough to “guess” or the “presume”.  They couldn’t just take the drink away because they thought they might act antisocially.  There had to be some evidence.  For instance, if they were drunk, standing on a bench and jeering at passers-by, that was pretty good evidence.  If they were swearing at anybody who came close, that was pretty good evidence.  If they were sitting with a large groups of friends drinking and laughing, that was not.

So, broadly, for the sort of uses that some people wanted, the DPPO was pretty toothless.  Unfortunately, people did not know that.  Councils and Police and large sections of the press published information that served to mislead the public.  Perhaps this was simply miscommunication, perhaps it was an attempt to deter a certain type of behaviour by suggesting greater new powers than actually existed, or perhaps the press simply published the most dramatic story they could invent.  Whatever the case, people came to believe that DPPOs were “drinking bans.”  And some Councils and Police even enforced them that way in the early days, until clarification made it clear this was not within the remit of the DPPO powers.

This is why things are so confusing, and also why some people are absolutely convinced that some place they visited once had a “drinking ban.”  It didn’t.  There was no power in law to do this on public land, outside of very special circumstances.

In the last couple of years this has changed in a way that makes things even more confusing.  DPPOs are gradually being phased out and a new power has come into being called a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order.)  These are MUCH more powerful than DPPOs ever were.  In fact, they are so powerful that civil liberties groups are very concerned about the new powers they give the State over the public and the ways that they might be abused or over-used in future.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

A PSPO allows a Council to completely ban quite a wide range of things.  Alcohol is certainly one of them.  In Fenland the Council recently used the new PSPO orders to make sure dogs are kept on leads in certain areas, for instance.  At the moment Fenland District Council have not enacted an alcohol-banning PSPO, although that may change in the coming months.  I don’t know, but its certainly under consideration.

It would be easy to think that a PSPO is the solution to all street-drinking woes, but as with all such things I’m afraid its not quite as simple as that.  First of all, a PSPO can only be implemented legally after a period of consultation and with appropriate evidence of the level of need for it.  Once you have that, it can only be enacted over a limited area.  And while this might solve the problems in that area, experience shows that it tends to nudge the bad behaviour to new areas outside of the PSPO zone.  Another issue is that as much as it seems that everybody hates street drinking, there are actually quite a lot of people that dislike draconian Council powers, and so attempts to use powers like this can face significant challenge, and so must have provably the strong support of local people.  There will be some members of the public who, quite reasonably, ask if expensive Officers are best used taking beer away from people who are sitting and drinking it quietly in a corner somewhere.  Finally, and the biggest problem of all, is that a PSPO still has to be enforced – wherever you put it.  It needs Police, or in some cases Council officers, at a time when Police or Council Officers are already rather busy and resources are strapped.

I suspect that a PSPO banning alcohol probably will be introduced into Wisbech in the future, given public outcry for it.  I don’t think it is the solution to all the problems associated with street drinking and I don’t think everybody will support the change.  I also suspect it will cause new problems in areas outside of the PSPO zone.  Much like Canhibition and the Cumulative Impact Zone proposals of the past, I suspect the reality of the effects of a PSPO will disappoint those who think it is a panacea.  But it’s worth a try, for sure.