Opinion: Britain’s Town Centres – Designed for Disorder

Last Saturday night I decided to go and buy a loaf of bread. Since I live in the centre of town and don’t own a car, this was a challenge in itself but that’s definitely a theme for another day. What it meant, however was that I came face to face with the reality of what our night-time city centres are really like.

No, there weren’t clusters of ‘hoodies’ dealing drugs or ladettes urinating in the street or any of the clichés of the tabloid town-centre but there was a very odd atmosphere. Everyone but me seemed to be devoted to the single-minded pursuit of the cheapest available route to drunkenness in the shortest possible time. So far, so Daily Mail, but look around. What else is there to do?

Unlike most European countries, British towns and cities provide very few options for the young at night. The shops are shut; you can rarely get a coffee or soft-drink for love or money, still less a table at which to drink it and any meal or snack beyond a Snickers bar is out of the question. Is it any wonder Britain’s youth are world champion binge-drinkers. There is literally nothing else available.

When young people crowd into large towns, the first question has to be – “Why are they coming?” To answer that, go to your local suburban shopping arcade and try to find so much as even that chocolate bar after 7pm, never mind the continental pavement café of myth and legend. Youth clubs? Sporting facilities? Forget it. If I want to do anything with my evening, the town centre is the only place to go.

It isn’t even that there are too many bars and clubs – towns with one or two venues can have just as much trouble with anti-social behaviour as those with dozens or hundreds –so the banning instincts of some not-so-liberal Liberals are not going to get us anywhere. So what do we do?

Well first of all – let’s stop making the problem worse. If you close down your seating area at 11 pm, your takeaway can stay open later than if you allow your customers to eat in. So immediately we are funnelling people back onto the street, at best to loiter and litter and at worst to vomit and fight. For goodness sake, let the people sit, eat and process their discount lager.

How about designating areas where cafés, snack-bars and small shops are encouraged to open late and catch the evening trade? The necessary extra lighting and a small police presence would more than pay for itself.

Many councils own halls and community spaces in town centres and in the suburbs: Let’s invest in young people by providing something to do at the weekend, whether it’s drama or music or just somewhere to go and buy a panini. Again, it costs money but it could drastically cut the need for remedial policing and bring immeasurable benefits to the community.

We’ve designed binge-drinking and anti-social behaviour into the fabric of our towns and cities by taking away every alternative and turning them into one-stop shops for alcohol and disorder. We scapegoat the young people our society has failed, calling them yobs and hoodies and now we’ve even come up with ultrasonic gadgets that scare off anyone under 25 like we were moles in the lawn. Then we’re surprised when some youngsters opt out of voting, engaging or even caring what the rest of society does.

Britain’s youth is targeted and persecuted in ways no other segment of society would tolerate without riots in the street; is it any wonder kids turn to drink?

This is a clear case of Britain needing a Liberal alternative to the Get-Tough consensus only concerned with headlines and the votes of Middle-England marginals. Which will be the first Lib Dem council brave enough to say that the way to tackle the crisis amongst the young in our towns and cities doesn’t only extend to banning things and take meaningful action? Lest anybody forget, the disenfranchised youth of today are the voters of tomorrow. What is the outlook for a future Britain inhabited by the adults these young people will become?

* Benjamin Mathis is Chair of London Liberal Democrat Youth & Students, and has been a party member since 2005.

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21 Comments

  • Alternatives have disappeared because of how people behave, not the other way round.
    Most young people don’t want to sit around having a panini in a trendy cafe.
    Whats wrong with having a drink anyway? The issue is drinking till you fall over, not drinking in general. There are many ways to enjoy alcohol in a socially responsible way, as most people do.

  • Liam Pennington 22nd Feb '08 - 10:10am

    Last week, a group of friends of mine went to a (Preston) city centre pub, watched a couple of bands, had three or so pints each, then walked home.

    On the same night, the local paper ran a “story” showing teens (and older types, heh) falling out of a well known dance club the very worse for drink surrounded by police.

    I suspect the reasons why one group of people can handle their drink during a night out, and another cannot, could fill a report of many hundreds of pages. Is it that the live music venue has more expensive prices? That the cluv has too many cheap promotions? That me and my friends are mature enough to know how to act in public?

    The problem with so many city centres could well be “solved” by Ms Smith by banning drink within 100 miles of the coast, forcing supermarkets to put 200% mark up on beer, and closing all pubs that don’t sell a pint of water with every shot sold…There are far too many complex reasons for the state of our city centres. “Binge-drinking” is not a national sport, after all.

  • LiberalHammer 22nd Feb '08 - 3:09pm

    I’m curious to what extent ‘binge drinking’ (or ‘enjoying yourself’ in a less puritanical context) is a new phenomenon. Hasn’t it been around since Hogarth if not before in the UK? I’m not sure it is the lack of alternatives that are a problem. My university had plenty of other entertainment and/ or food options but that didn’t make the bars any less popular.

    And I’m all in favour of supermarkets selling cheap alcohol. Contrary to one of the earlier posters the sole purpose of buying alcohol in Tesco is not to get drunk but to avoid exhorbitant prices in pubs and restaurants, and enjoy a quiet drink at home!

  • Obviously there are places with serious problems of anti social behaviour aggravated by alcohol and drugs, but the moral panics created by New Labour’s determination not to be outflanked by the Tories on law and order have made matters much worse by demonising young people who would not otherwise have been regarded as causing a nuisance at all. If you clamp down on the natural high spirits of young people then there is a good chance that you are going to create just the problems you are trying to avoid. For example, in Winchester since time immemorial young people would go down to the rivers just outside the town in the summer and sit around drinking, and in more recent times smoking dope, and splashing around in the water. Sure, a bit of litter may have been left and sometimes people got drunk, but it didn’t cause any genuine problem. Over the past twenty years Winchester College and Winchester Diocese, who between them own most of the land along the rivers, have progressively restricted public access so that there is now almost nowhere the public can get into the water. And guess what? We are all so law abiding in this country now that everyone meekly accepts it – though of course the kids who would have been messing around in a natural environment are probably now getting pissed up behind a garage block and using their frustrated energies in chucking stones through old ladies’ windows.

  • Now in the right thread:

    Binge drinking in town centres has been going on for quite some time. Certainly all my adult life (and a chunk of my childhood too).

    It indubitably got worse during the 70s and 80s, and accelerated after 1987 with a levelling off in the late 1990s.

    The reasons are twofold:

    (1) The steady increase in the disposable income of young people.

    (2) The Town & Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, which enabled the hospitality trade to open up cafes in town centres and convert them into pubs without needing to obtain planning permission for change of use.

    No (2) was a deliberate response by the Thatcher government to lobbying from the brewing industry which was seeking to swamp town centres with “super pubs” in order to maximise profits during a period of contraction for their sector.

    The moral right cannot honestly moan about teenage drinking (as if this is something terribly wicked and presages the collapse of civilisation) when the Prime Minister it worships caused the problem.

    Now, I am old enough to remember a moral panic about binge drinking in the Summer of 1988. Strange, 20 years later the world still exists.

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