Antisocial Behaviour (South Manchester)

– in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 4th December 2014.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Damian Hinds.)

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of late-night antisocial behaviour in south Manchester, and specifically in the south-east Fallowfield and Ladybarn part of my constituency.

The area is next to the Owens Park university halls of residence campus. Since I went to school in the area more than 25 years ago, it has seen an enormous transformation. It was traditionally a family neighbourhood, but many families and long-time residents have moved out and been replaced by a huge influx of students, with traditional family homes often converted and extended into houses in multiple occupation and student flats. That has resulted in some roads in the area being occupied almost entirely by students, with only the odd long-term resident still remaining.

As student numbers rose, more and more families moved out and houses were converted into student homes, which in turn persuaded other long-time residents to follow suit. That is often described as “studentification” —where a huge proportion of residents in a neighbourhood are students. It has created a number of challenges, not least rows and rows of empty properties during the summer holidays and the impact of that on shops and the local economy. One of the greatest problems that it has created is the noise and disruption caused by late-night parties.

I want to make it clear from the outset that I am not suggesting that all students are causing a problem—far from it—and that I am not suggesting for a second that students are responsible for the majority of antisocial and nuisance behaviour across my whole constituency. Over the years, as a councillor and then as an MP, I have dealt with many cases of noisy neighbours and antisocial behaviour, but in this part of the constituency it is certainly the case that a small minority of students have damaged the reputation of students and universities by making the lives of other residents a misery with late-night parties.

Many of those parties seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Reportedly, up to 300 or 400 people attend some of the largest. Before the summer, one party estimated to have been attended by 300 students celebrating the end of their exams resulted in the collapse of the entire lounge floor of the house. In recent weeks, the situation has got worse, and residents have come to the end of their tether.

I want to share with the House the comments of a handful of residents, which show the real frustration felt by local people. One resident on Clifton avenue said:

“Blood curdling screaming, drunken shouting and singing echoing around the neighbourhood took me out of my house at 10.15 pm—no point getting ready for bed. The rear car park was packed with students and others already drunk were converging on the house—the right-hand front door was wide open. As I watched, students started streaming out of the car park onto Egerton Road heading for Wilmslow Road. I counted 100 before I gave up. About half were carrying opened bottles of wine or cans of beer, the majority were aggressively drunk. They were wearing fancy dress—white dungarees striped tights and socks and heavy make-up. I have rarely felt so intimidated—the numbers surging past, the drunken loudness. More groups were coming along Egerton Road. The group hysteria was scary. Children woken, hearing, witnessing—what is the effect on them?”

A second resident on Clifton avenue said:

“I can confirm that this drunken yelling and shouting is still continuing (12.06 am). The level of disturbance is unbelievable. The sound clip is from my bedroom via mobile phone, the chanters are streets away, not visible from here.”

A third resident said:

“I have been woken this morning at 1.30 by the 10 students living next door standing outside the house talking and drinking. Sometimes living on Clifton avenue is comparable to visiting a zoo of wild animals. I’m under the belief that the only way to control the appalling behaviour is night patrols or to request the city council introduce CCTV to the area”.

One resident of Egerton road said:

“The noise on the 22nd was the worst I have heard so far. I was unable to sleep without shutting all windows and using earplugs—essentially we are being forced to barricade ourselves in. Some of the screaming girls worry me too as I can’t tell if something bad is happening or not. Perhaps we need to start routinely ringing 999 if concerned that someone might be in danger.”

One resident on Derby road said:

“We were also disturbed around the same time last night by loud shouting/chanting outside. Suspect the group passed along Derby road, though by the time I was able to get to the window, there was nobody to be seen, though I could still hear the noise. My immediate thought was ‘Oh no, it’s Wednesday night, so probably one of those sports groups’. The Wednesday night sports social events certainly do concern us. The groups moving around our neighbourhood are usually large and very noisy, often chanting loud enough to be heard clearly from other streets, and as we know from previously, the content may well bring the universities into disrepute”.

Another Derby road resident said:

“A group of about 15-20 piled out…about the same time, in the street and running into gardens, a bit noisy—but to be honest we were just pleased it was before 10.30. They had been pre-loading again…and were in fancy dress (as oompa loompas from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—but we had a Willy Wonka too!). I agree they were all quite excitable, but after hanging around for 15 minutes they all disappeared off to Egerton and we were not disturbed on their return. Lots of litter for me to clear up this morning though, this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem as the street cleaning seems to stop at Egerton and ignore Derby Road”.

One resident on Raveley avenue said:

“We have some new neighbours, they moved in yesterday. It was sad to see my neighbour go, she was born here but got fed up of the noisy parties. I hope the new people stay and are not driven away by noisy students.”

Finally, a resident on Brook road said:

“It’s just one big party for the students. Never mind us working people. We should go to the media and get them to make a documentary, ‘Life in the Fallowfield Zoo’”.

For too long antisocial behaviour law has not worked for local residents in south Manchester if student parties in local houses get out of hand. The situation has got worse, fuelled by cheap supermarket alcohol—Drink Wise calculates that alcohol is 61% more affordable than in 1980. Add in the disastrous 24-hour licensing policy of the previous Government, and we have a lethal cocktail of excessive drinking long into the early hours. Parties where too many people turn up for them to be safe for anybody, and industrial strength sound systems that play all night, cause problems for families with work and school the next day. Despite copious antisocial behaviour legislation from the years of Tony

Blair’s “Respect” agenda, the police and city council have too often felt unable to intervene when big parties are taking place and causing maximum nuisance for neighbours.

What is the solution? Local residents have been working with the council, the police, Manchester Metropolitan university and Manchester university, and I pay tribute to the time and effort that local people, the community guardians and the South East Fallowfield Residents Group have invested in tackling the problem. In particular I pay tribute to Sue Hare, who has been unfairly criticised by a certain councillor simply for raising the concerns of local residents and the welfare and safety of students.

Action has been taken by the two universities to try to tackle antisocial behaviour. MMU is involved with the Home Office project to change the student drinking culture, while the university of Manchester has introduced a new code of conduct for students that covers their behaviour off campus as well as on university premises. Sanctions can range from fines to potential exclusion from the university, with the first disciplinary case currently going through. The university is hoping to introduce an element of restorative justice—getting victims and perpetrators in the same room. That could help, but local residents are clear that sanctions must be severe enough to act as a deterrent to future antisocial behaviour. Both universities have been proactive in making students aware of their responsibilities to be good neighbours, and have promised further action if that does not change behaviour. That must happen if there is no improvement.

The coalition Government must take credit for the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and I thank Home Office Ministers—particularly my right hon. Friend Norman Baker, a former Home Office Minister—for giving local police more effective powers to tackle antisocial behaviour and provide better protection for victims and communities.

In Fallowfield, Inspector Sutcliffe has been leading police action to tackle and shut down those parties. Seventeen late-night parties were attended in one week, culminating in the new powers under the Act being used to close down one of them. More than 400 people were inside the building. A number of them were very drunk and threatening, requiring 14 police officers to contain the situation, and resulting in two arrests of people who refused to leave. They subsequently spent the night sobering up in custody. At the same time, the eight residents were issued with notices to attend the magistrates court, although the summons was later rescinded.

On that occasion, the police were fortunate to be able to close the party down quickly. The legislation requires the police to issue a court date alongside the closure notice. The police had pre-arranged a court date in preparation for closing down a different party that had been advertised in advance but subsequently failed to materialise. Therefore, when the other party erupted, the police could close it down because they had already secured a court date.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an evening out with Inspector Sutcliffe while he was on duty. I discussed with him, and saw for myself, the challenges the police face in taking appropriate action. He has welcomed the new legislation, but has suggested that it could be tweaked to make it more effective from an operational perspective. The new legislation is excellent in dealing with persistent noise and antisocial behaviour at a certain address, but Inspector Sutcliffe has recommended that it would be much easier for the police to be able to close down an impromptu party without an advance court date—it would be much easier to send the court date out later when a three-month month closure is being sought. When only a 24-hour immediate closure is necessary, it would be easier if the police could exercise the power without the need to take the case to court. I would be grateful if the Minister could address those suggestions.

When I was out with Inspector Sutcliffe, I was very impressed by the way in which he was proactively tackling the problem—he did not simply wait for a situation to get out of hand, but proactively approached groups of young people on the streets or milling around outside student houses. However, such policing does not come without costs—£3,000 in staff costs in a two-week period, with resources having to be diverted from other policing initiatives. The police have limited resources, and closing down parties has proved to be very labour intensive. Residents understandably want more visible policing, which has clearly made a difference from what I saw while out on patrol. However, that can only ever be a short-term solution, given the limited resources.

I therefore argue that Manchester city council needs to step up to the mark. I have argued for years that the council ought to have a 24-hour environmental health reporting line so that residents in private sector housing can take action when problems occur, not just after the event. Residents are also clear that street warden patrols are required at night, which would have the double impact of tackling antisocial behaviour and making our streets safer for everyone.

Labour councillors try to lay the blame on the Government, saying the problem is to do with cuts to the council, but the problem has been going on for years —all the way through 13 years of a Labour Government. Other councils have 24-hour reporting lines, but it does not appear to be a priority of our local council.

The council needs to look at what action the licensing department can take to deal with student houses that appear to being turned into commercial venues—they have security at the door and charge up to £70 to enter parties. The council needs to be using every opportunity to cause as much hassle as possible for the organisers, so that they think twice about hosting parties in future.

Given the council’s record, I am sure it will continue to argue that there is no money to fund the necessary changes, but the reality is that there is no political will. Plans for the expansion of the university Owens Park and an additional 800 students on the campus in Fallowfield were recently announced. That has the potential to make the situation worse. An additional 800 first-year students could lead to up to an additional 1,600 second and third-year students in subsequent years. The plans have raised concerns about the potential for even more antisocial behaviour in future. I argue that, if expansion is going to be allowed, we should ensure that there is a proper mix of student accommodation on the site, with all the additional capacity available for non-freshers and the type of accommodation that second and third-year students will want to live in. If properly managed, that could result in fewer second and third-year students living off campus, because good-quality appropriate accommodation would be available in the area, but on the campus.

At the same time, conditions should be attached to any application for a contribution to be paid to help tackle antisocial behaviour and fund a 24-hour reporting line and warden patrols. That would help to address the funding issue that the council continues to hide behind.

In conclusion, I very much welcome the new legislation that has helped the police to tackle late-night noisy parties. I urge the Minister to look carefully at suggestions for improvements to the legislation that would make it even more effective. I recognise the need for universities to be seen to be taking effective and firm action to discourage a repetition of bad behaviour, and I urge the council to take the necessary steps to assist the police and the local community to tackle what has become a real problem in this part of my constituency.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Assistant Whip (HM Treasury) 5:15 pm, 4th December 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Leech on bringing this important and timely debate to the Floor of the House. The House will have been struck—and shocked—by some of the incidents that he recounted from his constituency. Like him, I pay tribute to what our police, including Greater Manchester police, do in this area, alongside the other relevant agencies.

Antisocial behaviour is a very important subject that affects many people and communities in different ways—including in my own constituency, and, I am sure, the constituencies of other hon. Members here today. I know a little about the setting in Withington, as it is very near to where I grew up. If left unchecked, antisocial behaviour can prevent the law-abiding majority from enjoying public spaces or even feeling safe in their own homes. That is why the coalition Government made it clear that we would introduce effective measures to tackle antisocial behaviour and low level crime in order better to better people. That is what we have done.

The reforms we introduced through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which my hon. Friend mentioned, focus the response to antisocial behaviour firmly on the needs of victims, allowing agencies better to protect the communities they serve by quickly clamping down on problems whenever and wherever they occur. Where individuals do not respond to informal approaches, or where they are causing serious nuisance, front-line professionals can, where appropriate and proportionate, use the new faster and more flexible antisocial behaviour powers that came into force on 20 October.

It is widely acknowledged that the higher education sector in Manchester makes a significant contribution, economically and culturally, with its world class universities and the annual influx of tens of thousands of students. Many are drawn to private rented accommodation in Fallowfield and Withington, as well as to halls of residence. It is of course also the case, as my hon. Friend was at pains to point out, that the vast majority of students are law abiding, enjoying the richness and diversity of the great city of Manchester. However, and as ever, the conduct of a small minority can cause great harm and distress to others. The authorities must be able to act and use their professional judgment to resolve such problems where they occur.

In that respect, I note that the restorative justice approach has been piloted in five wards in south Manchester: Burnage, Fallowfield, Levenshulme, Old Moat and Withington. Its purpose is to resolve issues of antisocial behaviour. Early and informal interventions will often be successful in stopping such antisocial behaviour. The aim of the pilots is to establish clear standards of behaviour and reinforce the message that antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated.

I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes, as he outlined in his speech, the fact that Manchester Metropolitan university is one of seven higher education institutions taking part, with the National Union of Students and funded by the Home Office, in the alcohol impact project. The project is developing an accreditation mark—a sort of kitemark—that will be awarded to universities committing to actions such as: preventing alcohol-related initiation ceremonies; tackling participation in irresponsible pub crawls; and monitoring antisocial behaviour. Manchester Metropolitan university has also committed to increase the number of alcohol-free student events and to promote responsible alcohol consumption at other events. There is much that institutions can do through policy, procedure, retailing and accommodation, and it is good to see some of these coming forward.

Successful partnership working, as acknowledged by my hon. Friend, along with early and informal action, can reap rewards in tackling antisocial behaviour, but, where more formal interventions are needed, in specific cases we have given front-line professionals new and more effective powers to enable them to act quickly to deal with a range of problems, whether noise, nuisance or drunken and rowdy behaviour in public places.

If the police or a council officer has reason to believe that the use of premises has resulted in nuisance to members of the public or that that could happen, a closure notice can be used to protect victims and communities by quickly closing premises that are causing nuisance or disorder. Of course, those who habitually reside in the premises cannot be excluded for the first 48 hours, but visitors could be excluded completely from the property. As the power can be used preventively, the local community need not suffer while waiting for action, so the harm caused by a party could be prevented altogether.

Moreover, where there is more serious nuisance to others, the police or the council can apply to the magistrates court for a closure order to close the premises for up to six months. I have noted the concerns raised by my hon. Friend that the new closure power does not allow the police to shut down unruly student parties immediately “on the spot” as it were. I have heard what he has said on this point and the commentary and critique that he brought forward from Inspector Sutcliffe, and we can certainly look at all suggestions for improving the legislation to make it even more effective for front-line professionals to protect victims and communities.

The police or local council can now also use new community protection notices, also introduced under the 2014 Act. These are intended to deal with particular ongoing problems or nuisances that are having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the community, and where the conduct is persistent or continuing and is unreasonable. For example, this could cover noise nuisance, as well as littering, fly-tipping or graffiti. Such a notice may impose requirements to stop doing certain things, to do certain things, or to take reasonable steps to achieve certain stated results.

The new power is available to the council and the police, including designated police community support officers, and can be issued against any person aged 16 or over, or against a body, including a business. Before the notice can be issued, the officer must serve the individual with a written warning to make it clear that if they do not stop the antisocial behaviour, they could be served with a community protection notice.

Police officers in uniform and designated PCSOs can also use the new dispersal power in public places to prevent or to stop members of the public from being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or to prevent crime or disorder. The new power combines the most effective elements of the previous dispersal powers into a single, less bureaucratic power. It allows the police to deal with problems instantly and nip them in the bud before the antisocial behaviour escalates, by issuing a direction to the individual to get them to leave a specified area for up to 48 hours.

The new dispersal power must be authorised in writing by an officer of at least the rank of inspector, specifying the grounds on which it is given, which is an important safeguard. Furthermore, authorisation may be given and the dispersal power may be used only after regard has been had to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly set out in articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights.

Local councils can also use public spaces protection orders to ensure that the law-abiding majority can use and enjoy their public spaces safe from nuisance and disorder. The order can be used to deal with a particular nuisance or problem in a particular area. This power is available to local councils and works by allowing the council to impose conditions on the use of a public place, which apply to everyone, to certain categories of people at certain times or in specific circumstances.

The test for issuing the order will be that the local authority reasonably believes that the behaviour is or will be detrimental to the local community’s quality of life, and that the impact justifies restrictions being put in place. The behaviour must also be, or likely to be, continuing or persistent and unreasonable. Such an order must also be published in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State to ensure that people are properly informed that it is in place.

Before using this new power, however, the local council must consult the chief officer of police, the police and crime commissioner, the owner or occupier of the land and any representatives of the local community they consider appropriate. This could involve people living nearby or regular users of the space. Again, such an order may be made only after consideration has been given to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly set out in articles 10 and 11 of the convention. A public spaces protection order, for example, can be used to restrict the consumption of alcohol in a public place when the requisite test has been met.

My hon. Friend asked whether councils should provide a 24-hour helpline so that people may report instances of antisocial or threatening behaviour. That is, of course, a matter for councils to determine, although discussions take place in partnership with police and police and crime commissioners. No doubt my hon. Friend will wish to continue to raise the issue with Manchester city council.

Manchester was one of four areas that trialled the “community trigger”, which proved in several cases to be an effective way of ensuring that action was taken to deal with persistent or previously overlooked antisocial behaviour. We want information on how it can be used to be made widely available to the public. The trigger can be exercised not just by victims themselves, but on behalf of victims—with their consent—by, for instance, a friend or carer, or, indeed, by a councillor or Member of Parliament.

Let me again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I hope that I have been able to make clear how seriously the coalition takes the issue when it occurs, in Greater Manchester and elsewhere, and to explain the steps that have been taken to improve the response. It is still early days for the new antisocial behaviour powers, and we will continue to work on their use with front-line professionals.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.