At this year's AGM, guest speaker Alistair Lang contrasted Ipswich's good points with some of its less attractive features, including the "Night-Time Economy" and the abusive unfortunates he encountered on one occasion in town. However, readers may be reassured to know that much is already being done to address the root causes of night-time binge drinking and day-time street drinking in the town: indeed the announcement was made on that very day of the AGM, on 25 April, that Ipswich had been awarded the Purple Flag.
The use of alcohol permeates our culture. Moderate consumption can be a social benefit. but drinking to excess is a harmful and perennial concern. Ten years ago, licensing hours were much more restricted and town centres often degenerated into scenes of drunken rowdiness as pubs and other licensed premises disgorged their patrons on to the streets all at the same time. The Government's solution was to relax the licensing laws and create a more relaxed "cafe culture", through the Licensing Act of.2003 which entered into law in 2005. In parallel, the Cabinet Office produced an Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy in 2004, which recognised then the two familiar groups of binge drinkers (predominantly under 25) and chronic drinkers (typically over 30) to which Alistair Lang referred. This strategy was updated in 2007 under the title "Safe, Sensible, Social", indicating that the more positive leisure environment should be promoted primarily through messages on the harms from alcohol misuse.
Dealing with residual alcohol-related problems was then devolved to local strategic partnerships, supported by Home Office guidance on "Tactical Options for Dealing with Alcohol-related violence" which addressed the different stages of a night out - arriving, being there and getting home. Certainly the drinking culture changed, but not in the way intended, with many clubbers "pre-loading" with cheaper
alcohol from supermarkets and off-licences before they even go out. In 2009-10 almost half of all violent crime was linked to alcohol, with obvious implications for the cost of policing and the health service (and indeed the lasting scars of physical injury and criminal records for the participants). The irony is that these violent conflicts are not premeditated, but random consequences of conspiring circumstances exacerbated by excessive intoxication.
By 2009 Suffolk Constabulary had thoroughly analysed the problem across our county and prompted the formation of a multi -agency working group to address it, and the "Tactical Options'" formed the basis for a comprehensive action plan which was pursued for the next 18 months. In parallel. my own neighbourhood had become the unwilling host to groups of street drinkers who had moved out of the town centre when the Designated Public Place Order came into force in 2007. By 2009" I had compiled a Community Impact Statement from residents' testimonies to this anti-social behaviour, which also recognised the deterioration in the town centre's night- time economy, and sought lasting strategic solutions. As a result, I was invited to join the multi-agency working group.
Complex patterns of consumption and conflict clearly create problems which are difficult to pre-empt. Tactical options naturally address incidents as they arise, by which time they are already too late to avert harm. The working group was successful in reducing levels of violence, perhaps through more strategic initiatives such as the "Best Bar None" scheme, trialling of taxi marshals to avert conflicts in queues, training door staff in crowd management, and so on: but not to the extent that was desired.
Presumably this experience was common to other towns and cities, for in 2010 a new scheme was launched jointly by the Association of Town Centre Management and various partner agencies, aiming more fundamentally to raise standards and enhance the appeal of the night-time economy by providing a framework to draw together all relevant sectors in a common agenda, to celebrate achievement, change perceptions and reverse the tide of negative publicity. Participants are thus motivated to embrace the new standards, rather than shrugging off responsibility or passing the blame to others. This is the Purple Flag, which is supported by the Home Office. Its award involves the assessment of the location for well- being and safety, ease of movement, breadth of appeal and sense of place, all within a strategic policy envelope.
And if this sounds like nebulous management-speak, it is because of the need to condense a plethora of detailed requirements into a few simple headings.
Suffice to say that Ipswich is fortunate in having an energetic and determined Community Safety Partnership which has grasped the nettle and has achieved Purple Flag status on its first attempt, in only the third year of operation of the scheme.
Does this mean that all the problems are solved? Of course not. But it does mean that Ipswich is determined to tackle them, and the Purple Flag is a clear symbol of aspiration to unite all participants in seeking that common goal. And no group could be more important in this than the users of the night-time economy themselves.