Dispersal zone could be extended

Tuesday’s meeting about the proposed West Hampstead dispersal zone was less “drop-in” and more “sit around a table” than I’d been led to believe. As a result, and because the door was locked when I arrived, I missed the start and thus (presumbaly) the set-up and the police’s perspective.

Nevertheless, I was there to hear local residents voice a wide range of disgruntlements with both the council and the police.There was a strong sense that “something had to be done”, with anecdotes of long-standing anti-social behaviour. There was also a recognition that the underlying problems wouldn’t be solved by simply moving people on, but the idea of this short-term measure was broadly welcomed with caveats around appropriate resourcing.

The main problem the police want to deal with is gang activity on the Lithos Road estate, and they see the dispersal zone as a useful tool to help them. The challenge is that dispersal zones often just shift the problem across the border, wherever that border might be. They are also extremely subjective – any group of young people can be dispersed at the whim of the police and are not allowed to return within 24 hours.

Lets take Broadhurst Gardens as an example – the whole road is included in the proposed zone. A group of 22-year-old bankers drinking outside The Gallery could be very noisy, and potentially anti-social. Down the other end of the road by the Broadfield Estate, a group of 18-year-olds could be hanging out one evening with not much else to do, just chatting and with no intention of causing trouble. Which group is more likely to be dispersed?

There appeared to be a strong push to extend the zone across West End Lane to include the Thameslink station – this ended up being stretched to the Maygrove Road/Iverson Road junction including Medley Road.

The blue lines mark the proposed extension

Ultimately, most people seemed to say they supported the zone only if it was extended as described above. Camden’s Michael Hrycak (a Senior Community Safety Officer) explained that extending the zone would delay the process as people living in that area would then need to be consulted. Cllr John Bryant pointed out that there wasn’t much point having a consultation meeting if the input was going to be ignored. It’s not entirely clear how this will proceed – quite possibly by the original zone being put in force and the extension being considered when the zone is reviewed after six weeks or so.

Such reviews are mandatory for dispersal zones. They can lead to prolonged periods of enforcement (a few years for example), or the review might conclude that the impact is negligible or that the problem has been solved. There’s also an issue in that anti-social behaviour tends to be worse in the summer when longer days and warmer nights encourages people to be out later. So, a reduction in ASB may be ascribed to a successful dispersal zone, when it could just be a function of rainy weather and chilly nights.

As soon as I hear more about the implementation of the zone, I’ll report back.

Move along please – nothing to see here

Early Tuesday evening, there’s a drop-in consultation meeting about whether a dispersal zone should be implemented in part of West Hampstead. Whether you’re an arch libertarian or in the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade (or perhaps somewhere inbetween), this is your chance to get your views across.

The idea is to “specifically target the problem of Anti Social Behaviour by youths and related incidents including large scale fights involving weapons, assaults, robbery, drinking alcohol and the use of drugs within the areas highlighted above. It is further aimed at targeting Anti Social Behaviour by groups associated with controlled drug offences on the West Hampstead Ward”

What’s a dispersal zone? Here’s the definition from Local Government.

A dispersal order will provide the police with additional powers to disperse groups of two or more people where the officer has reasonable grounds for believing that their presence or behaviour has resulted, or is likely to result, in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed. Once asked to disperse, it will be a criminal offence for that person to return to the dispersal area for a 24-hour period.
If a young person under the age of 16 is stopped in the area after 9.00 pm and is not accompanied by an adult, the police can escort them to their home address, if they are either:

  • at risk or vulnerable from anti-social behaviour or crime
  • causing, or at risk of causing, anti-social behaviour.

A dispersal zone can be as small as the area surrounding a cash point or as large as an entire open area of a housing estate or row of shops. Once a dispersal order is in place, the escort power can be used against any under-16, but it does not necessarily have to be used at all.

Camden police’s West Hampstead crime map for July 2012 isn’t online yet, but I’ve taken a look back over the past few months to see how many anti-social behaviour crimes have been recorded within the proposed dispersal zone. I also looked back at June 2011.

June 2012 – 35 ASB offences
May 2012 – 27 ASB offences
April 2012 – 42 ASB offences
March 2012 – 28 ASB offences
June 2011 – 16 ASB offences

Such a short time series isn’t that meaningful, although the fact that of these five months, June 2011 was the quietest might suggest that the problem is indeed getting worse although as you can see from both March and April these stats can be skewed by a couple of larger incidents. A dispersal zone was recently put in place the Brent side of Kilburn, and there was one around Swiss Cottage that was renewed several times.

Not everyone agrees with the principle of dispersal zones. Aside from the fact that they can simply push the problem elsewhere, their detractors also argue that they infringe people’s rights. A group of young people hanging out on a street corner are not necessarily intent on causing trouble they may just be hanging out, and perhaps have nowhere else to go. The police of course argue that it makes their job easier.

If you’re interested in learning more about why this dispersal zone is being proposed, or want to have your say, then the meeting is Tuesday 28th August 17.45-19.00 at Hampstead District Housing Office, 156 West End Lane.