Council beefs up anti-social behaviour team and asks your opinion – two years on from ‘anti-begging’ controversy

Hackney's crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman walks down the Narrow Way, near Hackney Central. Picture:

Hackney's crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman walks down the Narrow Way, near Hackney Central. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

As Hackney Council asks people what they think about its approach to anti-social behaviour, Emma Bartholomew speaks crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman and visits a couple of the ‘hotspots’ around town

Gillett Square in Dalston. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

Gillett Square in Dalston. Picture: Emma Bartholomew - Credit: Emma Bartholomew

“They are going to wait for someone to die or get seriously hurt,” a Gillett Square café owner opines bluntly, when asked if he finds the space an anti-social behaviour (ASB) hotspot.

He wants more to be done to tackle the violence he claims is erupting here too frequently.

But having sat on various neighbourhood panels over the past seven years, alongside the police, councillors and Hackney Council’s own ASB wardens, he says he is beginning to lose hope of a solution.

“They didn’t come out with conclusions,” he said.

The day before, a man was arrested on suspicion smashing the glass door to the nearby Vortex – but within four hours he’d been released and was back in the square.

“I’m a bit fed up,” says the cafe proprietor. “If someone attacks me here, I’m not confident to report it to police if they’re going to come back in two or three hours. There’s no follow-through or consequences.”

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This week the council launched a consultation on anti-social behaviour. It wants to hear your views about the way it tackles the problem. The move comes as the council is increasing its tally of enforcement officers: nine to 24.

The definition of ASB is broad but in this instance the council is focusing on dealing with people who may have support needs – like substance misuse or mental health issues – meaning the council must be “sensitive about how we enforce”.

This includes begging, some street drinking, urinating and defecating in the street, and ASB associated with sex work.

The smashed door at Vortex

The smashed door at Vortex - Credit: Emma Bartholomew

According to the council’s crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman, the town hall wants to make sure it addresses the reasons people are begging or involved in prostitution.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t think other types [of ASB] are important, and we know noise is a real big concern, but those types of ASB can be the most challenging in terms of our approach to make sure we are effectively tackling them, rather than just pushing things elsewhere,” she says.

“We want to make sure we listen to the voices of residents, because they have a right to make sure the streets are safe.”

So is this the consultation the council should have had before it launched the previous public space protection order (PSPO)?

There was outcry in April 2015 when the council introduced a scheme meaning beggars could be fined £100 or taken to court. It was forced to back down after 80,000 people signed a petition backed by pop star Ellie Goulding, saying the PSPO criminalised vulnerable people. A key recommendation in a review by the scrutiny commission was to consult people who live in Hackney next time.

Cllr Selman said: “We are really clear about the importance of engaging with people more broadly and that’s both in order to be clear with people about the evidence of something and the rationale in why we are doing things.

“But also there is a benefit of consulting because there will always be a set of wider views and perspectives.”

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in Gillett Square and there are 35 middle-aged and elderly men and women sitting around on the benches drinking cans of lager. One man is lying on the platform in a sleeping bag.

But the stallholder – who didn’t want to be named – doesn’t believe they’re the ones causing problems. “This is a public space and a little bit hidden off the road,” he says. “Before I arrived it was taken over by street drinkers but the last three years it’s changing.

Hackney's crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman at the bottom of the Narrow Way - identified by the town

Hackney's crime chief Cllr Caroline Selman at the bottom of the Narrow Way - identified by the town hall as a 'hotspot' for anti-social behaviour. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

“Ordinary people are sitting here and sharing the square and they want to use it fairly, but some young people are taking the opportunity to sell drugs and there’s an aggressive approach. You get young kids clashing with the street drinkers. You see knives. There are lots of fights and tension. Most of them are there on drugs.”

He does, however, concede some of the people in the square are seriously ill and need proper help.

“The problem is there is a mental issue and over two days sometimes they don’t sleep. Some of them come from Homerton mental hospital for four hours for their day out and when they get released they end up living in the square.

“The local authority should research who is a friend of the square, who is using it unfairly, who has the inclination to sell drugs and do crime.”

At the moment he does not see the council’s ASB wardens come to the square very often.

“How they do their job I don’t know but they are not deep enough,” he said.

As part of the consultation residents are also being asked if they would support a redirected giving scheme, where people who want to help those who are begging could donate to a fund giving grants to support them.

The consultation results will feed into Hackney’s public space ASB strategy and closes on September 24. Give your views here.