CONCERNS for the human rights of children have been highlighted as a council set in chain a move to introduce extraordinary powers to crackdown on escalating anti-social behaviour in a town centre.

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet saw members approve launching a 12-week public consultation on creating a Public Space Protection Order to allow people to enjoy open public spaces free from nuisance.

Members were told there had been a 148 per cent rise in youth-related anti-social behaviour and an 83 per cent increase in anti-social behaviour overall in the town centre from April to May this year compared to the same period last year.

Chief Inspector Sue Robinson, of Durham Police, said the force viewed begging, street-drinking and youth-related anti-social behaviour as being key elements of the proposed order, which would see police and council officers empowered to order people breaching its terms to stop their behaviour, and hand out £100 fixed penalty notices if the behaviour continued.

Persistent failures to comply with instructions could lead to arrest and £1,000 fine at court.

She said the order should ban the drinking of alcohol in public open spaces.

Chf Insp Robinson said: “It would actually be an offence to have even an open vessel, so we don’t even have to observe them drinking. That would have a big impact on certain individuals who don’t drink in public houses, but congregate in the town centre.”

The senior police officer added the order would also help tackle aggressive begging in the area.

She said: “We actually have got case studies of individuals who we have confirmed are not homeless, have a roof over their head, receive full benefits and are making a considerable amount of money, not so much in the summer months as the winter months. They really are committing criminal offences by begging.”

Talking about anti-social behaviour by young people in the town, she added: “We have got a constant recording of incidents with everything from rowdy nuisance to aggressive riding of pedal bikes in the town centre.”

Several councillors raised concerns the order could simply drive anti-social behaviour outside the town centre and the meeting heard differing views about how far-reaching the terms of the order should be.

Councillor Cyndi Hughes expressed fears “human rights issues could seriously be compromised” by the order.

She said: “The message that we could potentially be sending is that Darlington is not a children and young people-friendly town.

“Some local authorities actually prohibit young people between the ages of ten to 17 congregating in groups of more than four. That sort of stuff we really need to stay away from.”

Cllr Hughes said the current partnership work was sufficient to tackle anti-social behaviour of children “coming from vulnerable, chaotic lifestyles”.

She said: “I see this as a sledgehammer approach and I’m worried about it. Even if the town want to string people up for doing certain things we have responsibilities to protect the rights of even those people some would like to see driven out of town.”

Chf Insp Robinson responded: “The last thing we want to do is arrest children in order to get some form of intervention. This is the opportunity to remove that individual from that location and then the wrap-around multi-agency service to try to reduce the reoffending.”

The authority’s leader, Councillor Bill Dixon, added the order would be “sensibly implemented”. He said: “This is not the Wild West. Darlington remains an incredibly safe place to live. But I think this is a tool that both the local authority and the police need in their tool box.

“There will be a fear that if any three people gather together will they all be arrested and marched to prison for indefinite sentence. No they won’t.

“This is not a witch-hunt on young people. It’s the kids who need the protection as much as anybody else. The town centre has got to be a safe place, especially for vulnerable young people to come to.”

Conservative group leader Councillor Heather Scott questioned whether the order would enable police to stop anti-social behaviour being repeated by the same people on different days.

Chf Insp Robinson said perpetrators’ identities would be recorded, but that police working with the council would initially seek to find out why an individual was behaving anti-socially.