Cambridge Dispersal Zone Renewed and Shrunk Without Discussion

Red – Area of Current Dispersal Zone from 3 Jan 2010
Blue – Area of Previous Dispersal Zone to 3 Jan 2010
Note: East Road itself was excluded from the previous zone.
View Via Google Maps

On the 18th of January 2010 I attended Cambridge City Council’s Strategy and Resources committee to ask about council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith’s recent decision to renew, and reduce the area of, a dispersal zone in the city.

Dispersal Zones are areas designated under Section 30 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003; within them police constables and PCSOs have the power to “disperse” people; ie. order them to leave the area under threat of arrest if they don’t comply, or if they return. I feel these are draconian powers with the potential to criminalise people who have not breached other laws. As with other New Labour “antisocial behaviour” laws I am concerned that they are used instead of more appropriate ways of dealing with people who are actually committing crimes. I don’t think it is right when things like driving offences and drug offences are dealt with via warnings or orders under the antisocial behaviour act; I’m concerned that a two-tier justice system has been brought in and everyone isn’t being treated equally under the law.

Key Points

  • A Police Superintendent and the City Council Leader Ian Nimmo-Smith jointly signed a renewal, and variation, of a dispersal zone order affecting parts of Cambridge. The renewal which came into effect on 3 Jan 2010 has had the effect of massively reducing the area of the Cambridge City Centre from which people can be “dispersed”. Areas of Riverside, Mill Road and surrounding streets, and Sturton Street were removed from the zone.
  • Neither the police or the council leader gave any notice of their intent to make these changes; despite the existence of area committees which would have been well suited to such a discussion.
  • There are concerns the changes could have knock on effects on the licensing cumulative impact zone on Mill Road; making it harder to justify.
  • My view is that it is better to see people dealt with for any criminal offences they are committing rather than for them to be simply dispersed. I support reducing size of the zone, though the decision should not have been made behind closed doors.
  • The Council Leader has assured me that a protocol is in place designed to ensure dispersal powers are only used in relation to alcohol related antisocial behaviour. This may well satisfy most of my concerns but I would be more reassured if I had been able to read the protocol and hear the police commit to abide by it.

In December 2009 attempts find out details of proposed variations to the dispersal zones were made by members of the public at both the West/Central and East Area committees. On the 10th of December I asked the West Central Area Committee about how the decision to vary the zones was to be made. I spoke specifically against acceding to lobbying from PCSOs to expand the zone to cover Jesus Green, but called for a general open debate about the renewal, or not, of the zone. Cllr Cantrill replied to me to assure me the question would be discussed at the January 2010 Strategy and Resources committee. A member of the public, ex. Labour councillor Frank Gawthrop, asked a question about dispersal zones at the East Area committee on the 17th of December 2009; while he was in favour of keeping the zone in its original form, like me he was asking for councillors to take part in the debate and decision making surrounding the changes.

In early January it emerged that the leader of the council, Ian Nimmo-Smith had made a decision to radically change the city’s dispersal zone; it appears that he made this decision alone and in secret. Cllr Cantrill’s assurance proved worthless – there was not even an item on the agenda of the January Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee when the papers for that meeting were published.

At the council’s community services committee meeting on the 14th of January 2010 Executive councillor Catherine Smart explained that the council leader had been pressurised by the police into signing off on the dispersal zone changes. She said he had been given only twenty minutes notice of the zone’s expiry and the police’s proposals to renew it in quite a different form. When challenged on the “twenty minutes” claim she corrected this to “twenty minutes or thereabouts”. The exchange prompted opposition councillors and others to seriously question what had gone on; and the ruling Liberal Democrats were persuaded to release information relating to the decision.

My Public Question

I told the Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee that Councillor Cantrill assured me, his fellow councillors, and members of the public present at that West Central Area committee in December that the renewal and variation of the zones would be on the agenda at this meeting; Cllr Cantrill had suggested the right place to raise my question was at the scrutiny committee and not the area committee.

I pointed out that given the fact Cllr Nimmo-Smith had signed off on renewals and variations to the zone prior to the meeting Cllr Cantrill’s response had been misleading. I let councillors know I and others had asked councillors about dispersal zone renewal at the North and East area committees and had not been given informative answers at those meetings either.

Within the thee minutes permitted for a public question I asked:

  • Why do councillors think the zones are needed?
  • How can the Liberal Democrats can justify supporting giving such draconian powers to junior members of the police force? Surely those voting Liberal Democrat might expect them to be pro civil liberties?
  • Are councillors aware of how magistrates treat breaches of dispersal orders. (The report to the meeting omitted any discussion of this)
  • What can be done about the lack of publicity surrounding renewal of dispersal zones? Why do neither the council or the police publish maps of the zones on their websites?
  • Why councillors had been unwilling to enguage in discussion with the public, at area committees or elsewhere, about the dispersal zones?
  • Has there only ever been one dispersal zone, which has varied in size and been constantly renewed? If so, the council leaders’ statement that new zones are scrutinised (but renewals only subject to an annual review) was misleading.

I also questioned why section 30 orders were being used in preference to other laws to deal with things like drug offences.

I argued that dispersal zones bring people who would otherwise would never find themselves in contact with police on the wrong side of them. I think this damages the reputation of the police and in the long run risks making policing harder and will make it harder for policing by consent to continue. I drew attention to the fact that dispersal was one of a number of oppressive measures being deployed in what I consider to be an inappropriate manner in the city, including stop and account and stop and search – (safeguards set down by ministers and parliament are not followed in Cambridgeshire).

I asked if the council report was correct to state that this dispersal order can only be used in cases of alcohol related ASB.

I said that one of my particular concerns was that dispersal zones give what I consider excessive power to PCSOs; I questioned if power to impose an individual dispersal order under section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 was delegated to PCSOs in Cambridge and suggested that one of the main effects of the Section 30 dispersal zone was to give more powers to PCSOs. I do not think that PCSOs should be given these kind of summary justice powers.

Finally, having managed to get rather a lot into the time permitted for a public question, I drew a parallel between the way the decision to approve the dispersal zone in secret had been made and the way the decision to approve giving police powers to security guards at Addenbrookes, a decision which also by law has to be taken in conjunction with the local authority, was taken. I suggested that the council ought be more open when it comes to influencing police powers.

The Leader of the Council’s Response

The council had invited Superintendent Brown of Cambridgeshire Police to the meeting. The chair, Cllr Amanda Taylor, invited both the council leader and the Superintendent to respond to me.

Leader of the council, Ian Nimmo-Smith, said that the committee had agreed to work with the police under a protocol designed to restrict the use of the dispersal powers to antisocial behaviour related to street drinking. I was unaware of this protocol before the meeting; I have had extensive discussions, and correspondence with councilors about the dispersal zones and this hasn’t been mentioned before. This is a potentially reassuring aspect of the council’s approval of the police powers which may well address many of my concerns. I have used mySociety’s freedom of information site WhatDoTheyKnow to ask the council for a copy of its Dispersal Powers Protocols as the document did not form part of the papers made available at the meeting.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that any decisions under delegated powers would be reported to the scrutiny committee at the earliest possible opportunity; he said the fact there had been no item on the agenda for the January meeting related to the timing of the renewal.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith reported that there had been other dispersal zones in the city in the past; saying the Market Square had been dealt with separately to address begging and drinking. He told the meeting this was “the third change to the large zone”.

With respect to police powers for security guards at Addenbrookes Cllr Nimmo-Smith said the Community Safety Partnership was consulted but was “not in a position to negotiate”, and had approve the scheme, which he stressed was only a pilot, with reservations.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said he believed people dispersed under section 30 powers were effectively informed of the area from which they were being expelled. He also expressed his understanding that drug use would not be dealt with by a dispersal but under more appropriate powers.

Superintendent Brown spoke to say “the section 30 powers make substantial changes to quality of life” and that the police “do take their powers very seriously”. He said “If the evidence doesn’t support the continued use of the powers we are the first people to support their removal”. Superintendent Brown said that the powers had only been used on one occasion in the area to be removed from the zone in the period (six months) since it was last renewed. He said the police had a number of powers they could use, for example an informal warning for cannabis use, but that such powers don’t enable the police to move people on. He again repeated his point that moving people on was a “power to improve quality of life”.

I asked a follow-up questions relating to the “20 minutes to decide” pressure which it had been reported the council leader had been put under; the powers of PCSOs, the protocol which the council leader had mentioned. I asked the Superintendent to give an assurance on behalf of the police would only use the powers they had been given in line with the council protocol.

The council leader denied he had been pressurised by the police and said he had not said be had been given just 20 minutes to make the decision.

Superintendent Brown didn’t give me the assurance I sought; and he looked as though he hadn’t heard of the protocol. He also appeared not to know the position of PCSOs in Cambridgeshire with respect to powers under the violent crime reduction act.

Cllr Ward spoke to add that if the police were to breach the council’s protocol which limits them to using their dispersal powers in cases of alcohol related antisocial behaviour then the council would withdraw their support for the dispersal zones and not renew them.

Council officer Liz Bisset, the director of “Community Services” also jumped in – to say: “section 30 use must be reasonable and proportionate”, she said the timing of the renewal, on the 2nd of January, was a problem. She said she would look at changing the timing and and looking at introducing a consultation period.

Mr Green

Another member of the public, Mr John Green, addressed the meeting. He introduced himself as the secretary of the “Mill Road Community Improvement Group”.

He said “the authorities” had been the main cause of problems on Mill Road in the past, problems which he felt had reached a high point in about 1994. According to Mr Green section 30 zones, with their associated alcohol confiscation and dispersal powers, had been a tool which had brought some degree of tranquillity to the area.

Mr Green said there where still people in the area who were: “dysfunctional, people, people with mental health problems, people with alcohol and drug taking habits”.

Mr Green joined me in pointing out that there had been no discussion at the East Area committee of the proposed changes to the dispersal zone. He called for discussion of the zones in the neighbourhood policing reports and said the officers presenting to area committee meetings “must have known this was coming down the pipe”. Mr Green pointed out that the “APEC citizens panel” (Abbey, Petersfield, E?, Coleridge) had also not been told of the plans to remove the dispersal zone. He complained about the lack of public consultation surrounding the removal of the zone from the Mill Road area. Mr Green called for the renewal of the dispersal zone in Mill Road and suggested he would be asking councillors to set renewing the dispersal zone as a police priority at an upcoming East Area committee.

Superintendent Brown responded first; he decided to pick at the language Mr Green had used rather than address his substantive point. He tried to claim that there had been “no rescinding of the s.30 order in the Mill Road area” on the grounds that the order had “come to its natural end”. He said that section commander had already written a letter to residents apologising for the lack of consultation.

Mr Green pointed out that there was an apparent contradiction between the police support for a cumulative impact zone (relating to alcohol licensing) on Mill Road and the removal of the dispersal zone. He suggested that with 1000 more students soon to be housed in the CB1 redevelopment the issues on Mill Road could be compounded.

Councillors’ Debate

Mr Green and I had addressed councillors during the “public speaking” section. Once this had been concluded Councillor Amanda Taylor, who was chairing the meeting, made a declaration “In accordance with Section 100(B) (4) of the Local Government Act 1972” allowing the consideration of the dispersal zone changes despite them not being placed on the agenda; she declared these urgent matters and stated that the information required to place the item on the agenda had not been available in time. This latter comment about material not being available in-time were met with cries of: “untrue”, “lies” and “nonsense” from both the public seating and from opposition councillors.

The leader of the opposition, Labour councillor Lewis Herbert was invited to speak first. He criticised the committee’s papers saying: “I don’t know what we have here. We’ve got no recommendation in the report”. He also complained about the process of “post-scrutiny”. Cllr Herbert suggested an annual report on street related anti-social behaviour. He also drew attention to the poor way that questions at area committees, and area committees themselves had been treated with respect to this decision. He said issues about community confidence and the community’s role in decision making were raised. Cllr Herbert expressed particular concern in relation to the potential effects on the Cumulative Impact Zone and licensing; he questioned if there could be any confidence in that now being maintained.

Cllr Herbert pointed to the fact that drug use was still present, needles were still being found in the Mill Road cemetery. He said the idea this had disappeared simply isn’t the case. Cllr Herbert claimed that residents don’t regard the powers as in any way draconian, but did join me in criticising the council leader for making a decision in secret on his own.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Bick, said he agreed with the criticisms about the process; he also complained there was no map in the report (one was provided in papers online). He said consultations shouldn’t be too narrow and pointed out the areas affected by a dispersal zone go well outside the area actually covered as one effect of the zone is to displace activity.

Cllr Bick also pointed to the “good news” element – the police were reporting improved statistics on alcohol related problems on Mill Road. Cllr Bick said the powers were “somewhat special” but “not draconian”.

Cllr Bradnack addressed the committee councillor for an affected ward. He critisied the council leader for making a substantial change and publishing it as a fait-accompli without consultation. He said there had been endless debate surrounding the start of the dispersal powers yet none around stopping them. Like Cllr Herbert he pointed to problems within the area of concern. He said there were high levels of discovery of needles in a wide area or Mill Road, Norfolk Street and the Cemetery. (Evidently he doesn’t believe the powers are only being used against alcohol related ASB either.) Cllr Bradnack suggested that people don’t call the police as often as they used to despite problems still being there. He asked about the process of re-introduction and asked if it would happen if necessary, and if it would involve lots of rigmarole or if the decision was fairly easy to reverse.

Conservative Cllr Howell joined the chorus of complaints about the lack of notice and lack of consultation with community groups. He said there was a problem in the community which had to be taken seriously, but that we have to be careful when deploying powers that they focus on those causing problems and that they did not affect those behaving responsibly.
Cllr Howell asked about the relationship between the decision not to renew the Mill Road dispersal zone and the cumulative impact in licensing zone; he expressed a concern that we could find the licensing zone being relaxed and that could be harder to remove if problems crop up.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Shah spoke to ask his fellow party members who rule the council to make more use of the East Area committee. He said: “if crime were to return the reversal needs to happen quickly”. (He’s missing the point that the police still have the power to deal with “crime”.)

Cllr Ward spoke to defend his leader from the onslaught, he said; “The leader makes decisions in-line with the process – not the level of interest”. Having said that Cllr Ward picked up on the point I had raised about police powers given to security guards at Addenbrookes – he complained about the “Community Safety Partnership”‘s lack of democratic accountability.

Superintendent Brown addressed the meeting in typical police-speak to say: “This is not an end or a final way forward”. He repeated his claim that: “Nothing has been rescinded or reversed; the order came to its natural end”. He assured councillors that “offenders can be dealt with” in the absence of the s.30 zone. The Superintendent explained that the powers were “much more special in 2004 than they are now following the introduction of the violent crime reduction act”. What he was alluding to was the increasingly oppressive policing powers which have been slowly brought in by the Labour government. Superintendent Brown said that comparing 2008 to 2009 figures there had been 618 fewer offences as well as a reduction in the severity of offences. He said “not one S.30 power was used by officers on Mill Road”.

Cllr Taylor asked Superintendent Brown to be “more specific on trigger points which would prompt the reintroduction of the zone”; in response the Superintendent said: “It would be wrong to say a 10% increase in a certain type of offence would result in us putting it back.”

Alastair Roberts, the Safer Communities Manager, spoke to say that only one person had attended a recent Mill Road police consultation event; and from that he inferred things must have got better. (He apparently didn’t consider people might not have been aware of the event!)

Cllr Herbert reminded the committee of the things he had asked for in his speech. A consideration of the effect on the licensing cumulative impact zone, an annual report, and more use of the East Area committee. Cllr Herbert expressed a concern that the loss of the dispersal order would result in less detailed statistics being collected which make make it harder to justify the licensing cumulative impact zone.

The area committees are the Liberal Democrats’ very expensive flagship policy in Cambridge so they are very sensitive to criticism of them. The council leader, and the meeting’s chair Cllr Taylor both tried to argue that the lack of debate at the East Area committee was the fault of the East Area Chair, Labour Councillor Kevin Blencowe; who they said had control of his meeting’s agenda. Cllr Herbert interjected to point out that Cllr Blencowe can’t put something on the agenda if he doesn’t know about it. This was something of a friendlily fire incident as Cllrs Nimmo-Smith and Taylor also hit their party colleague Simon Kightley who chairs the West Central Area committee, it will be worth asking him why he didn’t put it on his agenda.

There was a brief discussion of Designated Public Places orders; councillors appeared to rapidly dismiss these as being far too wide reaching and having even more chance of affecting those not committing offences than dispersal orders, they didn’t want to introduce a power which would criminalise anyone picnicking on a green with a bottle of wine.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith wrapped up discussions with an comment of: “I have learned a lot from the way this came through.” He agreed that in future proposals to amend the zones ought be: “taken through ‘Safer policing’ or whatever its name is. This latter comment is amusing given the Lib Dems leadership’s insistence on unusual names for police priority setting agenda items at area committees; Conservative Councillor Howell even proposed, and won, a full council amendment insisting the name include the word “police” so that it was clearer to the public what the agenda item typically called “safer neighborhoods” is about. (The police prefer “safer neighborhoods” as it allows them to claim they’re not responsible for items discussed under it).

Related Documents

What I’m Considering Doing Next:

  • I think it would be useful to chase up the publication of the dispersal zone maps on the council and police websites. I think they ought be provided in a more accessible manner than having them hidden on page nine of an “extra item” linked from the committee papers.
  • The dispersal zone protocols need to be obtained and reviewed to see if they provide the reassurance claimed by the council leader; and to see if the limitations contained within them make sense when compared to the arguments put forward for introducing the zones.
  • Now the dispersal zone is entirely in the West Central Area it would be worth asking Cllr Kightley, the West Central Area committee chair to commit to having an agenda item to discuss the zone in advance of its renewal in six months time.
  • In the East area I think a useful police priority would be to ensure the level and quality of statistics gathering in relation to alcohol related antisocial behavior we have seen while the dispersal zone has been in operation continues so that evidence is gathered to support the continuation of the licensing cumulative impact zone.
  • Liberty is strongly opposed to dispersal powers on the grounds there is no need for any criminal behaviour to prompt a direction to disperse; and the powers rely on the subjective assessment of police officers (and PCSOs) and so are hard to challenge. I agree strongly with Liberty’s view on dispersal powers. As prospective Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Julian Huppert has recently been elected to the national council of Liberty; it will be interesting to find out if he personally takes a view in-line with Liberty or with his fellow Cambridge Liberal democrats running the City Council on this question; the two groups are diametrically at odds with each other so he can’t have it both ways. When Mr Huppert has been among the councillors when I have raised this at the North Area committee he, like most of his party colleagues, sat there like a lemon and said nothing.

See also:

I have been drawing attention to the lack of public debate and democratic oversight of the decisions to introduce and vary dispersal zones for some time, this latest change has prompted wider public interest than those which have gone before it:

8 responses to “Cambridge Dispersal Zone Renewed and Shrunk Without Discussion”

  1. Richard is misrepresenting me — probably because the meeting was a while ago.

    I did not suggest that dispersal zones should have been discussed at previous East Area Committees; I pointed out that if its chair Cllr Kevin Blencowe wished, he could have the general issue of ASB in the Mill Road area discussed at a future meeting, and that’s also what I said to him privately. I made no comment at all about any other Area Committee meetings, or about Cllr Kightley.

    I have given a brief report on the discussion on my own website.

  2. I never suggested Cllr Taylor or Cllr Nimmo-Smith mentioned their party colleague Cllr Kightley.

    My point was they didn’t consider that their criticisms of the Labour Chaired East Area committee could equally be applied to the Lib Dem West/Central Area committee chaired by Cllr Kightly. Had they done so, had Mr Kightley have been in their thoughts, then they might have been a bit more careful with their words.

    I am absolutely certain that at least some Liberal Democrats attempted to turn their leader’s secret decision to renew the dispersal zone without any involvement of residents or ward councillors into an opportunity to make a party political attack against the Labour Party by suggesting that had Cllr Blencowe wanted he could have debated the zone at the East area committee.

    I remember the cries and shouts from the Labour members – pointing out that Mr Blencowe can’t put things on his agenda if he’s not told about them – very clearly. The council leader clearly stated that Kevin Blencowe has full control over the East Area committee agenda; as this followed criticism of the failure to use the the area committees to engage with councillors and residents the suggestion being made certainly appeared to me to be that he was at fault for not ensuring the renewal and variation of the order was discussed.

    Cllr Taylor’s article on the meeting is at:

  3. “I never suggested Cllr Taylor or Cllr Nimmo-Smith mentioned their party colleague Cllr Kightley.”

    Yes you did. Original article: “This was something of a friendlily fire incident as Cllrs Nimmo-Smith and Taylor also hit their party colleague Simon Kightley who chairs the West Central Area committee”

  4. As the discussion was focused on Mill Road the Lib Dems appeared to forget that almost all of the zone that’s left is in the West/Central Area. When they tried to place the blame for lack of debate on the area committee chair, while they were aiming their comments at Cllr Blencowe, they also [despite not naming him or meaning to] hit Cllr Kightley.

    “Friendly fire” was a good, clear, analogy I thought.

  5. I have been informed that APEC stands for Abbey, Petersfield and East Chesterton; three areas of the City which were targeted in previous attempts to take action against “streetlife” related problems.

  6. Cambridge City Council has replied to my Freedom of Information request in which I asked for a copy of the protocol the Council Leader had assured me limited the police’s use of dispersal zone powers to dealing with alcohol related anti-social behaviour. The council response indicates there is no written, formally agreed, protocol in place. No wonder Superintendent Brown looked perplexed when the protocol was being discussed and when I asked him to commit to abide by it.

    Alastair Roberts, Cambridge City Council’s Safer Communities Manager replied to say:

    You have asked for copies of the protocols that were in place for the s.30 Dispersal Orders issued in 2007 and again in 2010. If by this you mean one document covering the roles of the Police and the City Council in respect of s. 30, such a document does not exist in the form you may be expecting.

    It appears that some, informal, unwritten, agreement was in place; limiting the use of powers against children, but not as the council leader assured me limiting the use of the powers only to those involved in alcohol related anti-social behaviour.

    At the time operational guidance was also agreed between the two organisations. This was done in consultation with Ward Councillors. Agreement was reached that the Order would, amongst other things, be explicit over the boundary of the area it covered, notices would be would be placed in various locations within the designated area and training would be provided to police personnel. Allowance within the area would be made for individuals to access essential services (relevant particularly to members of the street-life community), orders to leave would only cover the period of time when the officer issuing the order was on duty, young people involved in anti-social behaviour could be dispersed, however, subsection 6 of the Order which relates to returning those young people (under 16) found engaging in ASB and unaccompanied by an adult to their home, would not be used. Young persons found to be involved in persistent ASB would be referred to the ASB Problem Solving Group. The use of s.30 powers would be logged by the police and council officers would have access to the log.

    While I left the meeting feeling reassured following the response to my public question; I now feel I was misled.

    As I requested the protocol using mySociety’s freedom of information site the request, and the response, have been published online at:

  7. I wrote to Cllr Ward, my local councillor and a member of the Strategy and Resources committee, to draw his attention to the fact it appears no written protocol exists. He replied, copying the leader of the council, to say:

    Mr Taylor,

    Thank you for drawing this to my attention. I was not aware that the protocol was not written down.

    I have discussed this with the leader of the council and he agrees that it would be better for the protocol to be a written document, and for it to be included with the annual report to committee. He undertakes to progress this for future years, if we continue with the order.

    It is precisely because this sort of protocol, no matter how well documented and published, may not be properly trained to the bobby on the beat, and also because it is unenforceable anyway, that we are just about prepared to tolerate a section 30 order but not prepared to countenance a DPPO. The section 30 order expires if we don’t renew it, whereas a DPPO is rather harder to get rid of in the case that the operation of a protocol were to break down for whatever reason.

    The root of the problem is that central government do not trust councils to make bye-laws that meet their local circumstances. If we could get our bye-law approved we could give the police exactly the powers that we want them to have without, as we have to at the moment, having to also give them in the same package powers that we do not wish them to exercise.


    Tim Ward

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.