A COUNCIL has defended a plan to tackle antisocial behaviour in a town centre after being accused of “persecuting desperation and poverty”.

Darlington Borough Council said the introduction of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to the town centre would represent the effective use of legislation, and provide a new tool to curb the damaging effects of begging, alcohol and gangs of youths.

A PSPO enables police and council officers to deal with antisocial behaviour within a designated area by placing restrictions on behaviour and if individuals breach these conditions they could face fines of up to £1,000.

The authority’s cabinet looks set to approve the order next week, following a public consultation exercise which was “generally supportive” of the PSPO, but saw concerns expressed over the part of the drive to tackle beggars.

A Darlington solicitor, whose name has been withheld by the council, told the consultation the proposal was “mean-spirited in part, unnecessary, and likely to create increased problems of criminality”.

He said: “The prohibition on begging is a Draconian way of dealing with vulnerable people. I have personal knowledge of some beggars, who are genuinely homeless and seek to raise funds for B&B accommodation.

“Begging for this purpose, often where benefits are sanctioned or delayed, is a necessary evil. Where the council denies opportunities to accept donations from willing contributors, you will inevitable see a rise in town centre shoplifting and crimes of acquisition, if people are desperate to raise cash.”

Another consultation respondent said it would be “dreadful to criminalise people driven to begging on the streets, due to hardship and poverty” and questioned when the Labour-run council started “caring so little about the citizens that it chooses to persecute desperation and poverty”.

One respondent wrote: “We suspect it has little to do with justice but much more to do with ‘tidying up’ the central area. Because beggars don’t look very nice, do they?”

However, most consultation respondents said they supported the PSPO, saying they felt intimidated in the town centre. A mother told the consultation: “I think this is a great idea as I’m sick of seeing ‘homeless’ people asleep in the town centre looking like they are dead! It’s not nice walking past them with my seven-year-old daughter getting scared thinking they are dead!”

A council spokesman said the powers of the order would only be used when necessary and that the authority had been working with partners, including the 700 Club, NECA Drug and Alcohol Support Services and the police, in developing a strategy to deal with begging and wider issues surrounding homelessness.

He said: “We will continue with a proportionate approach in which we aim to influence and persuade behaviour change and we will continue to work alongside partner agencies to reduce and dissuade inappropriate behaviour.

“It is intended that the provisions in the order dealing with begging will only be used in a proportionate way. Interventions other than enforcement will be attempted to deal with this behaviour, but it is considered important to be able to resort to PSPO powers when necessary.

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