A FORMER pit village will today becomes the first in County Durham to have an enforced alcohol-free zone.

The zone - officially known as an "alcohol-restricted area" - has been imposed in the village of Dipton, which lies between Consett and Stanley.

Derwentside District Council and Durham Police have acted following a series of reported incidents where drunken locals have been involved in assaults, intimidating behaviour and vandalism.

Last April, there were drink-related problems while a funeral was taking place in the village, which has about 2,700 residents.

Police have also dealt with complaints about stones being thrown at passing cars, youths playing chicken on roads, threats being made to passers-by, problems with litter and damage to the bowling green.

Inspector Ian Pround, community inspector for Stanley and the surrounding area, said: "The order is only there because of a small number of individuals, most of them adults, who act as a magnet to others.

"Sometimes they spend all day drinking on the streets of the village, frequently accompanied by large numbers of hangers-on."

It is now an offence for any person within the zone - which effectively covers the whole of the village - to drink alcohol in public after being requested not to do so by a police officer. The order will be reviewed on a regular basis.

Insp Proud said: "By being able to seize alcohol from anyone drinking in public, we have a better chance of preventing drunken behaviour before it happens.

"But this is not the only tool we have in the box. Other methods will be used to deal with anyone causing trouble, including extra patrols at busy times."

In 1999, Dipton saw nine reported instances of criminal damage, youths causing annoyance, general disturbances or requests for police assistance.

But four years later, the total had jumped to 66, prompting lengthy discussions between the police, council and residents.

Derwentside council leader Councillor Alex Watson said: "This is a first for Derwentside. As a partnership we are determined to deal with anti-social behaviour that threatens the quality of life.

"People are entitled to be respected and not feel threatened by such behaviour."