Former Lord Mayor, who led a working party looking into solving the problem of drunks in the city centre seven years ago, has said there is widespread support from the public and from traders to ban drinking alcohol in public places.

John Power, pictured above, said the working party of police, social workers, senior council officials, shopkeepers and health workers concluded a ban on drinking should be introduced in certain parts of Oxford.

Plans for tougher by-laws were vetoed by city councillors in 1994, because they felt it would push the problem elsewhere.

Cllr Power, who now represents Oxford West on Oxfordshire County Council, said: "If you look at the evidence that we had - and there was a fair amount of evidence gathered - Oxford is seen as a soft touch, very lax about the whole thing, and as a consequence has a problem."

The Labour politician said the city council had chosen to blame the "system" rather than the drunks for anti-social behaviour in the city. He added that the problem had become no better since it was looked at seven years ago.

He said: "I was annoyed. I knew well the vast majority of citizens wanted something done about it."

The city council did push the idea of having a 'wet house' which would give people somewhere to go where they could drink away from the main streets and alleyways of Oxford.

The project never got off the ground, but city councillors still believe it could work if adequate funding could be secured.

Lord Mayor Maureen Christian agreed anti-social behaviour from drunks had become an increasing problem, but said the question of by-laws had been considered several times over several years.

She added: "What we were advised is that, if you have a ban on alcohol within the centre of the city, you drive people out to suburbs and to other areas where there's very little police presence."

She said there was no easy option, but that setting up a 'wet house' could be an answer.

"At least you could have social workers trying to check their health and trying to do something to persuade them to cut down on alcohol," she said.

"It was going to take quite a lot of money and people objected to spending money on that particular initiative. They thought that alcoholism was being condoned."

Jon Quayle, a director of New Inn Hall Street jewellers Justice, said drunks were a problem in the Bonn Square area and persistently bothered his employees at weekends.

He said: "My priority as an employer is the safety of my staff - and that has been an issue, with people being violent and abusive to my staff in the shop and later when they are leaving the shop."

He gave qualified support to the idea of a town centre drinking ban.

Mr Quayle added: "I think from the point of view of running the city centre it makes sense but we want to treat the problem - not just move it somewhere else."

He said it was up to the council to provide "holistic approach". This included a duty of care to look after drunks on the street.

Keith Henderson, an Oxford police inspector, said: "Unless they are acutely drunk or committing some public order offence - and most of the time they aren't until they are drunk - there's nothing we can or will do about it."

A careful strategy would have to be drawn up to target areas where there was a problem, such as Bonn Square.

He said: "We are happy to enter into the debate as to whether we introduce by-laws.

"We have got to take into account the intention to have Continental-style cafes to allow drinking in certain areas.

"Do we ban people from drinking if they are having picnics in Christ Church Meadow? Is there an issue with people drinking at the May Day celebrations and people coming out of balls?"

Mervin Msaya, the city council's crime strategy co-ordinator, said the council had been looking at introducing by-laws to stop street drinking. But it would now wait for the Home Office's Criminal Justice and Police Bill to get through Parlia- ment.

He said: "It would give us more or less the same powers that we would have had if we had the by-law. The local authority would be able to designate areas around the city as alcohol-free zones. If anyone was to be found drinking the police would have the powers to arrest that person."

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