Teenagers kick against police curfew imposed in the town at heart of Melvyn Bragg country

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The Independent Online

Michael Edgar skidded his Barracuda mountain bike on to the pavement of New Street, Wigton, within earshot of the local police inspector and shouted: "It's our town. Everybody's out on the street nowadays."

Michael Edgar skidded his Barracuda mountain bike on to the pavement of New Street, Wigton, within earshot of the local police inspector and shouted: "It's our town. Everybody's out on the street nowadays."

Inspector Dave Barr might have taken the 17-year-old's bait if he had not been ambushed by a dozen lively teenagers, each displaying a verbal dexterity worthy of a town whose only famous son is Lord Bragg of Wigton - who grew up here as plain old Melvyn. "What are we supposed to do of a night?" said Anthony, aged 14. "Sit down with our parents and get lectured by them?"

The tone was friendly but the children were talking about the subject which has them united in indignation - Inspector Barr's decision to impose a 9pm curfew which, from last night, gave his officers the powers to round up and reprimand any child under 16 found on the town centre streets - even those who have not committed a crime. The curfew, made possible by the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act which came into force in January, will be in place throughout the Easter holidays. Breaking it could bring a £2,500 fine or three months' detention.

The move was described by local youth workers this week as an "adversarial New York style of policing" and on Thursday the children were using their last night of "freedom" to the full, to hammer home the point.

Shane, 13, wearing a faded Adidas cap, sat on his BMX bike and watched a friend repeatedly hurl a tennis ball at a New Street shop and dodge cars to retrieve it. He described the curfew as "absolutely shan," - local vernacular for unfair. "What happens if I don't do anything wrong? It's crap in this town. There's nought to do," he complained.

The girls were more effusive. "This is going too far. It's our holiday for Christ's sake. We're supposed to get time off school to relax, said Gemma 14. "This is just so shan. I just want to ask you, why 9pm?" Sara, 14, asked Inspector Barr. "We're doing a show at the youth club. We're not a threat. I bet you used to do all this shite didn't you?"

The catalyst for the curfew was a juvenile crime wave of 27 petty offences during the last half-term holiday, including smashed windows, damage to cars, stone-throwing, wheelie- bin fires and 12 intoxicated children climbing on the community centre roof.

It was hardly the Bronx - but the level of crime, complementing Wigton's usual fare of glue, cannabis and Temazepam abuse, was unheard of and it persuaded Inspector Barr, aged 42 and only four months into his job here, to draw on the new legislation during the next school holiday. The law now gives him the power to remove any unsupervised young people from the streets after 9pm - if they are "reasonably likely" to commit an act of "harassment, alarm or distress".

Inspector Barr's childhood has not equipped him with an intimate appreciation of modern teenage street-corner culture. The cubs, hockey, football, homework and the TA were all major preoccupations. But he relishes the street debate with the children. "People are going to test the boundaries and see if we are ready to take them on and arrest them," he said. "But if the message is getting through, young people will realise they are a part of Wigton and responsible for it.

"I like to say the legislation is like a scalpel. You could use it for open heart surgery or to cut a boil. I'm using it for the boil. You need to apply a big dose of common sense to these powers. If you are a 15-year-old walking to the Spar shop for a bottle of milk we're not going to put you in a van."

The town council, local shopkeepers and the secondary school head all agree and the local Spar shop, which is fed up with teenagers swearing, spitting and shouting, wishes the ban had been made permanent.

But Wigton's only youth facility, the local Youth Station, has thrown the book at Inspector Barr, citing a paper by the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Charles Pollard, in its body of evidence. "Whenever one group is targeted and blamed for the ills of society they are likely to interpret this as dismissal from the mainstream," his argument ran. "Certain sections within the community - resentful and locked into a spiralling cycle of blame and retribution will withdraw their consent from the law completely."

Lynn Healey, the Youth Station project manager, also accuses the police of double standards. Wigton is still counting the cost of its traditional booze-up in Cheltenham Cup week which, this year, resulted in a number of windows being smashed - by adults.

She claims there has also been a lack of consultation, though when children were given the chance to discuss the plan at a recently convened youth forum, only seven turned up to take part.

The only point of consensus is Wigton's total lack of evening activities for children. The local noticeboards advertise bingo, Morris dancing, dog shows and childminding services and the Youth Station is so short of money that it opens for just two hours each evening and shuts its doors at 8.30pm.

The town's hardcore criminal element - 10 children and their 20 hangers on - will not even touch the structured youth club regime. There is talk of a skateboard and BMX park at a disused pit site outside town but money must first be raised. Talk of a meeting point near a local supermarket was rejected, as it was too near houses.

As Inspector Barr concluded his shift near the war memorial erected by a former High Sheriff of Cumberland, there was ample evidence that the curfew policy would leave him and his staff stretched.

Two of his four officers were tied up on an attempted suicide, a boy racer had just roared past a no-entry sign before the officers could take his registration plate, and the children were already planning the consequences of rebellion. "I'm not paying the fine," Shane told him. "I'd rather take the two and a half months in prison."