On the front line of binge-drink Britain

Police in Newcastle are pioneering new techniques to reclaim the streets from drunken, brawling revellers ahead of 24-hour opening. Mary Braid spends a night on patrol with PC Lee Madison and the booze squad
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Another raucous night in one of the world's top-10 party cities. At 8pm revellers are already out in their tens of thousands, doing their bit to ensure that Newcastle's reputation as a binge-drinking paradise - and stag and hen night heaven - does not slip.

In the CCTV room down at Market Street police station, the middle-aged male operator is still smiling at the sheer cheek of a dozen young women - presumably rather merry - who ran down Percy Street a few nights ago with their breasts bare and pink fairy wings attached to their backs.

For connoisseurs of drunken high spirits, Newcastle is the place to visit. And from the bank of screens before him, relaying pictures from every club-filled city-centre street, the CCTV controller has a ringside seat on what is quite a circus.

Binge-drinking has towns and cities across the UK in its thrall - to the dismay of almost everyone except binge-drinkers. In Newcastle's particular case, the trend is exacerbated by a long-established culture of hard drinking. The redeveloped city centre and quayside are filled with hundreds of pubs and clubs.

The hostelries are so densely packed that the inebriated are never more than a few steps from the next pub. Such convenience is a little piece of heaven when you are drunk.

But at the bottom of the Bigg Market there's a makeshift memorial that might be expected to sober the party spirit. It's just a few bunches of flowers tied to some railings but it marks the heartbreak of the family of local man Gary Cornish, killed in a closing-time stabbing last year.

"It's just very sad," says PC Lee Madison, 35, pausing briefly by the flowers on his evening city centre beat while young women in skimpy skirts, and men out hunting in packs, quickly pass by.

It's been five months since PC Madison's boss, Northumbria Chief Constable Mike Craik, declared that "the party was over" in Newcastle. With more than 8,000 people arrested in the city last year for alcohol-related offences, Craik promised to "reclaim the streets" for those too frightened to use them. He vowed to attack drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, and booze-fuelled violence.

In case anyone had any doubt about the kind of behaviour Craik was talking about, he showed images from camcorders taken on patrol by his officers. There were fight scenes (involving both men and women), teenage girls lying sozzled and vulnerable in the street, and even a couple having pavement sex.

Police efforts were shifting "upstream", Craik promised, and officers would be encouraged to come down early and hard on anyone looking for trouble while out on the booze. At the same time, pubs would be pressed to be more responsible with offers that encourage binge drinking.

"The campaign started us meeting and greeting," says Madison. "We visited hotels where the girls for the hen parties were staying. We told the women to go and enjoy themselves and get drunk if they liked, but to keep out of trouble."

Madison and his colleagues also met drinkers coming in for a night on the town as they arrived at bus and railway stations - some already tanked up - to explain the new rules. A huge advertising campaign made it hard to argue that the new tough line was a surprise.

The hotel and bus station visiting ended after the four months' summer campaign but will resume in a few weeks when the new 24-hour licensing laws take effect, along with a second phase of "the party's over" campaign before Christmas.

Meanwhile, Madison and other officers are continuing to ensure that where there is bad behaviour, the police are there to stamp down hard and fast. A by-law that makes drinking on the street illegal within the city centre is now strongly enforced. Anyone caught urinating is cautioned, spot-fined or arrested. And there are early arrests at the first sign of drunken disorderly behaviour.

With "upstreaming", according to Assistant Chief Constable Kevin Mathieson, there is always that worry that you will "denude" the street of officers to deal with more serious crime. But "the party's over" campaign did produce results.

During the four-month summer clampdown, arrests for disorder rose 72 per cent on 2004 and arrests for drunkenness 31 per cent. Meanwhile, serious assaults fell by 18 per cent on the previous year and minor assaults by 9 per cent, bucking the national trend.

Madison says behaviour has improved since the summer and approves of the booze crackdown. How does he feel about dealing with drunks? "Drink seems to turn some people into monsters," says the officer, strolling past a pub, which, despite pleas for responsible trading, is offering "Two WKD for £3" and "vodka and Red Bull jugs for £10".

"You see people four hours after you arrest them, when they have sobered up in the cells, and they are different people. We try not to judge people or to take it personally. But it is hard to think like that sometimes when they are struggling, spitting and swearing."

Those struggling, spitting and swearing are as likely to be female as male. There was a time when only a few of the 14 police cells under Market Street police station were set aside for females, but a rise in the number of female arrests for booze-fuelled crimes means more cells for the girls.

Early on in their shift, Madison and two other colleagues arrest a man in a club who was wanted for failing to make a court appearance. As he is handcuffed and loaded into the back of a police van it is a tiny young blonde - about 5ft and 7st - who tries to stir it up with the arrested man's muscular 6ft 2in brother. "What the fuck are they doing?" she shrieks. "I wouldn't let them do that." Later, an officer a few streets away arrests two drunk sisters - 21 and 25 - brawling outside a club.

As the sisters are rounded up for their visit to the tiny, coldly Victorian, Market Street cells, Madison is kept aware of events through the earpiece that connects him with the operator in the CCTV room.

The all-seeing eye is reassuring and at the same time unsettling. Local heavy drinkers certainly notice - and detest - its power. The CCTV operator, who is a civilian, not a policeman, refuses to be photographed. He has been threatened four times, including once with a knife, by people charged with a crime after being caught on his cameras. "I just don't tell people what I do," he says.

Madison doesn't have that luxury. He's out there on the beat in his green luminous jacket - "visible to reassure the public" - and he's strict. Two Chinese men, on a break from a restaurant kitchen, are dismayed when they are stopped by Madison right under a sign that says they cannot drink in the street. They are even more dismayed when he tips their beer on the ground.

Madison tries to keep it friendly whether he is confiscating booze or being accosted by half a dozen women from Swansea on a hen night who insist on trying on a policeman's helmet. He laughs a lot at the high spirits and madness around him. And when he says he loves his job you believe him.

The public - even the drunken public - profess to be on his side. "I think the taxi rank marshals are a great idea," shouts one lad, referring to new plans to police taxi queues. "The fights are always when you are waiting for taxis." His encouraging words are somewhat undermined when we meet him later nursing a nasty cut to his eye. He seems to have been in some kind of fight.

"Can I just say that I feel safer in town with more policemen around," says a rather hefty and tipsy young woman, draping herself so tightly around Madison that you suspect she has a thing about uniforms. As he extricates himself, Madison keeps smiling.

It's on the late shift - 10pm until 5am - that humour can wear a little thin. Out on van patrol, Sergeant Alex Graham-Scott says that in the early hours stupidity really kicks in. Like the case of the woman who emerged from a Quayside club at 1am a few weeks ago and decided it was time for a dip in the Tyne.

"Her boyfriend tried to stop her and then when she had dived in and got into difficulties he had to dive in after her," says Graham-Scott. "He said later that the strong current would have got them if someone had not thrown them a rubber ring."

Queuing - whether for the remaining clubs, kebab vans or taxis - often sparks trouble. The police and the CCTV man monitor every queue closely and tonight there's a new one to watch. Up at the Gate Centre, hundreds of people are waiting to get into a new Aspinall casino where Abi Titmuss is the star of the opening night along with celebrity cad James Hewitt, two blonde girls on stilts and a band that has just been thrown out of the X Factor.

Does Graham-Scott not worry that 24-hour licensing will only extend the agony of his long late shift? Apparently not. "I went through the first change of licensing hours 16 years ago," he says. "And longer hours did actually improve order. I'm expecting crowds will disperse over a longer period and not everyone will want a taxi at the same time."

But as Newcastle prepares for the second pre-Christmas phase of "the party's over", Kevin Mathieson is more negative about the impact of the looming licensing revolution. "We have concerns about the new hours that we will be required to police," he says. "We think they will stretch our resources."

Mathieson says it would have made more sense to have the right infrastructure, such as late night/early morning transport - in place before the legislation was introduced.

Mathieson is not alone in his reservations. Geethika Jayatilaka, of the pressure group Alcohol Concern, says: "This is not going to be the silver bullet to stop the drinking culture. Even in the short time this Act has been discussed, the concerns about alcohol misuse have got worse. The law needs to be enforced properly.

"Part of the responsibility sits with the Government in making sure that police on the ground have got the resources they need. But part of it is with the pub owners. They have to make sure they are not going to have irresponsibly cheap drinks promotions. Pub staff need to be given the support and training they need to say, 'No, I'm not serving you,' to drunks."

The pub trade itself isn't convinced the Government has got it right. "This law isn't what the trade wanted," says Caroline Nodder, editor of drinks trade magazine, The Publican. "We asked for total flexibility so there would be no set licensing hours. But the new law still improves things. At the moment people know drinking time is short so they rush straight to the pub after work. They don't go home, get changed or have anything to eat. They have to get as much down their necks as possible. That's causing all the problems in the city centres. Hopefully the new law will stop fights in kebab shops and taxi queues. It's a cultural change so it will take time, though."

Whether liberalised licensing laws wipe out what the police have achieved in Newcastle remains to be seen. But its gains cannot afford to be squandered. Despite the drop in violent crime achieved by Craik's campaign - and the adoption of the strategy by other forces this Christmas - there was a return to the bad old days last weekend when drunken fighting broke out in the Bigg Market after Newcastle United had played Sunderland. There were 50 arrests, cramming the cells at Market Street and other Newcastle police stations.

The war is not yet won and no one would want legislation that added to the burden of battle.