Pushy punting touts cause ripples on the waters of Cambridge

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Lina Caporaso, a 51-year-old mother of two, is the owner of Carlo's Ices and has been engaged in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with the young "punt touts" who ply the short stretch from her ice-cream cart opposite the 12th century church to Magdalene Bridge. Last weekend, her son Nick, a local hairdresser, confronted one of the touts who, she claims, had been putting people off buying ice-cream by hanging around too close to her cart.

The resulting tussle ended in the young tout receiving a cut to the eye requiring two stitches. The 24-year-old tout also suffered a mild concussion. Mr Caporaso was arrested and interviewed by the police but was later released without charge. The tout says he now intends to launch a private prosecution.

The following day Mrs Caporaso slapped a young Spanish tout as he spoke to her customers. Another tout claims to have had his advertising board snapped and thrown in a bin.

Yesterday the ice-cream vendor was unapologetic. "There is only so much you can take. It has been like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. The touts have got worse in the last three years. People are always being pestered by them and they are putting people off coming to Cambridge.

"My customers see them and cross the street. Buying an ice-cream is a spur of the moment decision and they are interfering with our business," she said.

At the height of summer up to 30 touts, mostly students or former students, are engaged in the task of convincing the city's 3.5 million tourists to part with up to £12 to drift in a punt along the historic college Backs, which are inaccessible by any other means.

Even by their own admission, the touts can be annoying. They do, however, believe they have been demonised in the media and are supportive of their colleague, who they say was assaultedwhile lawfully carrying out his job.

In the past, their activities have prompted complaints from local businesses who claim customers are followed into shops, and from students who are tired of being accosted each time they walk along Bridge Street.

At the heart of the problem is the bitter rivalry between touts for the established punt hirers - Scudamore's and Tyrrell's - and the new breed of mobile or freelance touts who operate from their own punts stationed on Jesus Green.

Competition has driven the touts further down Bridge Street to prevent tourists being siphoned off by the mobile hawkers before they reach the base of the established companies at Magdalene Bridge.

According to Nick Bolton, head of tourism in the city, there has been an "arms race of touts" down Bridge Street and Mrs Caparaso's ice-cream cart has found itself at the centre of hostilities.

To try to combat the problem, Cambridge City Council drew up a new by-law that it hoped would limit the right of the touts to roam the streets. But despite being submitted to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister in May, in time to prevent a repeat of last year's tout wars, the new order has languished in John Prescott's in-tray.

"We don't want to stifle what is an expected part of a trip to Cambridge and believe this by-law would satisfy the demands of all sides. Unfortunately we have been left in limbo all summer, which is not particularly useful," said Mr Bolton.

The injured man was a mobile tout. Declining to give his name, he said he believes more experienced freelancers like him operate a "less frenetic" sales policy. "The companies' employees are much younger and don't know how to handle themselves on the street. They don't know how to show respect. They are the cause of the problem," he told The Independent.

The job clearly has a number of attractions. Charlie Pettit, 22, general manager of Scudamore's says that, despite the rivalry, most of the touts remain friends. One of their number, Spencer Smith, recently went from Big Brother celebrity to tabloid "love rat". "Ninety per cent of the staff are students. They want to make as much money as they can and have as much fun as they can. They tend to sort out their differences over a beer at the end of the day," he said.

But according to Mrs Caporaso, the public is behind her. "Someone handed me £5 and said 'buy your son a drink'. Its surprising how many locals are saying: 'Good for you'," she said.