Gangs of youths, some as young as 13, hang around in the shadows, swigging alcohol from cans and bottles, hiding away from the road. At a skate park, a group of 40 youngsters congregates to drink the night away, leaving a trail of mess and destruction beh
Gangs of youths, some as young as 13, hang around in the shadows, swigging alcohol from cans and bottles, hiding away from the road. At a skate park, a group of 40 youngsters congregates to drink the night away, leaving a trail of mess and destruction behind them. Just a fairly typical Friday night in St Neots, reporter ANDREW McGILL discovered, but work is in hand to tackle the problem.
ABOUT one in five children aged 11 to 15 will admit to drinking alcohol in the past seven days, according to NHS figures.
In response to this problem Cambridgeshire police - in partnership with Trading Standards, health organisations, youth groups and retailers - today (Wednesday) launches a crackdown on underage drinking, with St Neots named as the focus town for the campaign, which is being called Community Alcohol Partnership.
While those old enough to get into pubs populate the town centre, youths are squeezed into more marginal groups.
It is 9pm on Friday evening and I am being given a tour of St Neots - but this is not one for the tourists. Cambridgeshire Trading Standards officers Richard Matthews and Nikki Piper are taking me round to some of the so-called hotspots in the town.
Outside St Neots Community College at 9.15pm, a group of around 10 youths are skulking in the shadows. Some are on bikes but the tell-tale bulging carrier bags show this is no excursion.
It is a similar story in the grounds of Longsands Community College - it is clear that, if young people want access to alcohol, they can get it.
"We regularly test licensed premises to check if they are selling to underage children," explains Nikki. "The figure for the county has dropped sharply in the last few years, but kids are still getting the drink from somewhere.
"We are receiving more and more reports of alcohol being supplied to underage children by adults, and even parents."
Although it is the largest town in the county, St Neots has not been identified because of its problem with young drinkers.
Nikki explains: "The reason for focusing on St Neots is that it is a distinct area that does not sprawl and therefore we can use it as a model of other towns and judge the campaign's effectiveness."
One girl backing the campaign is 16-year-old Emma Inman, a sixth former at Longsands. She said: "We do need a campaign. Young people get really ill drinking in public places. You see them as young as 13 or 14 and they are drinking because they think it's cool and they are just copying what adults do."
Asked what advice she would give to a younger person, she said: "I would say don't follow what other people are doing. If you get drunk you can get into trouble or you could hurt yourself."
Back on the road on Friday evening, we move on to the skate park. Driving down a narrow lane to get as close as we can, it feels like we are trespassing in a gangland war.
Youths in baseball hats hang around their cars at the entrance and it is impossible to ignore the glares. Though these drivers are older than the target ages we are looking for, a group of 40 youths are on the skate ramp itself.
Smoke rises from the ramp and the atmosphere is extremely intimidating for any unwelcome visitors. This is a definite no-go area in the town.
Richard said: "What the young people look for are areas where they will not be disturbed."
During the campaign, police and trading standards will be visiting schools, conducting street surveys and monitoring hotspots for underage drinking.
* What are your experiences of underage drinking in your town? What should be done to tackle the problem? Are there no-go areas in our towns? Let us know - e-mail your views to email@example.com