AS Home Secretary Theresa May prepares to kibosh Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – Asbos – there is a serious debate to be had about how well they worked in Camden, where they were dished out at a pace that hardly any local authority in the country could keep puff with. There’s also another chance to see this collector’s item: a picture of former Camden Council leader Dame Jane Roberts punching her way through an Avril Lavine poster. Just look at the anger in those clenched teeth. She hates fly-posting. Really hates it. The Town Hall used Asbos to clamp down on fly-posting music companies six years ago.
The Asbo argument is hard to reconcile in this area of London. Of course they sound draconian. There is something medieval sounding about running the baddies out of town. A step up from ‘Wanted’ posters, something like that. But the transformation of King’s Cross in particular challenges the opposition. Sex is surely still sold on that neighbourhood’s streets, drugs still peddled – but not in the same quantity and not in broad daylight on Euston Road. Crack pipes are no longer common litter in telephone boxes and on doorsteps.
The most persistent offenders were of course collared by Asbos. Court orders made it illegal for some of them to walk down certain streets around the stations and the Town Hall buildings, a punch to their human rights that was always worthy of scrutiny. Yet I know from reporting and investigating some of these cases that the Asbos actually changed their lives for the better. Not all – but some.
Addicts and women working as prostitutes were zombified in a near daily cycle, descending on what had become an entrenched meeting place for troubled souls in King’s Cross. They would be arrested, locked up for a couple of days or weeks – or zapped with a fine they couldn’t pay – and then on release they would head like homing pigeons right back to the same bloody marketplace.
Of course there should have been more holistic measures to break this cycle, but the coercion was set against critical, pretty desperate times. People often say there was a rush to clean up King’s Cross for developers and Eurostar commuters. But the door at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court was revolving with the same crack-ruined faces in need of speedy help. Headline-grabbing Asbos which Camden sought to obtain against music companies and fly-posters bent the parameters of the system. The ambition and creativity from the legal brains actually just gave critics the chance to mock a catch-all shotgun that looked like it was being obsessively fired in all directions. The drug addict who retreated from her chaotic life in King’s Cross, back to her roots in Essex, later telling how her Asbo had saved her life should nevertheless can’t be ignored. It’s not cut and dry.