A BLITZ on aggressive beggars, people pitching tents and antisocial behaviour in the heart of Southend is set to be launched before Christmas.

Some suggest the move – which may involve £100 fines – could criminalise the homeless.

But Southend Council’s clear aim is to continue ensuring the town centre and seafront are attractive places for shoppers and visitors.

But at the same time, it has vowed to take steps to give as much help as possible to people who need it.

The council has put together the plan to take on the problem with stronger enforcement powers.

This involves a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) across the town centre and the seafront.

It will see £100 fines handed out to anyone caught taking drugs, spitting, urinating or littering, as well as charity collectors operating without council authorisation and people continuing to drink after being asked to stop.

Controversially, it will also attempt to tackle aggressive begging by giving community safety officers the power to hand out fines to anyone found begging, pitching a tent or sleeping in a public space in a way that is “detrimental” to the public.

Simon Ford, head of community safety at Southend Council, said: “Southend Council and its wider partners have historically and today always provided significant outreach support to those in these situations on the streets.

“I have been here ten years and have seen that in action. Always and consistently, our approach in every situation – whether someone has reported it to us that someone is on the streets or it is someone we have come across – our first response is how can we support that person to come off the streets.

“That is our absolute first response and it has been the case for many years in Southend.

“The PSPO is being introduced as a measure to tackle those who persistently refuse support and undertake aggressive begging or levels of anti-social behaviour in the town centre that leads to town centre users feeling intimidated by that behaviour.”

He said the idea was proposed during a High Street summit in response to heightened levels of aggressive begging last year.

The summit saw the creation of an action plan and the PSPO was a key part of that plan.

Despite his confidence in the order and its ability to make Southend’s town centre a safer place to visit, the council has faced strong criticism from rights groups including Liberty. They accuse the council of wanting to criminalise the homeless and have urged them to scrap the idea.

Mr Ford strongly refuted claims the council is criminalising the homeless, explaining that everyone given the power to issue fines will be given extensive training.

That training underlines the importance of ensuring officers’ first response should always be one of support. They will offer medical or mental health help if needed.

It is claimed they will only use the powers given to them through the PSPO as a “last resort” and officers will be expected to produce a detailed report on why a fine was issued. This will all be monitored by Mr Ford.

Processes are also being put in place to ensure the fines are easy to pay regardless of a person’s circumstances but if they choose not to pay, they could be taken to court and face an even greater fine of £1,000.

The PSPO will be in force across the town centre and seafront, as well as Southchurch Hall Gardens, Hamlet Court Road and York Road but one challenge the council has struggled to address is displacement.

This could see troublemakers and the homeless simply heading into surrounding residential areas.

“There will be levels of displacement and we need to manage that,” Mr Ford added.

“If they choose to wander out of the town centre and into Shoebury or Leigh we will still be able to offer outreach support but it will be out of the PSPO area.

“It would not be right to have a blanket PSPO. We are introducing it at the seafront and the town centre because they are particularly problematic. Yes, there may be levels of displacement but we will monitor that as we go in this process”.

How will the fines work?

The payment process will see the offender being handed a fixed penalty notice and being asked to produce identification so their details can be recorded.

If they are unable to produce ID, the community safety team will be given support by the police who will be able to verify the person’s identity.

They will then have 14 days to comply or lodge an appeal.

Mr Ford said: “These will be people who are persistent, we get to know who they are. It is not the ones sleeping on streets due to an unfortunate situation that we can help to improve.

“This is people who are persistent, we know who they are. They don’t want to actively have any support. They just want to continue with their behaviour.”