Leeds City Council is switching off free wi-fi at some of its community buildings in the evenings after complaints about teenagers loitering outside to log on - but ending up harassing locals and causing anti-social behaviour.
The authority says police have advised the drastic measure - which applies after 7pm when the buildings are closed - at a number of the city’s community hubs after reports of staff and customers being subjected to abuse and threatening language.
However critics say the proposed move flies in the face of the council’s own much vaunted policy to bring free online services to people who are “digitally excluded”.
A spokesperson for Leeds City Council said: “At the request of West Yorkshire Police, the free wi-fi has been switched off out of hours at some of our community hubs in order to help combat anti-social behaviour.
“The switch-off is only during times when the building is closed, and can be used fully during normal opening hours.
“The council remains fully committed to encouraging the development of digital skills for all residents, with a range of services available through our libraries and youth services.”
The switch-off is already in place at Rothwell, Holt Park, Kippax, Boston Spa and Bramley community hubs.
It comes just weeks after it was announced that some parts of the city would be getting free superfast broadband and free tablet computers as the authority tries to bridge the city’s “digital divide”.
Conservative councillor Matthew Robinson, who sits on the authority’s citizens and communities scrutiny board, a cross-party watchdog panel, said: “We need to be opening more digital doors to the city rather than closing doors. One week they are giving away tablets, the next we are talking about shutting free wifi.
“I understand the concerns about some buildings, but I think many people will be confused when they hear this.”
Councillor Andrew Carter, leader of the Conservative group, said: “We strongly support any measures that aim to tackle anti-social behaviour in local areas wherever it arises.
However, the council needs to be careful that it does not end up compromising its digital agenda and its aim to address the digital divide that exists in Leeds, with some more disadvantaged communities not able to access Wi-Fi at home.
“The council needs to balance whatever action it takes between clamping down hard on disruptive behaviour linked to Wi-Fi technology and not alienating groups of young people in the city.”
Leeds council announced in 2014 that large swathes of the city’s public buildings were to get permanent free internet access.
Major buildings such as the Town Hall – as well as all the city’s libraries, community and sports centres – were among 103 public buildings which offered free internet by the start of 2015.
The move came after Leeds was selected for the Super Connected Cities programme.
City leaders hoped it would help fight poverty and unemployment by encouraging “digitally excluded” people to visit council services and resources.
The wi-fi switch-off is part of a wider plan to increase security at the city’s community hub buildings, which could see a rollout of full CCTV in and outside buildings.
‘CANDY CRUSH’ TEEN GANGS ARE A SIGN OF THE TIMES
The sight of teenagers hanging around public places – and sometimes causing trouble – is nothing new.
But nowadays, it seems, they are more likely to be lured by the prospect of free Candy Crush on their mobile phones than swigging cheap cider.
The problems experienced at a number of Leeds community hub buildings are being repeated across the city, and the country, according to one senior Leeds councillor.
Barry Anderson, chair of the Citizens and Communities scrutiny panel, pointed out that some big businesses have now started switching their free wi-fi off because “people are sitting in the car park” all day to use it.
“Places like McDonalds are now being asked to do something about the free wifi [by police] because it is attracting people to hang around outside,” he said.
Kippax Labour councillor Keith Wakefield said he welcomed the switch-off in his ward.
“People are terrified about going to work because of some of the abuse and threats they face,” he said.
“I am a great believer in social contracts. If young people want to learn anything online, it’s about taking some responsibility and not being rewarded for bad behaviour,” he said.
Meanwhile Kirkstall Labour councillor John Illingworth stressed “people appreciate [free wi-fi] because they haven’t got the money, and it’s really good they have got the access”.
“I understand why you have done it, but I think it’s sad,” he said of the wi-fi switch-off in Leeds.