UNDER-age drinkers in the city centre are creating an "air of menace", worried residents claimed at a public meeting this week.

Their fears were echoed by Insp Chris May, who told the Winchester forum that under-age drinking in the city was "rife".

Insp May, operations inspector for the Central Hampshire Division, was responding to concerns by residents raised at the town forum meeting on Wednesday evening.

Members of the public said they felt an "air of menace" while walking through the city on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Guildhall meeting was held to discuss the future role of the evening economy in Winchester.

Rupert Pitt, of Park Road, said: "I think that on Friday and Saturday evenings after 8pm the High Street and Jewry Street are just about unusable because of the large numbers of people going up and down, and there seems to me to be an air of menace about it."

Mike Simpson, chief executive of Winchester's YMCA, also echoed many of the residents' thoughts when he added it was important to have more non-alcoholic venues where older teenagers could go, which could possibly double up as live music venues.

Insp May, meanwhile, said he had not been aware of the "air of menace" when he patrolled Winchester at weekends.

He suggested people's perceptions of the situation did not always match the reality.

However, he acknowledged the police were aware of the drug and drink-related problems in Winchester, and were doing all they could to crackdown on them.

He said the city was no worse than any other, but warned that better education was the key to beating the problems caused by drink and drug abuse.

He said: "An awful lot of police effort goes into pin-pointing where drugs are coming from, and they are coming from London.

"We're not complacent about under-age drinking. It is rife and there is evidence of that through prosecutions over the last year.

"One of the establishments we brought to court is not open anymore as a result."

Yesterday (Thursday) his colleague, Insp Kevin Baxman, who has direct responsibility for policing the city centre, agreed with him: "I think education about alcohol abuse could be more focussed in schools.

"That is not a criticism, but a lot is said about drug abuse and the thefts and burglaries that follow to feed habits.

"Not a lot is said about the health dangers of alcohol and the consequences of drinking too much.

Simon Eden, chief executive of Winchester City Council, said the object of the forum was for people to highlight what they liked and did not like about what the city offered in the evenings, as well as what they thought could be built upon.

He said the council would take on board people's suggestions and work on them. He added there would be further consultation with other community groups in the city.