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In 2021, Professional Security has regularly featured local government public space surveillance, with a heartening message; that after years of public sector austerity cuts, some councils at least – of all sizes and types – were investing in kit, arranging for capital spending, whether to upgrade 20-year-old analogue equipment on the street or in control rooms. However, while true enough, it’s not the whole story, writes Mark Rowe.
The 2010s had numerous cases of councils letting their ageing kit become yet more worn out, cutting the hours of control room operators or doing without operators altogether, or cutting out the service entirely. That is still happening; and decisions are regardless of political colour, or crimes in the areas, typically town centres, covered by CCTV.
In Hastings for example on the Sussex coast, the Labour-controlled borough council did away with its control room operating in 2020. At a full council meeting in December, opposition councillors appealed for a return to some monitoring beyond that by Sussex Police. Councillors pointed to crime and anti-social behaviour in Hastings town centre, as in many such places.
However, despite capital spend on public space surveillance kit by local government running into the billions over the last 20 or more years, by both main political parties, and hundreds of surveillance systems with hundreds of managers and desk operators, data is lacking on such basic questions as what value does a system bring.
For without data on what a public space CCTV system does, and who it benefits, how can it be defended when the financial going gets tough? That’s the question faced at many councils in the last dozen years, during public sector austerity; and CCTV managers’ and operators’ jobs have been cut as a result. The July print edition of Professional Security magazine gave the example of Tonbridge and Malling Council (pictured; a riverside CCTV camera from Tonbridge Castle grounds). In December 2020 its overview and scrutiny committee recommended a ‘passive only CCTV operation’. That would save £100,000 a year, once the mid-Kent council could get out of its contract with its neighbour, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. That proposal – done for purely financial savings reasons, the council admitted – got knocked back due to public concern about women’s safety outdoors after such high-profile crimes as the murder of Sarah Everard.
The point; the financial imperative whereby the council needed to save money had not gone away; the council had stood back not because of the demonstrable merit or otherwise of its local cameras, but an emotive and highly-publicised crime, which saved the Tonbridge CCTV this year; but what about next?
Lacking is data – such as how many crimes are solved or brought to court as a result of CCTV evidence, and if leading to an early guilty plea because the video sets out the offence plainly, that saves court time (and money). In theory, that can justify a public space CCTV system financially, in a way that a deterred shop theft or a recovered lost child cannot.
A shire council example – Conservative-led Cherwell in Oxfordshire – has been going through a political wrangle recently over a relatively small sum compared to the hundreds of thousands that other councils have found in recent years to renew surveillance cameras and recording equipment; and the agreed savings by Cherwell of £4.4m.
A report to Cherwell councillors stated that ‘there is no routine data collection that captures the involvement of CCTV control room in the local policing’. Instead, Cherwell councillors got figures from the nearby and similar West Oxfordshire CCTV system, and were told that its most common offence/ incident were, much as elsewhere, ‘anti-social behaviour, shoplifting, assault, drunkenness and abandoned, nuisance or suspicious vehicles or vehicle collisions’.
Conservative-controlled Cherwell District Council is proposing to end the £99,000 support for public space CCTV. Other savings proposed are to delete a vacant environmental enforcement assistant post; and stop providing dog fouling bags to residents. The council is reviewing all ‘non-statutory costs’ and a council does not have any statutory duty to provide or fund public space CCTV (under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, a council has responsibility for tackling crime; but how a council does it is the council’s business). In a report, Richard Webb, Head of Community Protection Services for Oxfordshire County Council, told councillors:
“There is no data available to inform an assessment of whether a reduction in CCTV coverage will have any greater impact on some groups of people or communities than others. However, the presence of the CCTV system may provide greater reassurance to some groups of people. In addition, CCTV recordings are used to support investigations of specific crimes that victimise people as a result of their personal characteristics.”
That last line hinted at hate crime against minorities, a subject local government is particularly keen to be seen to act on; or rather, to avoid being seen to not act on. The report went on: “There are other measures that can be taken to mitigate these negative impacts if they arise and therefore the impact of this change needs to be monitored.”
The Cherwell CCTV system is typical in size for a shire council; 80 cameras in Banbury, where the council is based, and the smaller Bicester and Kidlington. The cameras are all connected to a central control room staffed (unusually) by Thames Valley Police employees. Four control room staff operate and monitor the cameras and provide evidential material to support police investigations. Cherwell funds a proportion of the employment costs of the control room operators and also pays for the maintenance, repairs and refurbishment of the CCTV equipment. Thames Valley Police manage the control room staff; Cherwell provides ‘management capacity to oversee the contract for the maintenance of the CCTV system and to manage the repair’. While the report was correct to say that the CCTV function ‘is only partially funded by Cherwell District Council and the removal of our funding does not equate to the removal of this provision’, it is hard to believe that police will carry on the public CCTV service in Banbury as ever, or at all, without the Cherwell money.
As the report admitted, Thames Valley Police could choose to meet the funding shortfall and take over the managing of Banbury’s CCTV system: “However, this is unlikely. It is more likely that the reduction of funding available to support the system will lead to operational hours of the system being significantly reduced and potentially all live monitoring of the system ceasing.”