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Reflections on 2020: new generation town centres

In a year of covid-controversies, argument has raged between those for a local or national approach to tracking and tracing those with coronavirus symptoms, between NHS Track and Trace directed from the centre, or each council using its environmental health officers and local knowledge. In truth both have their merits.

For if you are a member of a school parent-teachers association, how would you feel if the money you raised went to a school 20 miles away? On the other hand, who but a crank would argue for Newcastle, Norwich and Plymouth to have different time zones? Yet until the coming of the railways, it was common for each regional centre to have its own time; then came a national, Greenwich Mean Time.

The same unavoidable and even creative tension between local and national has applied to policing. While changes are more gradual than can be divided into years, the case of Fareham in Hampshire shows that a council can review and change within a year or two how its town centres are managed in policing terms. Briefly, it is moving from the year 2000 model to re-deployable cameras to follow the crimes and misbehaviours that residents and shoppers say most bother them – anti-social behaviour on the high street – and more patrolling by what look like its own security officers, though the patrollers could equally be hired from a manned guarding company. Instead of live 24-hour monitoring of those cameras, typically from a town hall basement, again either by in-house or contract staff, no-one is monitoring; but the camera footage is stored in the cloud. In theory, anyone authorised can pull it out of the cloud and view, from a mobile device, anywhere.

To explain how we got there – the mix of tech and human use of it, and for what purposes, pleasing different constituencies – let’s recap, from ‘the year 2000 model’. The final years of Conservative Government to 1997 and the first years of Labour Government into the early 2000s spent hundreds of millions of pounds on public space CCTV. Councils used central government grants to construct on-street CCTV system, typically of pan and tilt cameras on columns on high streets; systems ranged from the dozens of cameras in towns to hundreds in cities.

Note the non-partisan nature of the spend; both main political parties liked it, because they could point to doing something tangible against crime, and for people to feel safe in public. Labour put it into law in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, whereby local government had responsibility (as in its planning decisions) for crime reduction; although public space CCTV did not become a legal requirement for a council, like planning or emptying the dustbins.

Add the running costs of the control rooms and paying CCTV operators and maintenance of the kit, and Britain spent billions of tax-payers’ money on local government public space CCTV. Was it worth it? It was a question few ever asked and even fewer were able to answer well.

One way of answering is anecdotal – a shop thief would run onto the street, chased by a store detective, or a fight would spill out of a pub at night onto the pavement. The PTZ camera might be panned, tilted and zoomed towards the scene in time to capture the crucial act; especially after dark, the black and white image might not identify individuals to be of evidential use in court later, but it would be enough to prompt a call to police, provided the crime was not happening in a blind spot in an alley or behind a tree in leaf; and police might arrive on the scene before the thieves or scrappers fled. Days later, the police might drop by the control room for a videotape of the evidence, or might follow up the shoplifting case with the retailer; or none of that might happen. Even if they did, what became of the case in the criminal justice system, in a court that might not have the equipment to view the CCTV evidence?

Another way to ask, is a place had less crime by having a CCTV system, or if people felt safer – as the term ‘community safety’ came into being and councils formed community safety departments, that some CCTV systems sat in organisationally; and some did not. Did it matter that councils were different? Here again is the local versus centralised argument – should each council have done what suited its geography and history, for the best outcome? Or was each council taking time, money and trouble, and coming up with good, bad or mediocre?

To take a central England example. In East Staffordshire, the district council’s CCTV was monitored from the same town hall basement that had been the air raid precautions control room in the 1939-45 war (and would have been the council emergency control centre in a Third World War). Burton and the smaller town of Uttoxeter had cameras; the small town or large village of Tutbury did not; nor did the small town of Swadlincote in neighbouring South Derbyshire District Council. Was Burton town centre, covered by CCTV, a safer place than Swadlincote, or (to take cathedral cities) did Lincoln feel safer or have less crime than Salisbury, or (to take comparable northern cities) Manchester’s CCTV measurably better than Leeds’? Despite the voluntary valiant efforts of a few, no answers came.

Yet the possible gains from those questions were considerable – a knowledge of what ingredients worked in public space monitoring of CCTV, or even such basics as what was necessary. What was the best kit – was the control room management equipment of Synectics or Dedicated Micros more suitable for a 50-camera system, or 250-camera? What training ought an operator to have? What sort of person should be recruited as an operator? Most basic of all, where should cameras be sited – where the most crime was, or where they were most visible (in the market place, or the park?), or where councillors wanted them most so they could please voters? What data informed these decisions, because once you installed kit, it would be costly to move, and a waste if unused? It was a recipe for under-use of resource, and mess.

While (some) product manufacturers’ names have changed, those questions still apply today and despite some efforts by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter, they go largely and unsystematically unanswered. Each council still is re-inventing the wheel.

Whether this year 2000 model worked was answered, in a way, only in the public sector austerity of the 2010s. As a recent community safety and CCTV review report for Fareham borough councillors noted, ‘Councils have reduced their level of public facing CCTV provision in recent years and some, such as [nearby] Havant Borough Council, have stopped all together, with no discernible impact on crime levels’.

Does that mean public space CCTV was, and indeed is, a colossal waste of public money? It would appear not, for Fareham is buying new kit, although it will result in far fewer on-street cameras, mainly in Fareham town centre, rather than in suburbs such as Portchester and Stubbington. As the report shows, Fareham like other councils is (at last!?) spending on new cameras for community safety, far fewer than before, based on evidence, from ‘discussions with officers, the police and other councils (eg Havant and Portsmouth), the analysis of local crime statistics as well as operational data such as CCTV views and incident numbers’ for each camera.

Why persist with cameras at sites that see hardly any crime, and more than a bus service never used? As the list of those consulted at Fareham shows, crime prevention and investigation in a town centre needs the police (another ingredient that each council went about addressing on its own, whether installing a slave monitor in the local police station or not, or cultivating the local police inspector for closer relations between control rooms and radio links, or not).

Just as the year 2000 model CCTV system was ultimately only as good as the criminal justice system outcome – and retailers felt increasingly that business crime was in effect de-criminalised, as police rationed their response, and due to the austerity of the 2010s became like the fire brigade, responding only to incidents requiring arrest powers – so will the 2020 model, as worked out by Fareham and other places. For perception – how safe people feel from crime and anti-social behaviour – remains hard to measure; taken for granted, until someone is a victim of crime.

Change had to come – as the Fareham report noted, the cameras erected in those years either side of 2000, that you can still see in some town and city centres – on heritage or plain grey columns, some still with their ADT ‘shoebox’ housings, giving the installer decades of free advertising – were ‘obsolete’. “In many cases the cameras were installed to deal with a particular problem in a local area which no longer exists.” Crime moves on too. Another factor has arisen that would have been shocking to public opinion in 2000; homeless on the street, not only in big cities but all towns, sleeping in shop doorways, and on-street begging.

Begging too has been in effect de-criminalised, and the efforts of shopping centre security staff are now at least partly to keep the homeless out of malls. Whether local government treats the homeless as criminals, for example as the subject of public space protection orders (PSPOs) is politically controversial. The fact is that homeless people, however inoffensive and in need, are perceived by some shoppers and businesses as off-putting; which can lead to commercial decline of a town centre. Such is the new town centre that the year 2020 model for public space CCTV and council-paid patroller.

Change will keep happening as tech develops; why have any on-street cameras when your patrollers can wear body-worn video?! But as that question shows, there has to be some mix of tech, and people to intervene (short of arrest, still a police power) on the basis of what the video shows.

If the 2020 model has more place for non-police patrollers, what equipment should they carry, what should be their training, their uniform, their name even? Again, there is nothing new under the sun, for in the early 2000s some councils had patrol wardens, some through the Home Office, some through the then deputy prime minister John Prescott’s department. Again, that sense of central government setting no standards and leaving each council to invent its wheel.

Finally, Fareham and some other councils are learning; to quote the conclusion of the report, that council is de-commissioning its 2000-era cameras, and making a ‘transition to recording [that is, only recording, no longer monitoring] CCTV and the use of a core group of cameras, sited in the most effective locations, alongside an increased Enforcement Officer presence across the borough, will help ensure that Fareham remains a safe place to live and work’.

Picture by Mark Rowe; outside Stafford town centre toy shop.


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