|Budget cuts are causing councils to scale down their
systems, or decommission them altogether
Budget cuts in England and Wales are leading to cameras being switched off to save money. But why is this happening and what could be done to minimise the impact on public space CCTV systems?
The UK could be described as the CCTV “capital” of the world, with between 4 million and 6 million cameras deployed, according to a British Security Industry Association study in 2013. The vast majority of these are part of privately run systems mostly on “private” property, and do not feature in this article. We are concerned here with public space CCTV, usually run by – or at least involving – local government authorities.
Due in part to large amounts of central government funding in the past (successive governments injected over £200 million of capital funding between 1994 and 2003), it was a boom time for public space surveillance. It seemed that every city and town was falling over itself to set up a surveillance system, often because the town next door had done so. Propelled by a fair amount of hype about what these systems could do and tacit acceptance of them by the public, they were soon to be seen in many towns and cities in the UK.
Budgets squeezed and CCTV cut
So are the good times over for CCTV? Well, there have been some radical moves recently which have seen local councils either scale down their systems, or decommission them altogether. Councils have had their budgets squeezed since austerity began in 2010, and there’s no sign of this changing any time soon. So, many of them have been looking at what expenditure cuts they can make. Unlike other services councils are legally required to deliver, CCTV is a “non-statutory service,” which means it’s at each council’s discretion.
"The decision to carry out this limited decommissioning process was part of the response to central government funding cuts in general"
A recent example of what can happen when councils are strapped for cash is Havant Borough Council in Hampshire, which switched off its 46-camera system this month, aiming to save £155,000 a year. “Reluctantly, after much consideration and investigation by our scrutiny panel, Havant Borough Council accepts the current CCTV system no longer fulfils a majority of the original objectives set out from when the system was set up in 1999,” said a spokesperson.
Some of the cameras did not comply with the 2013 Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, and the system was described as “not fit for purpose.” The council concedes that although the local police force was approached to help with funding, no other sources of revenue – and no alternative technical solutions such as video analytics – were considered.
Interestingly, Havant council says that if crime and anti-social behaviour rose “to a reasonable point,” alternative digital solutions would be investigated. If required, the council says it would work with other stakeholders towards a digital, fully integrated, centrally monitored CCTV system, with the council making a “financial contribution.”
Over in Newbury, a 22-camera system has been switched off after West Berkshire Council stopped funding it. A council spokesperson told Newbury Today that among a whole range of cuts proposals that went out for consultation, the CCTV scheme had fewer responses than others, and as a result the council felt the money was better spent on other services.
In Birmingham, the city council has decommissioned 51 cameras out of its stock of 276 since 2014. “We have physically decommissioned … cameras at various sites across Birmingham, as agreed by the council’s cabinet in March 2014,” said a spokesperson. “The decision to carry out this limited decommissioning process was part of the response to central government funding cuts in general – and the council is also required to adhere to guidance from the Surveillance Commissioner’s office, which states that cameras should only be used in areas where there is a pressing need.”
|Perhaps the most high-profile location to make plans to
abandon its CCTV system is Westminster council
London CCTV monitors to go dark
Perhaps the most high-profile location to make plans to abandon its CCTV system is Westminster council in London, which will decommission its network of 75 cameras from 1 September. The scheme covers large parts of central London, was only established in 2002, and at the time was one of the most advanced in the country.
The council revealed it has been discussing for “many years” the issue of the ongoing annual running costs of up to £1 million with the police, the Greater London Authority and central government, but no support has been forthcoming. If no solution can be found, Westminster council says it will allocate the £1.7 million currently earmarked for upgrading CCTV to other, “potentially more effective crime prevention measures,” such as improving the environment or better street lighting.
Councillor Nickie Aiken, cabinet member for public protection, says: “Like many other local authorities around the country, our current view is that we are not able to continue to subsidise this non-statutory service when there are many other pressures on our budgets, and where other partners are the main beneficiaries.”
City centre surveillance should be a priority
Not all council members are happy with the decision. “We saw a 30 percent reduction in crime when [the cameras] were installed, so may we expect a 30 percent increase when they are no longer functional?” councillor Glenys Roberts asked in West End Extra. “Whenever there is a major incident anywhere in the world, CCTV plays a huge part in tracking and apprehending perpetrators, so of all the things the council spends money on, [it] should be a priority.”
The Surveillance Camera Code of Practice says there has to be “a legitimate aim and a pressing need” in order to use CCTV. The term “pressing need” is not defined, so could be interpreted to mean only when there is an urgent rise in, or increased threat of, crime.
Are there perhaps technical solutions available to mitigate this sorry state of affairs? Jacques Lombard, managing director of installation company Syntinex and vice chairman of the British Security Industry Association’s CCTV section, thinks so. “New technology such as HD 1080P and Ultra HD 4K can cover more than four times the area of a traditional analogue system, meaning the number of cameras required is significantly reduced. Installing fewer cameras does not necessarily mean less coverage.”