Leeds is home to one of the most extensive CCTV networks in the world with proportionately more cameras trained on its city centre than New York. But is all this surveillance really making us safer?
When Bill Brown paid a visit to Leeds he was stunned by what he found. A leading campaigner against the spread of CCTV cameras, the New Yorker has got the skill of spotting them down to a fine art. But even he was struck by just how many were keeping a beady eye on the comings and goings in the bustling city centre. Concentrating on the area bordered by East Parade to the west, Vicar Lane to the east, Boar Lane to the south and Merrion Way to the north, he counted no fewer than 153 cameras. A total of 115 were installed on the exteriors of privately owned buildings, and most likely operated by private security guards; 22 hidden within uncommonly large, black-tinted globes, and most likely operated by the police; and 16 installed atop poles, and definitely operated by the City Council.
"The city centre occupies 16 square blocks and so there are, on average, almost 10 cameras per block," he said. "By contrast, there are only seven cameras per city block in the most highly surveilled neighbourhoods in New York City and Chicago, which are of course much larger cities. The situation fairly boggles the mind."
The spiralling cost of providing more and more CCTV cameras was cited as a factor this week as Leeds City Council sought to justify an inflation-busting 4.7 per cent hike in council tax. Council leader Andrew Carter said the cost of meeting public demand for new cameras, coupled with a reduction in Government cash, was a major factor.
"Even though the Government has taken away money for our anti-social behaviour unit, wardens and CCTV, we have replaced all that money to protect services people believe are vital."
There are now almost 300 cameras council-operated in the city and John Birkenshaw, senior manager responsible for crime reduction and CCTV from Leeds Community Safety, said they were struggling to keep up with demand.
"The demand for CCTV from the Leeds public is insatiable. Every community in Leeds seems to want it but cost is a factor. It costs 20,000 Pounds just to install one camera."
[...] But are CCTV cameras really the crimefighting silver bullet the public apparently believes them to be? Not if recent Home Office research is anything to go by. The National CCTV Strategy, published last October, found that more than eight out of 10 CCTV cameras fail to provide satisfactory images for the police. It revealed that the majority of cameras are not positioned in places where they can combat terrorism or serious crime. Some cameras originally installed to fight crime are now being used to monitor bus lanes while many cameras in public places such as shopping centres and transport hubs are designed to monitor "crowds, slips, trips and falls" rather than detect crime. Shadow home secretary David Davis claimed it meant we were suffering all the disadvantages of CCTV - most notably in terms of compromising our right to privacy - while deriving only "minimal advantage" in terms of public safety and crime detection.
Further Home Office figures appear to support his view. Between 1996 and 1998, three-quarters of the Home Office's crime prevention budget was spent on CCTV, yet a comprehensive review later revealed the overall reduction in crime amounted to just five per cent. A parallel review carried out by the Home Office found that the provision of additional street lighting resulted in crime falling by 20 per cent [...]
[...] Meanwhile, CCTV is fast becoming a major money-spinner. On his visit to Leeds, Bill Brown noted that, almost without exception, each privately operated surveillance camera had a small sign on it proclaiming the name of the company that manufactured it.
"It's a form of advertising," says the activist, who stages protests in front of CCTV cameras as a member of the New York-based Surveillance Camera Players. "This clearly suggests that, not only are surveillance cameras designed to create an environment in which it is safe to do business, surveillance cameras are themselves a big business."
(Written by Grant Woodward and published in the 15 February 2008 issue of The Yorkshire Evening Post.)
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998