Yet more democracy in action last night at the Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC.

I was there for the community safety and town centre parts of the meeting which come under my portfolio. In many ways it was a relatively straightforward meeting. There wasn’t anything particularly contentious on the agenda, although as the deficit is addressed I’m sure that is to come. The full agenda is on the council’s website (which does work from time to time, I promise you) but to give a few selected highlights.

10-646 Domestic Violence Strategy
Domestic violence is woefully under-reported and, unlike most crimes, almost all victims are repeat victims. The problem is that domestic violence and abuse often take place in situations that are hard to leave, perhaps because they are in the home, and the victim has nowhere else to go, or it might be that children are involved. In many cases there is a feeling of shame or embarrassment, particularly where the situation doesn’t fit the stereotypical man abusing woman scenario (one of the specific areas of focus are abuse in LGBT relationships).

10-647 Community Safety Division – Annual Quality and Performance Review
This is one of those monster reports that covers everything (each service produces one of these a year), but worth dipping into if you are interested in the sorts of things the council does to make Wandsworth safer.

This prompted a lot of discussion on Neighbourhood Watch (NW), which is one of my pet subjects because I think NW has such great potential and is one of the policy priorities for the coming years. We’re trying to see how we can expand the benefits of NW into hard-to-reach areas, for example council estates have traditionally had much poorer coverage, but also to see how we can create networks of watches and whether we can help in strengthening communities.

Of course, one of the problems with this is that it is uncharted territory. Wandsworth is something of a leader in this field and it’s difficult to know what will and won’t work. It’s a subject that I’ve touched on before, that to develop and improve you often have to accept that your experiments may end in failure, which is not something that sits well in politics. While exciting, I won’t pretend that I don’t have the occasional worry!

10-649 Policing in the 21st Century
This is the council’s response to the government’s white paper. It is generally supportive, although one of the biggest parts of the proposed reforms, directly elected police commissioners, will not affect London as the Mayor would take on that role.

The Labour group voted against this, disagreeing with the abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority (a better reason than disliking the title of a white paper which they said they largely agreed) and I’m wondering if there’s a degree of oppositional politics starting to return. It is an unusual time for all tiers of government – national, London and Wandsworth to be (largely) politically aligned. It hasn’t happened for 13 years, and then probably only because there was no London government!

10-651 Petition – request for CCTV installation in the area of Leverson Street
This was the council’s response to a petition asking for CCTV to be installed in what is seen as a trouble black spot.

The council rejected this. For me there is a big issue about installing CCTV in primarily residential areas. As a matter of principal it feels wrong to me to have these areas surveilled. However, there are also practical concerns.

CCTV works well in areas where the problem is ‘contained’. So, for example, CCTV in town centre areas can help deter problems (or justify prosecutions, about half of all cases the local police bring use CCTV evidence) that are specific to that sort of area, for example issues around disorder or theft. When dealing with anti-social behaviour problems these can easily relocate, there is little difference between street-corners. In effect the problem is moved, not solved.

And that is the second problem, very often these problems are much better tackled by joint work between the police, council and (frequently) social landlords. Together they are able to tackle those who create problems and divert those on the fringes. Temporary, mobile, CCTV can be effective in gathering evidence for this. Personally I think we’re much better off going for a solution than seeing CCTV as a panacea – it never has been.

10-655 Town Centre Management – Annual review
The council’s approach to town centres has been one of the real success stories of Wandsworth, and has helped the borough avoid the problems faced by so many of having a single, fairly soulless, shopping destination and then nothing but residential areas with little focus.

The paper details some of the activity that has been taking place in each town centre to support, enhance and promote the businesses that are there. It’s split into sections of the five town centres so worth having a browse to see what’s been happening in your local centre.

Labour voted against this (disappointingly, I have to say). They felt that we should be putting equal support in for all shopping areas. The problem with that approach is that if you focus on everything you actually focus on nothing.

It’s also the case that we put a lot of support in to the ‘secondary’ shopping areas. Indeed, I’m meeting with a collection of the business associations representing them tonight to talk about how they and the council can work together. But increasingly we are seeing these areas, along with their local residents, developing their own initiatives (with some support from the council), Southfields and Battersea Square both being success stories of combined resident/business associations. It’s that sort of work we need to support and not applying a one-size fits all town centre management everywhere.

It’s becoming increasingly fashionable to knock the use of CCTV as if it is inherently evil. Bizarrely – since I would consider myself to be a strong supporter of civil liberties – I’ve found myself defending its use again and again.

This is partly because they have concentrated on the number of cameras, rather than how they are used – I would contend that Wandsworth’s network of professionally operated and carefully regulated cameras are not a problem, problems occur with small, private installations in which there is no control or oversight of the operator.

The council highlighted some of the successes from the CCTV network over Christmas and New Year recently, when it helped stop a suicide, rescue a man who had fallen into the Thames, guided police to developing problems and helped track a suspect who was then arrested.

But even since then two court cases have illustrated the value of properly used CCTV. First, the case of Aubrey Appiah, who was tracked on the council’s CCTV network and the evidence used to secure a conviction for burglary. The second, and more tragic, was the murder of Paul Peters, in which CCTV evidence was used to disprove his grandson’s story that he was asleep at the time of the murder.

Regulated and controlled CCTV can, and does, continue to play a key role in making Wandsworth safer – whatever the sensationalist headline writers would like to think.

CCTVOnce again the issue of CCTV has raised it’s head. This time it is as a result of a ‘Big Brother Watch’ press release that, I believe, totally misses the real point.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for BBW (and don’t put that into Google at work). They are an offshoot of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, an organisation that, as everyone’s mother said, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. For an organisation that really cares about civil liberties I’d suggest you go to Liberty – a truly excellent organisation.

BBW put in Freedom of Information requests to 100 councils asking for the number of cameras and a copy of internal guidance. As far as I can see they don’t seem to have done anything with the guidance they received from Wandsworth or any other borough.

And that’s strange, since they acknowledge in their final report that “there is obviously a role to play for technology in general, and CCTV in particular, in law enforcement and we are not opposed to CCTV per se.”

Yet they put out a press release that condemns councils purely for the number of cameras they have and not how they use them.

It seems to me that one camera improperly used is far more dangerous than hundreds of thousands of well-regulated cameras. Which is why I’m disappointed they didn’t bother to mention that Wandsworth has a strict CCTV code of conduct which prevents use of the cameras on private areas, or that our operators are trained, hold the appropriate SIA qualifications and regularly checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.

I’m also disappointed that they didn’t bother to find out that around half the criminal cases brought in the borough use CCTV evidence, or that they didn’t ask to hear about any of the crimes our operators have prevented, or helped the police rapidly apprehend the suspects through use of the CCTV network.

And because they didn’t enquire, we weren’t able to tell them about the way the police use our CCTV to help them in targeted investigations either by working with our camera operators or putting police officers into our control room.

And it was silent on the fact that Wandsworth is inner London’s safest borough, partly due to intelligent, controlled and pro-active use of CCTV.

CCTV is not the issue, the use to which it is put is the issue. The last time this cropped up and I ended up discussing this with Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti it was clear that the issue is not councils or public authorities that are the problem – they are well regulated and use high quality equipment. The problem are the shops, pubs and clubs that use the equipment without proper regulation, or re-use tapes so often they become useless. But, of course, they aren’t covered by Freedom of Information and don’t make for an easy Daily Mail headline.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

Following up on last week’s post on CCTV my interview never made it into the final cut of the Newsnight feature. Although quotes from it made it into a BBC News online article and some of the associated radio coverage. Just the way the media cookie crumbles.

However, I did get invited onto BBC Breakfast to share the sofa with Shami Chakrabarti to discuss the issue.

I’ve managed to get a copy of the interviews which are on YouTube and embedded below. I’m told this is acceptable (this article suggests the BBC are relaxed) but will obviously have to remove the videos if requested.

Getting the trivia out of the way. The camera adds pounds. Lots of them. And also inches, I was told later that I looked taller than I do on Twitter! And that was another novelty. I was booked onto the show by one of the producers via Twitter, I’m sure it’s not the first time anyone has been booked onto a show like that (though certainly the first time by her), but must be one of the first times something like that has happened.

I can’t deny there’s a little ego in posting this. Not so much because I was on the sofa, but because I was on the sofa with Shami Chakrabarti! I’ve a lot of respect for her as a champion of civil liberties; meeting her reinforced that – as well as making me feel guilty that I’ve never quite joined Liberty.

But I’m also posting because it backs up the point I made last week – and Shami (note the massively unjustified use of first name) and I were not very far apart in our opinions on this – it’s not CCTV itself that is the problem, it’s the use to which it is put. And there’s a lot of unregulated cameras out there.

CCTVAt the end of last week I found myself at the top of Putney High Street doing an interview for Newsnight about CCTV.

Following a series of freedom of information requests the BBC had discovered that Wandsworth had the highest absolute number of CCTV cameras of any local authority (although the Shetlands are the most surveilled per capita) so I was there defending the council against the inevitable charges of Big Brother.

Now you might assume I’m anti-CCTV. I’ve posted on civil liberty issues in the past and surely this follows through with CCTV… well, yes and no.

It might be there is some cognitive dissonance at play here, with me trying to reconcile a civil libertarian streak with a portfolio of hundreds of cameras. But while I think there can be serious issues with CCTV, I think that Wandsworth are getting it right.

Many of the arguments are around issues like privacy. I’d argue it’s hard to be private when you are walking along a busy high street. If you are in plain view, it doesn’t make much difference whether you can be seen by a man on the other side of the road, or by a man operating a camera on the other side of the road.

In fact, when you start examining the argument it is not the CCTV itself that is the problem, but to what use that CCTV is put.

And this is the real nub of the matter. It is, frankly, irrelevant how many cameras there are in Wandsworth. What is relevant is the way we use them, and also the way we don’t use them.

CCTV is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. In some places it is appropriate to use it, in others it is not. So in Wandsworth we have CCTV installed in town centres, but have a policy not to install in residential areas, and have a very strict code of practice regulating how we use it where installed – you’ll never see a Wandsworth recording featured on Police, Camera, Action.

In return we have an incredibly valuable resource. Around half of all prosecutions brought by the police use CCTV footage as evidence. And it helps beyond crime. The council’s well trained CCTV operators have found lost children and prevented suicides.

My concern with CCTV is that far too many people see it as a panacea. So, for example, if there is a problem with anti-social behaviour residents assume installing CCTV will solve it. In fact, it’s only likely to move it, meaning that someone else will start facing exactly the same problems. Whereas there are probably all sorts of other things that would deal with it. The police might patrol and area, the council’s youth services could engage with youths, it might just be that a little mutual understanding and dialogue will make all the problems disappear overnight.

And at its worst it stops people taking responsibility for their own lives. For example, we’ve been asked to install CCTV in a residential area to prevent burglary, not because there was a particular problem, but as a preventative measure. Naturally, we offered the usual security advice (there is a lot you can do, very cheaply, to secure your home) but it is concerning that people’s first thought was not to fit window locks or a London bar to their door, but to request their area be covered by a CCTV scheme.

And that is my biggest fear for CCTV. Wandsworth has shown that with robust controls CCTV can be a valuable tool in the fight against crime and making Wandsworth the safest inner London borough. We need to make sure that the price we pay isn’t a loss of personal responsibility.

What do you think?  Do we have too much CCTV?  Or don’t we have enough?

st-georges-effort-streetIf you visit St George’s Hospital via the pedestrian entrance on Effort Street, SW17, you’ll have noticed that it’s been given a substantial facelift. What you probably didn’t realise is that it was done in conjunction with the council’s Community Safety Division.

I popped down there this morning, along with Steve Jiggins, who helped design the scheme, to have a look and chat with some of the St George’s staff involved.  The first thing anyone would notice is that the approach to the hospital is so much nicer, it’s a real visual improvement.  But Steve Jiggins work was not just a matter of making it look nicer.

The previous entrance had been a blank brick wall, with a couple of door-ways and, on the St George’s side large trees.  Aside from the fact that a blank wall is never that attractive, it meant that there was very limited visibility between the hospital and the street.  You would move from one side to the other without knowing what was there.  This was particularly dangerous if you were entering St George’s because it was straight onto an internal road, but it created a real fear of crime.

Add to this the lack of step-free access on this pedestrian route and it really didn’t create the welcome to the hospital St George’s are hoping to create with their new main entrance.

And this is where Steve Jiggins came in.  He helped design an entrance that was not only more pleasant, but a lot safer.  The use of railings means that you can see what is on the other side; so can the hospital’s CCTV.  It has included step-free access and there gateways no longer lead straight onto the hospital’s internal road.  Most importantly, by opening up the views and visibility it feels more welcoming and safer, thus reducing the fear of crime.

When people think of Community Safety they often think of the police and little else.  In fact the Community Safety Division do huge amounts of work, just like this, with private individuals and businesses, across the borough to make Wandsworth safer, and more pleasant, for everyone.

You can find out more about their at the Wandsworth Community Safety website.

The council’s website contains details of a success the Community Safety Division’s CCTV team had recently.

The team had been monitoring a vehicle used as a getaway car in a robbery.  They had already got footage of the robbery taking place, vital evidence in any future court case.  However, when they noticed a group of men taking an unusual interest in the vehicle they were able to notify the police who managed to nab four individuals for further questioning.

I freely admit I am a CCTV sceptic.  CCTV is often seen as solution to virtually any problem, when all it often does is move problems along – but this is a great example of how valuable CCTV, used intelligently, can be in the fight against crime.

You can read the full story on the council’s website here.