Thursday, 2 June 2016

Perhaps CCTV isn't that useful after all

A curious tale of cost-cutting has emerged in the last few days as it seems Westminster City Council is planning to scrap its network of more than 100 CCTV cameras in the West End of London on the basis that it can no longer afford their upkeep due to government cuts.

This will come as a surprise to those who remember times at City Hall under the then unknighted Simon Milton when, along with Wandsworth, it prized itself as a wealthy (ahem, their reserves have recently been valued at over £22billion so they'll get through the week), successful council; a proud Conservative flag-bearer in a time when Labour ruled the roost nationally with ease. I remember, back in 2004, Kit Malthouse, now an MP but then a Westminster councillor and deputy leader, confidently revealing ambitions to cut council tax from its already low levels to zero ‘by 2012’. Needless to say this courageous aspiration was never realised.

And, when I worked as a reporter in the area in the earlier 2000s, Westminster Council was inordinately proud of the network. The manager of the CCTV control room was not only keen on inviting the press and other visitors to see how the operation worked, but he was also a frequent witness at council meetings and attended gatherings of organisations like the Leicester Square Association, reminding the locals how useful the CCTV was in improving their security.

But now, while other police and private cameras will remain, Westminster wants to switch theirs off, claiming it will save a £1million a year, a fairly paltry sum when they are looking for savings of more than £100million. A report on the matter concludes it is not the ‘most effective use’ of council money and the ‘operational benefit to the council is limited’; working hand in hand with the police, it seems, is so last decade.

A Soho resident I know wondered whether their safety was being put at risk by these cuts. After all, for years Westminster Council, the police and the government have been telling anyone who’d listen that the network was a success, acclaimed for cutting crime in the West End. Have they, in fact, all be telling porkies?

John Denham
In 2002, the Press Association reported how Home Office minister John Denham, was treated to a private viewing of footage - in the ‘£1.2million CCTV control room in the Trocadero Centre’ - of an incident in which eight youths launched an unprovoked attack on two men in Leicester Square. Other treats included a fist fight and a man urinating into a bin in Soho. Denham announced an extra £169,000 grant for three new cameras to the system and claimed that, while the CCTV centre had only been in operation for four months, 'it was already producing real results’. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter said ‘CCTV had been a great help in tackling late night incidents’.

In April 2003, Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair praised CCTV for helping to cut street crime in Westminster by 33 per cent

And in January, 2001, Westminster councillor Alan Bradley, who was then cabinet member for community protection at the council, wrote a letter to the council taking issue with a claim that CCTV does ‘not appear to make such difference anyway’. Councillor Bradley wrote: ‘We cannot quantify exactly how much difference it makes but we have seen a drop in street crime of 30 per cent in the West End in the past year. CCTV is one tool to help in the battle against crime and antisocial behaviour…. In Leicester Square for example, our CCTV was instrumental in the successful prosecution of seven youths who assaulted a tourist… the only comment I hear from people in Westminster about CCTV is to press for it to be extended to the streets where they work and live.’

In July 2004, Sound, the nightclub in Leicester Square, lost its licence after attacks on customers by bouncers were captured on CCTV. Superintendent Chris Bradford, from the Metropolitan Police’s clubs and vice unit, said: ‘The video footage showing the kickings given to customers were horrific.’

In April 2007, a man dubbed ‘Britain’s most prolific handbag thief’ was jailed for four years. Maurice Young, then 55, ‘was captured on CCTV at the scenes of the crimes’.

In September of the same year, the numbers of traffic wardens were cut in the West End by 20 per cent, with the council boasting that an expanded CCTV network could do the job more efficiently and save £1million a year.

Before the Olympics, in May 2012, the Evening Standard reported that police ‘swooped on Soho’s most wanted drug dealers in a pre-Olympics blitz on the street trade in heroin and crack cocaine’. Police identified a ‘hit list of 36 top-level suspects – amassing CCTV evidence and conducting test purchases’.

Camille Gordon
One crime CCTV didn't help solve, however, was the murder of Camille Gordon, who worked as a nightclub hostess at the Blue Bunny Club in Archer Street, Soho. This was a clip joint, a venue which enticed men in with the promise of a strip show and even sex for prices as low as £5. Once inside, normally in a basement, customers would suddenly find themselves with an astronomical bill of hundreds of pounds and threatened with beatings if they didn't pay. Sometimes, unfortunate customers would even be marched up to cash points and ordered to withdraw money by some knucklehead. The business plan of these clubs - which have mainly gone now - relied upon knowing that their victims were highly likely to be far too embarrassed to ever complain to the police.

On this particular occasion, on March 1, 2004, there was a dispute with a young black man who was facing a £375 bill after being in the club for about ten minutes. He left the club only to return and stab the 23-year-old Ms Gordon, who staggered down the stairs of the club before collapsing. Archer Street, at that time, had no CCTV cameras and the only footage that was obtained by cameras nearby displayed grainy pictures of a figure heading away who may or may not have been the killer. Despite a £20,000 reward being offered, her killer has not been captured.

There is, of course, no way of knowing whether CCTV would have led to the successful conviction of her killer but I remember police bemoaning the lack of decent footage and Westminster Council certainly wasn't saying CCTV was of 'little benefit' at the time.

A matter of timing

In just over three weeks’ time voters will be going to polling stations to cast their vote in the EU referendum. The polls are increasingly close, the Conservative Party is, predictably, tearing itself apart on the issue, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are having whale of a time campaigning to large crowds around the country. This, then, is the obvious time for a film (full film here) about the apparently pro-EU leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to rail against those enemies of socialist progress, the BBC and The Guardian columnist.

Inside Jeremy Corbyn’s press team there is someone who thought allowing filming of the leader behind the scenes, by a Labour-supporting, Corbyn-voting activist, for Vice News was a good idea. Viewers certainly see the good bits of Jeremy Corbyn. He is evidently active in his Islington constituency, is excellent at talking to people, likes being with members of public and is clearly interested in their concerns and interests. At one point he remarks rather endearingly ‘every single person you meet knows something you don’t know, if you don’t interact with people you can’t learn anything and, also, it keeps you humble’.

But, the whole atmosphere pervading the film is one of paranoia, not helped by a grim-faced Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s executive director of strategy, frequently hovering in the background. While it can certainly be true that just because someone may be paranoid, it doesn’t mean people are not plotting against them, it isn’t the familiar newspaper foes that get it in the neck, it is the New Statesman, the BBC and the Guardian writer, author of an ‘utterly disgusting’ column, Jonathan Freedland. Does Corbyn really believe the BBC is obsessed with damaging his leadership? Is there really a ‘Gerald’ at the heart of his operation, leaking his PMQ question to a Tory 'Karla'?

Neither major party is a picture of competence currently. The government is hopelessly split over Europe and, thus, is incapable of presenting a coherent vision for the future of the country and has presented a Queen’s Speech denuded of anything that might be vaguely controversial. Cameron’s government, with only a small majority, has been forced into making u-turn after u-turn. Despite claims that these have been Labour successes, many – such as forcing successful schools to convert to academies, tax credit cuts, disability benefit cuts, Sunday trading laws, the repeal of the Hunting Act – have all occurred due to Conservative backbench rebellions. Yet, Labour remains stubbornly behind in the polls. And while it is certainly true that Labour’s performance in the local elections was better than expected, they were hardly – Sadiq Khan excepted – an indication of a party on its way back to power.

What is most troubling, however, is not the Jim Hackeresque confidence that everyone is conniving against him, it is the timing. Jeremy Corbyn has not been prominent in the European referendum debate thus far. It has followed something of a pattern: Conservatives in rival camps shout at each other; a few Labour figures, like Alan Johnson, Tom Watson or John McDonnell, emerge to speak briefly from the sidelines; someone questions where Jeremy Corbyn is; Corbyn duly appears and makes a speech he rather seems not to want to be giving; Corbyn goes back to whatever he was doing before anyone noticed his absence.

And, so it is today, Corbyn has been giving a speech in which he will outline his fears about the dangers of Brexit. And yet, it has already been overshadowed by this unnecessary, self-inflicted, wound.