Opponents say the scheme, which could involve 30 cameras and cost an estimated pounds 250,000, is likely to transform Hampstead Garden Suburb, north-west London, into a US-style fortress community, where surveillance is employed to prevent undesirables from cluttering up the area's leafy streets.
Supporters say it will be the first closed circuit television 'neighbourhood watch' operation of its kind in Britain and could provide a blueprint for other areas plagued by burglary and car crime.
The Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents Association has already been granted permission to buy a former public lavatory in Northway Gardens at a reduced rate from Barnet council to act as a surveillance headquarters. It has not yet been decided whether the monitoring operation would be carried out by the police, a private security firm, or the residents themselves. Publicity in Suburb News, which exudes the air of a highly polished parish magazine, elicited a largely favourable response. There were, however, some individual concerns, notably from a Middle Eastern businessman anxious that visits made by his mistress might be caught on camera.
Outside the suburb, though, there was a more strident reaction. Alan Williams, Labour leader of Barnet council, said: 'It's 1984 revisited. The surveillance is purely intended to identify undesirables and keep them out of the area.'
He said the scheme was in danger of creating a replica of closed circuit television monitoring in some parts of the United States. In Beverly Hills, people deemed to be loitering on the streets are approached by the authorities and asked to justify their presence in the area.
Mr Williams believes that creation of a 'rich ghetto' further undermines the aims of Henrietta Barnett, the philanthropist who, at the turn of the century, had envisaged the suburb as a leafy idyll designed to improve the lot of working people.
The affordable rents for cottages, built in the heart of the suburb around 1910, have long since given way to freehold prices reaching seven figures. To the west, the suburb is now skirted by The Bishops Avenue, reputed to contain on of the heaviest concentrations of millionaires in north London.
Peter Loyd, 70, a former Royal Marines officer and businessman, who co-ordinates more than 50 neighbourhood watch schemes in the suburb, is enthusiastic about the surveillance idea and commissioned a consultant to work up a detailed scheme. 'It would be the first ever CCTV installation in a major residential area,' he said. 'It would also be something that other people could learn from.'
Mr Loyd is a figure to be reckoned with in the suburb's social hierarchy and regarded by the Metropolitan Police as one of its premier neighbourhood watchers. His schemes have attracted a membership of more than 80 per cent of the 6,000 households in the area and have had a significant impact on the burglary rate in the area. In 1990, it dropped by 10 per cent while the rates in surrounding areas continued to rise. Now it is at the same level as it was 10 years ago.
The suburb also attracts some of the capital's most audacious car thieves who make a habit of striking in the early hours. Even the most sophisticated anti-theft devices employed by the owners of the Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs, which typify the area, are not always enough. One Audi owner, who lives on the suburb's busy A1 artery, recently woke up to find his vehicle poised precariously on bricks minus its four alloy wheels. The thieves had carried out a similar robbery on the same car just four weeks before.
Mr Loyd is planning an exhibition in October to introduce detailed plans of the scheme for approval by residents. He said the scheme would probably involve 30 cameras and cost around pounds 250,000 'but that might change according to how the residents react'.
Mr Loyd admitted that 'a couple' of foreign residents, mindful of the authoritarian regimes in their own countries, had tackled him over the proposals. 'If a government like that ever got in here, I'd go round and take a sledgehammer to the cameras myself.'
DOES WATCHING WORK?
There are 11,000 neighbourhood watch schemes in the Metropolitan police area covering one million homes.
London was one of the first areas to embrace the neighbourhood watch idea. It was introduced here in 1983. Two years later 3,700 schemes had been started with a membership of 360,000 households. The figure has risen steadily ever since.
Neighbourhood watch embodies the principle of householders keeping an eye out for suspicious behaviour and reporting it to police. Householders are also given advice by crime prevention officers.
Research into the effectiveness of schemes is inconclusive. In 1993, London's burglary figures fell to 175,200 from 191,400 the previous year. Police attribute much of this improvement to Operation Bumblebee which set out to target burglars.
Inspector Peter Woods said: 'What is certain is that neighbourhood watch can bring people together who never talked to each other before. It also reduces the fear of crime.'
He said police generally favour closed circuit television as a means of combating crime. CCTV played a key role in identifying Colin Ireland, who was convicted of murdering five homosexual men in London last year.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content