Private security patrols have halved crimes in one London borough where they are working as part of a pilot scheme that supplements police work.

The results of the study, on an estate in Islington, suggest that the commonest crimes have been halved due to the presence of the guards, and that street robbery has disappeared completely.

The Islington scheme highlights the growing use of private security firms in the capital and a new tendency to employ them on problem estates rather than just at the luxury end of the market.

The apparent success of the Islington scheme comes as the debate about how to conquer neighbourhood crime intensifies. It emerged yesterday that one proposal, being considered by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is to recruit local civilian volunteers to supplement police work. Meanwhile, Islington is content to extend it's own approach.

The council committee overseeing the project is now to recommend that the borough should formally approach its police authority with a view to setting up a pilot partnership to run guards on its problem estates on a regular basis.

Putting regulated patrols on the streets is viewed as a

method of curbing the rapid rise of cowboy operators in the security industry. The idea is strongly backed by the findings of an independent inquiry by the Police Foundation and the Policy Studies Institute.

The inquiry came in response to the Home Office review looking into how police duties could be hived off to other agencies. The review, to be completed in January, is

part of a wider review of public spending. Some police officers are mistrustful of the Home Office review, seeing it as the beginning of widescale privatisation by stealth.

Chaired by Sir John Cassels and including senior police officers, academics and security industry chiefs, the inquiry urged that chief constables should set up street patrols of regulated private local forces.

Islington's pilot scheme, which supplements police activity, is on the Marquess, Popham and Market estates. On Marquess, which has one of the highest levels of crime and vandalism in the borough, most crimes were cut by half.

For the first six months of this year compared with 1993, burglaries and vehicle crime were down by 50 per cent, while street robbery was eradicated altogether.

The idea for the patrols was mooted by Joe Simpson, a Labour councillor, who is chairman of Islingtons's neighbourhood services committee. He said: 'I am delighted to see there is a mechanism that can be put into operation that does not include a plethora of unregulated private companies.

The pilot scheme is costing Islington pounds 120,000 and comes from the council's mainstream budget. There will be consultation in the autumn as how best to pay for a permanent project. One suggestion will be to put a vote to tenants asking them if they would be willing to pay increased rent.

The councillor's original idea was to ask the police to carry out extra patrols via a 'special service agreement entered into by the borough.

Islington divisional chief superintendent Michael O'Conner said: 'Theoretically it could happen, but look at the practicalities of it - someone has to sit down and write a cheque for a lot of money.

At the other end of the security spectrum is Chelsea Harbour. The private 18-acre riverside site with public access includes a 50-berth marina and the five-star Conrad Hotel. As well as a centre of shops and restaurants, security guards from Opus Ltd are charged with patrolling the streets surrounding 310 residential units, some home to film stars such as Michael Caine.

The guards in their dark blue uniforms patrol in twos during the evening, stopping at checkpoints to register with swipe cards. Closed circuit tele-vision cameras watch the comings and goings.

Ian Barnett, managing director of Chelsea Harbour Ltd, said: 'We have regular contact with the police. Our security manager is a former local policeman. We've had no problems governing our security people. Our guards perform many functions like showing visitors around. The job is a public relations role as well.

It is hard to find out how many private patrols operate in London as no central trade body exists to collect statistics.

Britain's private security industry is the second largest in Europe, close behind Germany's, and is worth at least pounds 2bn. However, Britain, with Ireland and Greece, has no regulation for the industry.

Andrew Mackay, of the British Security Industry Association, representing 250 firms, said: 'It's hard to say, there could be hundreds if not thousands of firms in London. Anyone can set up a security company using a mobile phone.

'We have been lobbying the Government very hard for the industry to be regulated. This has become more of a pressing issue with the growth of

residential street patrols.

The body sees the hiving off of police duties to security firms as a potential for disaster.

'We think it is a minefield and one that has to be defused quickly. There has been no major horror story yet, but there will be, and unlike police officers, some security guards will not be sufficiently trained to deal with it.

(Photograph omitted)