Hi-tech gives tower blocks a reprieve

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S TOWER blocks will gain a new lease of life from "Big Brother" systems that keep tenants under continual scrutiny, geographers were told yesterday. Instead of being blown up, many will be used for low-income tenants, Brian McGrail, a research fellow with the Open University, told the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers conference in Leicester.

But the vandalism and crime that plagued many blocks will not be tolerated. Councils are installing computer systems that record when tenants enter and leave and when they let in visitors. These supplement security cameras and entry phones. "My research shows that, despite all the `Big Brother is watching you' implications ... the majority of tenants are massively in favour of it - although many of those who aren't leave," said Dr McGrail.

At Gracemount, an Edinburgh estate with three blocks, 40 per cent of tenants left after closed-circuit television and other systems were introduced last January. But since then the estate had improved dramatically. Few flats were vacant and ground-floor flats, easy to break into, and which had been empty and boarded up, had been let.

The new technology allows concierges and councils to detect flats being used as false addresses for employment and housing-benefit frauds, and those being frequently visited for prostitution and drug dealing. It can also be used to warn staff when a tenant appears to have fallen ill or died.

Telephone links enable a tenant to complain about a noisy neighbour without confrontation. Instead, they complain to the concierge, who rings the neighbour. Dr McGrail said it would be wrong to believe life in a block with this technology discourages a sense of community. "Once people start to feel more secure about their surroundings, they begin to chat. This technology can remove fear."

Construction of council blocks began on a big scale in the 1950s but they came to be regarded as the nation's greatest housing failure. By the early 1970s they were no longer being built and by the end of that decade demolition had begun.

But thousands remain and councils do not have the funds to demolish and replace them. They are under pressure to rent them to households unable to afford their own homes.

r Two of the most important and talked-about sources of new jobs, call- centres and "flexible labour markets", were attacked at the meeting.

Diane Perrons, of the London School of Economics, said flexible working helped employers but the jobs it created were often dead-end, with poor promotion prospects.

Vicki Belt, a research fellow at Newcastle University, said call- centres gave their mainly female workers no opportunity for promotion beyond the role of supervisor. Staff commonly complained of "burn-out" after six months. The average time a person worked at a call centre was about a year.

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