Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

I've been humming the theme tune of Dad's Army ever since a leaflet plopped through the letter box advertising the services of a company calling itself HomeGuard. Basically, this is a private security service which, for a fee, will patrol your neighbourhood, spotting potential ne'er-do-wells and generally keeping an eye on your house while you're on holiday.

The chap behind it, Graham Monk, describes how he was inspired to set up the scheme after he saw a "behooded youth" attempting to gain access to his home while he was putting out the rubbish following a dinner party. ("Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hoodie ...?")

I should make it clear that Mr Monk and his employees aren't going to go around feeling any collars. They will act, he says, as the "eyes and ears" of the community, merely observing what goes on. They will hold Security Industry Association licences. They will be "good communicators". In other words, they'll act as a sophisticated Neighbourhood Watch system.

I have to confess that the idea of signing up for this service initially provoked hilarity in our household. Perhaps, suggested my husband, we could have Corporal Jones marching up and down outside our front door with a loaded bayonet left over from the Boer War, shouting, "Don't panic, Mr Mainwaring, don't panic!".

I had a vision of Private Fraser standing on the corner, wailing, "We're doomed, I say, doomed!". Or Private Walker lurking behind the garage, having a sly puff on a black-market cigarette. Or Private Pike ("Stupid boy!") blocking the neighbours' garage access, or Private Godfrey politely asking if he could possibly be "excused".

But when I stopped laughing, I decided that I didn't really like the idea of a modern Home Guard at all. I'm rather anti-security. I've always had this theory that the smarter your house looks, and the more anti-theft devices bristle from its exterior, the more some tea leaf will mark you down as worth stealing from. (At least, that's my excuse for not doing anything about our awful battleship-grey paintwork and peeling garden gate...)

It seems to me that companies such as HomeGuard are exploiting middle-class paranoia about crime. Mr Monk quotes two surveys: one, by the Audit Commission, showing that only one in five people is happy with the number of police on the street; and the other, from Legal & General, which says that more than half of Britons fear for their safety.

"Would you like to shut your front door," he asks, "knowing that there is someone patrolling your area, adding additional security 365 days of the year?"

It's a seductive argument, and I'm sure he'll find plenty of takers in the leafier streets of Wandsworth, where, he says, there were more burglaries in the first half of this year than there were in Tower Hamlets or Hackney.

But there is an alternative. As half term looms, we've had the usual exchange of pre-holiday correspondence with various neighbours. It tends to take the form of little notes or cards that start, "Hi, we're away next week, this is my mobile number, can you just keep an eye...".

Call me naive and idealistic, but isn't building a community in which people look out for one another the real key to neighbourhood security? I don't think we live in a world that is so very much more dangerous or dishonest, we just live in one where people couldn't care less about each other.

And I don't think that paying someone to drive up and down outside my house on the lookout for villains is going to do anything to improve that particular state of affairs.

MY COLLEAGUE Jo had an extraordinary experience the other day. She complained to her builder about some work he'd done, and, to her astonishment, he replied, "Fair cop, love, it was a rubbish job. Don't worry, I'll do it again for you". As admissions go, it ranks right up there with George W Bush confessing that he was wrong about Iraq, or Tony Blair confiding that he's always had a bit of a soft spot for Gordon Brown.

Poor Jo had to go and lie down in a darkened room to get over the shock.

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