Tory council to scrap CCTV network due to Government cuts

'Austerity is biting, there is no doubt,' surveillance camera commissioner says

Caroline Mortimer,Oliver Wright
Wednesday 01 June 2016 11:34 BST
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Cutbacks are forcing councils to reassess the money they spend on surveillance systems
Cutbacks are forcing councils to reassess the money they spend on surveillance systems

Large parts of central London are set to become CCTV “dead zones” after a flagship Tory council announced plans to scrap its network of cameras - blaming central Government cuts.

Westminster Council said it could no longer afford to pay for the upkeep of 75 cameras strategically located across the West End, Parliament and other famous London landmarks.

In a report, the council blamed cuts in central Government funding for the move, which will save it around a million pounds a year. But the council admitted scrapping the cameras would result in hundreds of crimes going unprosecuted.

Westminster’s own statistics show its network of cameras contributes to 1,300 arrests a year while, on average, the cameras recorded around 600 criminal incidents a month. These included 144 robberies, 265 suspect packages or individuals and 181 drug offences.

Controversially, the council said it saw no need to pay for the upkeep of the cameras when the main beneficiary from the CCTV was the Metropolitan Police “both in terms of securing prosecutions following arrests and the operational deployment of resources”.

But the Met does not contribute to the costs of running the system and the “operational benefit to the council is limited”, the report to the Tory-controlled cabinet concluded. It said their fixed crime and disorder cameras were not “the most effective use” of council resources and would cease to exist from the beginning of September unless an appropriate new provider could be found.

Westminster’s council tax is the lowest in the country but the council says it needs to find more than £100m in savings over the next three years to meet a shortfall in central Government funding.

The decision by Westminster Tories will embarrass the Government, which has insisted councils can find efficiency saving to offset cutbacks without cutting back on local services.

The move by Westminster, one of the richest councils in the country, suggests this is becoming increasingly hard – without increasing council tax bills.

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said Westminster Council ought to reflect on the services that its residents wanted it to deliver.

“London has the highest average core spending power per household of anywhere in England,” he said.

“Westminster City Council will receive nearly £800m over the next four years to deliver services their residents value, while keeping council tax bills and charges for other services down”.

He said recent figures showed that there was more than £22bn in the council’s reserves.

Tony Porter, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who regulates the use of CCTV on behalf of the Government, said cutbacks were forcing council to reassess the money they spent of such surveillance systems. “Austerity is biting, there is no doubt,” he said.

But he added that CCTV was generally supported by the public and it was “spurious” to suggest that it was not important in preventing serious crime. “I think it is fair to say that CCTV played an important role in tracking down the failed terrorist attackers of 21/7 and would be important in any ‘live’ terrorist incident of the type we have seen in France,” he said.

Westminster Council wantes to direct its resources towards front-line services 

The Labour opposition leader at Westminster Council, Adam Hug, said it was an “odd reversal of position” as council leader Philippa Roe had previously praised the use of CCTV as “proportionate”. Cllr Hug said: “This is the result of swingeing cuts to local government budgets by the national Government. It’s a big shift from what they were saying a few years ago about CCTV use being proponent and useful against crime and anti-social behaviour to now say it is not necessary. This is primarily because the Tory Government is cutting far more than the council could ever raise locally”.

He said he now wanted reassurances from the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor of London’s crime and policing team that they “have the same confidence that the council does that Tfl cameras and private cameras give them what they need”.

He suggested that if the cameras were an important part of their work then maybe “they should be contributing to its upkeep given the West End area is of national importance”.

But a Metropolitan Police spokesman suggested they were unlikely to step in and fund the camera network.

He said: “The Metropolitan Police Service recognises the benefits of officers being able to access CCTV for policing purposes and we continue to work with all local authorities to ensure this resource is used for maximum effectiveness. Outside of the local authority CCTV network there is a vast and sophisticated private network that will still be accessible to the police…[and] other resources that can be used to monitor events where necessary, including TfL cameras and the Met's own mobile camera technology.

“We are confident these arrangements adequately provide tools to prevent and detect crime.”

A spokesman for Westminster Council said: “It is important to note that no decision has yet been taken about the future operation of the council’s CCTV network in Westminster. However, like many other local authorities around the country, our current view is that we do not feel we are able to continue to subsidise this non statutory service which will cost us £1m per year to run, when there many other pressures on our budgets”.

The spokesman said the council wanted to direct its resources towards its front-line services, “which protect the most vulnerable in our city”.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “The Mayor’s first priority is keeping Londoners safe, and he is aware of these proposals. No decisions have yet been taken, and while there are many CCTV cameras in operation across Westminster, including a network of private cameras and those operated by Transport for London and the Met, all of which are accessible to the police, the Mayor will be looking into the situation.”

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