Monday, 21 June 2010

Birmingham puts camera plans on hold - at what cost?

Residents of two suburbs of Birmingham are up in arms over the installation of over 200 CCTV cameras in their area, and now the case is beginning to draw serious national attention.

I’ve spoken to a number of officials from Birmingham Council, the Safer Birmingham Partnership and the West Midlands Police.

One of them, speaking on condition that I didn’t identify him, said he feared for the future of CCTV in Birmingham and elsewhere in the country. “The decision that’s made will be significant in supporting future extension of CCTV or, indeed, calling a ‘high tide mark’ in terms of the continuing installation of CCTV.”

Tempers were running hot at two public meetings on the subject, and there was a real danger that residents with support from local councillors and MPs would have the system shut down altogether.

Given the situation, it’s perhaps politic that the three partners in the system met and decided to put the system on hold.

This will give them time to hold another round of consultations and defuse tensions in the area.

They promise to provide more information and consult more widely this time, to ensure that the public can voice an informed decision. I believe this will also provide time for a broader range of viewpoints to emerge, including those who feel that CCTV has an important role to play in community safety.

A reasoned debate?

It’s time for the voice of reason, moderation and sensibility to reassert itself in this debate.

There’s a lot of evidence that the outcry about CCTV in the area is based on poor information, with various people questioning the purpose or effectiveness of the cameras without having any idea of the operational requirements nor risk assessments which underpinned the decision to place the cameras there in the first place.

One resident asked, what good is it recording someone’s number plate? What are they going to do with that information? May I direct this individual to the ANPR page of the NPIA website?

Another view is that we should have more bobbies on the beat, not CCTV cameras. This line is frequently used by Big Brother Watch to attack CCTV, but even if you diverted the entire annual CCTV budget to the police, it would only be a drop in the bucket compared to the UK annual policing budget of £10 billion. Put another way, £3 million over the lifetime of a CCTV system (approx. 5 years) would get you an extra four or five police officers walking the beat. How can you compare that to the benefit of 200+ cameras watching the same area?

More residents questioned as part of a BBC vox pop ( said they think CCTV is a waste of money on their quiet road. One has to ask, are they aware of the operational requirements of the system? Perhaps as part of the public consultation they will learn more about it and re-evaluate their position.

Another resident voiced a concern about street lights being removed to make way for cameras. I find that hard to comprehend but if that is the case, that doesn’t sound right and the council should reconsider that decision.

However, it’s not all negative: three out of seven residents interviewed were supportive of CCTV. Two of the people, interviewed together, who expressed negative views were only opposed on the grounds that CCTV was “a waste of time on this road” because it was so quiet (see above).

Far from a groundswell of local opposition, it appears most of the noise is being made by a few vocal opponents supported by the usual cast of the national anti-CCTV party.

Counter terrorism

The hotspot in this case is the issue of counter-terrorism, with much of the ire directed against the Safer Birmingham Partnership for having accepted financial help from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund. Vocal opponents of the system say they feel they are being encircled by cameras.

It would appear that no questions were asked when the money was offered, but then if your local police forces gives you £3 million for your CCTV system, you might not ask too many questions, either. In hindsight, this was a mistake which jeopardises the future of the system.

This idea that the communities in Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath are being targeted because they are predominantly Muslim is troubling. If true, it would be cause for grave concern.

However, cameras may be entirely justified as a number of terrorist cases have been traced back to this area of Birmingham.

In July 2005, four men were arrested at two addresses in the area as part of anti-terror raids following the 7/7 attacks.

In 2007, nine men were arrested in the area over a plot to kidnap and murder a Muslim member of the armed forces. A year later, four men were convicted of offences stemming from this plot.

In January this year, police arrested a man in Sparkhill for possession of terrorism materials.

Rashid Rauf, an airline terror bomb suspect, was a pupil at Washwood Heath Technology School.

Meanwhile, a number of mosques in the area have been linked to radical preachers. In January 2007, the Despatches programme on Channel 4 showed radical preachers delivering hate filled lectures from the mosques. Although the leaders of those mosques were quick to condemn them, saying these preachers had only hired the halls and were not connected to the mosques, there is clearly a degree of support for violent Islamist views in the local community.

No matter how small the level of support for extremism there is – and the evidence is that support is very low indeed – the police have traced a number of cases back to these areas and identified the fact that there are violent Islamists in the area. The cases above are just the ones we know about.

If the police and security services believe we need CCTV in this area, should we allow local residents to overrule them? Are the civil liberties of those people more important than the civil liberties of the victims of future terrorist attacks?

If we could have stopped the 7/7 attackers by putting CCTV in their neighbourhoods, should we have done it?

UPDATE: In an article published on the BBC website, the director of Safer Birmingham Partnership is reported to have made similar points. At one of the public meetings, she said that there had been 11 convictions for terrorist-related activity in the area since 2007. She also said that the two areas' counter-terrorist profiles showed there are people living there with extremist links.


  1. Useful background and supporting information; thanks Tom.

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