‘You are not being watched’: Councils turn off CCTV for savings, says report

CCTV cameras are increasingly being switched off by cash-strapped councils, potentially leaving the public at greater risk, the surveillance camera commissioner has revealed. 

Tony Porter, the surveillance camera commissioner, wrote in his annual report for 2015-16 that the tightening of local authority budgets has led to councils looking to scrap town centre CCTV systems for savings, as they are not a statutory responsibility.

The monitoring of cameras has been reduced in many areas, with systems switched off completely in others, Porter’s report revealed. Welsh authorities appear to be among the most affected, with Anglesey relying on charity to keep its cameras rolling in 2014 and Carmarthenshire deciding to no longer monitor its 87 cameras live.

“I continue to see the impact of austerity bite at local authority level, impacting on the provision of surveillance cameras in principal local authorities and town and district councils as some authorities switch systems off or reduce monitoring,” the commissioner wrote.

“There is a real danger that … systems will age and become decrepit, operators will become deskilled and the public will be deceived into believing that surveillance is contributing to their safety when in fact it is not.”

The report also revealed that Porter raised his concerns with the government about the impact of austerity cuts on council CCTV systems, including correspondence with the local government minister Marcus Jones – who declined to meet Porter to discuss them.

The commissioner wrote to Jones in a letter dated August 2015, asking the DCLG to show “strategic leadership” in promoting innovative ways in which some councils continued to fund CCTV in co-operation with business and the police.

Jones responded by saying that he understood “concerns about competing calls on local authority budgets”, but urged him to reach out to councils or the LGA rather than the DCLG.

“I am sure that local authorities understand the proportionate use of CCTV and would value your advice and so, at this time, I do not think a meeting is required,” he concluded.

The report noted research which found a 46.4% decrease in council spending on the installation, maintenance and monitoring of CCTV since 2012, with spending on paid CCTV operators dropping by 47%. It also highlighted a common theme of disputes between local councils and police over who should pay for the service.

Porter argued: “This argument is being played out across the country resulting, in some cases, in a standoff over funding between police and local authorities and, in some cases, threats to completely withdraw the service.”

In one English region, he found that only one out of 12 local authorities had a dedicated manager to monitor the CCTV operation room for public spaces. All the smaller councils within these 12 had had new managers of the service within the last two years.

Porter strongly encouraged collaboration between local authorities to maximise the benefit of CCTV, such as splitting funding with the police and updating systems with digital HD equipment. He aims to release his National Surveillance Camera Strategy by the end of 2016, which will set out best practice for local authorities.

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