Can Big Brother afford to watch you?

Is Big Brother broke? I’ve been grappling with this question repeatedly since Ceredigion County Council switched off their CCTV at the beginning of this year.

Powys switched theirs off several years ago. Carmarthenshire spends nearly quarter of a million pounds a year on CCTV; Pembrokeshire spends about £150,000. Some of the difference in approach is to do with circumstances such as population, crime habits, economic factors. But not all.

Ceredigion’s decision caused a huge amount of upset. Councillors feared crime would rise. Anti-social behaviour would go uncovered. I must admit I was concerned about that too.

Contrary to many people’s expectations, Dyfed Powys police have never funded CCTV. I believe the same is true for other forces. But a wide perception exists that CCTV is a police thing. In some places the police do provide help in kind, like office space or equipment to monitor screens. Generally, CCTV is council – county, town or community – owned and run.

As PCC, I inherited some funding for CCTV from the Home Office. At the moment I contribute £44,000 to Carmarthenshire but none elsewhere. I now have to decide what to do with my share. Local councils have to decide what to do as their funding shrinks.

What has become clear from our research is that CCTV does little to deter crime in most parts of Dyfed Powys. It can be useful in helping the police investigate crime. It can be useful in securing prosecutions. But most of the CCTV used for convictions is privately owned, from bars, clubs or shopping centres. CCTV can, in some circumstances, increase confidence but usually people get used to it and ignore it.

There does not appear to have been any noticeable effect on crime and antisocial behaviour in Powys linked to CCTV being switched off. I am not aware of one in Ceredigion, yet, although it may be too early to tell.

When you look at the history, it becomes clear that CCTV is there because the money was there. Central government made millions – £170m between 1999 and 2003 – available for CCTV across the UK. So, millions was spent on CCTV across the UK.

What is also clear is that CCTV is not about crime. It is about culture. We are the most observed society in Western Europe. Anyone who has been listening to Neil MacGregor’s fascinating history of Germany on Radio 4, might have heard his observations of Friedrichstrasse Station on Berlin’s underground. It has no CCTV. None. Why? Because the Germans are very suspicious of a snooping state, after their experience under the Stasi.

Britain has no such history. Perhaps we trust our authorities more? Or perhaps we rely on a reassuring degree of official bungling to prevent them becoming too efficient with their power, not something the Germans can rely on? I leave it to you to judge.

Even if we trust our CCTV, can we afford it? Whatever government is in power, we expect to have to find as many savings in the next Parliament as we have in this, which is around 20%. Our councils face the same, with the added complication of reorganisations. That means we will have work more closely. We will have to find ways not just to save us money, but to save each other money.

To save sensibly we will have to look at what works, like CCTV. That is exactly what we will be doing in the coming weeks. If something doesn’t do what we expect it to, can we afford to keep it?

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