Something to watch over me
Plans for a surveillance system to be set up in the streets of Central St Leonards as part of a ‘Safer Streets’ project funded by the Home Office are at risk of being withdrawn after complaints that there has been insufficient public consultation and that the chosen system could be over-intrusive.
Funding totalling over £500,000 is on offer to help local residents and businesses protect their premises as well as to support a dedicated grouping, the Business Crime Reduction Partnership (BCRP). The project team combines representatives of Hastings Borough Council, the police, local residents, the BCRP and the existing business forum Love Hastings under the banner of ‘Safer St Leonards’. The stated aim is to help both homes and shops “to cut down on burglary and theft through improved security measures and better communication between neighbours and the police”.
John Bownas, manager of Love Hastings and a key mover in the BCRP, says that it had undertaken a preliminary survey of St Leonards businesses in the autumn and found that 70% approved in principle the setting up of the surveillance system, as well as other measures such as improved street lighting. Alongside this, the community group Heart of Hastings (HoH) was commissioned by the project team to undertake a wider conversation with local people – what they call “community organising… going to people, listening to them, trying to connect people in the community to be active and take action on what matters to them”.
But time was limited, and this work did not include specific reference to any surveillance system. The Home Office funding offer is, at least nominally, conditional on being spent during the current financial year, i.e. by the end of this month.
Then came the second and third lockdowns. HoH could not fulfil their preferred methods of door-knocking and face-to-face interviews, but say they became aware of issues raised about CCTV intrusion. The system that has been chosen offers 24-hour surveillance through 37 high-definition digital video cameras and security lighting in both commercial and residential areas. There were concerns expressed that it could be applied to sinister purposes through the application of facial recognition technology. The proposed supplier, Hikvision, is a Chinese company whose camera systems have been installed in countries where there are human rights abuses, and are alleged to be instrumental in aiding them, though Mr Bownas says that they are “commonplace” on high streets in the UK.
“The critical thing here is that all the talk of facial recognition isn’t true”, he says. “There has been a lot of scaremongering about this coming from people who frankly should know better, and it’s put the whole project at risk as a result… which would be a tremendous shame.” Hikvision is a worldwide supplier, he argues, no more responsible for any misuse of its technology than are, say, Dell Computers.
He also denies that there’s any essential difference between a system operated by humans and one set up to identify people automatically.
“In the former case there’s a reliance on personal knowledge, in the latter on a system database. Both depend on cameras producing high quality images that are accurate and don’t produce false alerts, whether we’re trying to keep tabs on a suspected troublemaker or to trace a lost child.
“That said,” he continued, “we are currently reviewing whether we can obtain a similarly high-quality system at an equivalent price from any manufacturer whose activities have not been called into question in this manner.”
The Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner is now asking the Home Office to extend the funding deadline. In the meantime no order for the system has been confirmed – and won’t be, says Mr Bownas, “until consultation has happened”.
The project team has issued an official statement: “Pending clarity about available funds, we’ll seek more views from the public, and will respond to the views already raised.’ HoH are hoping that their consultation process can be continued throughout this month.
• Consultation responses can now be expressed on surveymonkey.co.uk/rsafer-st-leonards
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