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Beware your public square: Britain is under attack from ‘talking’ CCTV cameras

With the advent of ‘talking’ CCTV cameras, our surveillance society has reached new levels: we are no longer simply watched, but also 'told off' for 'bad behaviour'. Whatever happened to the civic spirit!

Middlesbrough’s redeveloped town square is reputedly the largest civic space in Europe. Redesigned in 2002 at a reported cost of £5 million, an expansive grassy area with sweeping paths and benches stands behind the old Gothic town hall, surrounding a jagged shallow pool with shooting fountains. 

Yet around the borders of this new-fangled public space, three talking cctv cameras now stand like sentinels. These are large metallic pieces of street furniture placed awkwardly in the middle of paths. Underneath their tall necks, two speakers are affixed. This allows council officials who monitor screens from an office to ‘talk’ to passers-by.

‘Talking’ cameras were first tested in Wiltshire in 2003, but by 2006 seven had been installed by the local authority at Middlesbrough - one of the poorest towns in Britain. At the time, it was the borough’s executive for community safety who defended the measure, claiming the cameras would inspire ‘extra confidence’ in the locale and ‘reinforce the message that Middlesbrough is a place that is constantly thinking about community safety’.

What was not acknowledged is that talking cameras go well beyond the usual remit of cctv. Rather than being a passive surveillance measure, they represent an attempt by local authorities to play a more active role in civic spaces: not just to watch people but to actively intervene in their everyday behaviour. In practice, talking cctv is used to police trivial misdemeanours between ordinary people.

By 2007, then Labour Home Secretary John Reid announced the cameras would be rolled out to 20 boroughs nationwide – most of them less well-off places, such as Barking and Dagenham in London. He claimed that talking cctv was necessary to ‘..counter things like litter through drunk and disorderly behaviour, gangs congregating…’. Here, we see that the serious category of crime that should concern a Home Secretary is being expanded to include people enjoying a few cans of beer, litter-dropping or young people coming together in public space. Yet these are perfectly normal activities and certainly don’t require constant, active council interference.

I was brought up in a town near Middlesbrough, and when visiting recently heard many accounts of the cameras ‘telling people off’ for petty incidents. One woman described being shouted at when the end of her sausage roll broke off onto the floor, and was quite incredulous. A teenager told me how he was scolded for throwing a snowball. Another young person remembered friends being reprimanded one evening for boisterously paddling in the new fountain. One local employee remembered hearing a disembodied voice late one evening saying ‘stop urinating on McDonalds’, but when they looked they saw no apparent culprit. 

Throwing snowballs, peeing in public - such incidents are entirely normal, even part and parcel of the rhythm of shared social life. Most people have had a crisp wrapper blow away before they could catch it or get a bit carried away from time to time: such things need to be confronted by discriminating adults when they pose a particular problem or are otherwise out of order.

And if there are bigger issues at stake here, then rolling out talking cctv only makes matters worse. Indeed, the imposition of talking cameras robs people of their ability to negotiate with one another to develop and enforce common norms of civility, which can vary from place to place. They undermine free-spirited interaction, which is the ground-spring of the very civic dynamism policy-makers vainly try to create artificially through official interventions.

One lady I talked to in Middlesbrough explained how she isn’t ‘scared’ of teenagers and regularly confronts people who leave litter behind. This is what most locals are like: friendly and reasonable, capable of interacting. Why would we want to replace this lady with the faceless representative of the local authority?

Aside from the dubious intentions of policy-makers, measures like talking cctv are redefining public space in a worrying way. Traditionally, public space was grounded in civil society, and as such lay outside both state and market. Underpinning this conception – first articulated by a progressive liberal tradition in Britain - was a commitment to substantial civic freedom. In this sense, public space is a civilising force in society since it is a place where we bear responsibility for negotiating the terms of relationships and developing shared rules.

Talking cameras, however, reflect how ‘public’ spaces become defined by the presence of an external authority. It is now cameras and other official signs that mark the boundaries of a ‘safe’ public space, telling us that this is somewhere we are ‘allowed’ to be.  Nearly every lamppost around Middlesbrough’s square carries a sign informing people they are surveilled, will be fined for not picking up litter or dog mess. While I was talking to people around Centre Square, one man hurrying past muttered something about civil liberties groups, telling me that talking cctv helps ‘keep the hoi polloi in their place!’. It turns out he was from the council, yet was apparently speaking without irony.

The corrosive trend towards surveillance is particularly poignant when it comes to Middlesbrough. A former industrial centre famed for its iron and steel works during the nineteenth century, the town’s expansion during this period gave way to a vibrant, distinctive northern civic tradition. The main town hall was completed in 1899 and its public square – formerly Victoria Gardens – hosted local fetes. Sadly, the extent and pace of decline in the north-east has gnawed away at its sense of independence, despite the friendliness of locals. Much of the local economy is run down. Rather than addressing the town’s real problems, though, policy-makers seem to see it as a testing ground for policies meant to manage decline by forcing a superficial civility from on high, making matters worse.

That what is arguably the biggest civic space in Europe is surveilled by official cameras that regularly bark out instructions shows the woeful state of civic freedom in the UK. Such measures are ineffectual in dealing with the problems of a town such as Middlesbrough – and instead, serve to stifle the very civic spirit they seek to create.  

About the author

Sarah Boyes is a member of the Manifesto Club.


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