Not-so-Candid Cameras

The Berkhamsted Town Centre CCTV Scheme

Prior to 1995, Dacorum Borough Council decided that closed- circuit television cameras should be erected in central Berkhamsted. This was welcomed by a large proportion of local people who were tired of the increasing anti-social behaviour, vandalism and car crime which the town was experiencing. Unfortunately the low priority which Dacorum gives to Berkhamsted, added to the slow pace of local government bureaucracy, means that installation of the cameras was not completed until 2000.

The majority of Borough Councillors represent Hemel Hempstead wards, and virtually all the council officers are based in Hemel Civic Centre, so Hemel tends to take priority over other parts of the borough. This is unfortunate, given that residents outside Hemel still have to pay council tax at the same exorbitant rates.

In August 1996, Dacorum asked Berkhamsted Town Council for some ideas on where it would like the cameras to be located, and told us that it could fund up to six cameras. Town Councillors visited the CCTV control room at Hemel Civic Centre to learn about the capabilities of the system. I was then appointed to chair a working party which was to decide on the Town Council's preferred camera locations.

After much walking, looking at various sites in the town and discussion, the working party agreed on its six preferred sites. Its members then persuaded the officer in charge of the project, Graham Petts (whose job title was Assistant Director of Law and Administration - seriously!) to drive over from Hemel Hempstead and look at them. In meeting Mr. Petts and his assistant, the improbably-named Gerda Round, we hoped to learn more about the technical requirements affecting the siting of the cameras. We found out rather more about his unfamiliarity with Berkhamsted and his dislike of walking.

At the end of the tour, my last words to Mr. Petts were a specific request not to locate all the cameras in the High Street and in the car parks. Several months later, he sent us a plan showing the locations he had decided upon. All were either in the High Street or in the car parks.

Mr. Petts told us that some of our suggested sites had been disallowed for "a number of reasons". I wrote to him and requested a full explanation of these reasons, but my letter was ignored. So were three reminders. I also telephoned on a number of occasions, but Mr. Petts was never available and he never returned my calls.

After another delay of several months, I finally found that Dacorum had taken staff off the project and re-directed them to set up a new internal telephone system in Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre. Evidently the convenience of council officers was regarded as more important than reducing crime in Berkhamsted. It is not difficult to see why the officers thought this way: the new system includes Voicemail, which allows them to hide from the public even more effectively. Callers can now speak to a recorded message instead of to a person, and then not have their call returned.

Setting up the new telephone system took time. Getting it to work properly took a while longer. I telephoned in an attempt to speak to the Street Lighting Department. An electronic voice told me that an extension I had not dialled was unavailable, and asked me to press the zero key to leave a message. When I pressed zero, the voice bade me goodbye and the system cut me off. I suppose that is one way to deal with residents who report lighting faults.

Meanwhile Councillor Marie Hutchison, who chairs Dacorum's Town Centres Committee, tried to reassure me that Mr. Petts was the best person to decide the camera locations because of his extensive technical knowledge. Unfortunately, his knowledge of Berkhamsted was rather more limited. Had he been prepared to sit down with the local representatives, talk frankly and honestly, and combine his technical expertise with our local knowledge, we could have arrived at a much better plan.

Eventually, officers were available to revive Berkhamsted's CCTV scheme, and Mr. Petts' plan was placed before Dacorum's Town Centres Committee to be rubber-stamped. By now it had been expanded to seven cameras, but all were still located in the High Street or in the car parks. Three are in close proximity to Waitrose. The others are located as close as possible to the cable ducts in the High Street for ease of installation. Thus it seems reasonable to suppose that the real "Technical requirements" which determined the locations are council officers' desire to serve Waitrose and to minimise inconvenience to themselves.

I attended the meeting of Dacorum's Town Centres Committee at which the locations were decided. I supplied a plan of my suggested locations to every member. By this time I had lost the support of Berkhamsted Town Council; the town councillors, a naive and spineless bunch, had fallen right into the trap which Dacorum's officers had set for them. They were led to believe that the scheme would be further delayed if they continued to object to the locations dictated by Dacorum. Common sense should have told them that the scheme would be further delayed anyway, because of the low priority which the Borough Council gives to Berkhamsted.

Prior to the meeting, Mr. Petts spoke privately to a few councillors. He adopted a very condescending attitude to the Town Council working party and our suggested camera locations. The working party had requested a camera in the vicinity of Butts Meadow, which is notorious for anti-social behaviour on Friday and Saturday nights, but Mr. Petts told the councillors that, "There's nothing there except a few allotments". He seemed completely unaware of the adjacent Victoria School, which has since had to increase the height of its perimeter fence and put grilles over its windows.

I used the opportunity for public participation which Dacorum used to allow at the start of meetings to make my case. Councillors appeared to pay little attention. Once I had exceeded the two minutes I was allowed, the then Mayor, Labour Councillor Dick Dennison, raised his voice and tried to bully me into silence.

Labour Councillor Les Taber then delivered a typical put-down. He said that the plan I had given him had more cameras than Disneyland. In fact the plan, which was on the desk in front of his at the time, suggested the same number of cameras as Dacorum had - seven. He also accused me of criticising council officers. Borough councillors seem to regard this as a particularly heinous crime.

Councillor Taber then told us another one. He claimed that the delays to the scheme were not the fault of Dacorum Borough Council. I wonder who he thinks took Dacorum Borough Council staff off the project in order to set up a new telephone system for Dacorum Borough Council?

Councillors' economy with the truth did not end at the meeting. Several, including current Liberal Democrat Leader Councillor Denise Rance, tried to blame Berkhamsted Town Council for delaying the installation of the cameras. The sad fact is that, far from causing delay, the Town Council was barely allowed an input into the scheme. Once again, the reason it was "Consulted" was to mislead the public into thinking it was being consulted. In reality, the locations of the cameras were decided by people who lacked knowledge of Berkhamsted, and had motives which were nothing to do with the interests of Berkhamsted people.

The installation of the cameras in the High Street was further delayed because the lamp columns on which they were to be mounted had to be strengthened. Despite all his supposed technical knowledge, Mr. Petts did not seem to have thought of that at a sufficiently early stage.

Cameras were finally installed in the High Street and in each of three car parks, at St. John's Well Lane, Lower Kings Road and Water Lane. I kept an eye on the St. John's Well Lane camera in particular. It has spent much time pointing at the Waitrose building and its private car park as well as surveying the public parking area.

The Police told me that the cameras contributed to twelve arrests in their first six weeks of operation. I wonder how many more criminals would have been caught if the cameras had been installed promptly at the locations preferred by those who know the town?

A CCTV Operator writes.
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Copyright © 2003 - Ian Johnston
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