A tale of two cameras

Data from two councils, a rural district and a London borough, suggests big differences in spending on CCTV

Using Freedom of Information to find council CCTV costs, usage and efficiency in two contrasting areas of England. More recently, I have mapped comprehensive data collected by Big Brother Watch on this subject.

The debate over the use of CCTV can be rather sterile. The police, local authorities and other parts of the public sector present them as a public good, there “for your safety and security” as station announcements phrase it.

Privacy campaigners prefer to see them as the symbol of state surveillance, often quoting dodgy statistics about the average person being caught on camera 300 times a day, or that there are 4.2m cameras in the UK. The latter number is based on small scale research in one area of London.

No-one knows how many cameras there are in total, but Freedom of Information requests by campaign group Big Brother Watch last year established that local authorities operate around 60,000 – a fraction of the millions claimed (PDF report).

But the amount of CCTV has certainly increased dramatically. Academic research from 1999 suggested a total of 21,000 cameras, while a parliamentary written question from former Labour MP for Streatham Keith Hill in January established that LB Lambeth now has 24 times as many CCTV cameras as it did in 1997 – 40 then, 966 now.

The state sector has spent hundreds of millions installing CCTV and is now spending unknown millions operating this legacy. It is striking that camera schemes have been adopted by almost every local authority in the UK – of the councils which responded to the Big Brother Watch research, all but five said they had public facing CCTV operating in their areas – while crime disproportionately affects urban areas. So are the schemes in rural areas worthwhile?

To explore this question, GC used Freedom of Information to ask questions about the cost, extent and performance of two contrasting councils’ CCTV schemes. One, LB Wandsworth, is an inner London borough with more cameras per person than any other in the capital (according to Big Brother Watch’s research). The other, West Oxfordshire DC, is a rural district council on the edge of the Cotswolds, covering the constituency of prime minister David Cameron, where this writer lives.

The data (see end of article) certainly suggests significant differences. West Oxfordshire is paying from nearly twice to nearly four times as much as Wandsworth for its CCTV cameras, depending on the measure chosen.

In absolute and per capita terms, LB Wandsworth spends more than West Oxfordshire DC (see table). The London borough runs 1,140 cameras, with 289 covering open spaces, 801 on housing estates and 50 at council depots. Its control room has access to 196 more run by train operating companies at stations in the borough. Meanwhile, West Oxfordshire has 76, with 72 in the main town Witney and four recently added in Carterton, a small town next to RAF Brize Norton.

But on several measures West Oxfordshire is spending far more. Both councils provided a figure for incidents logged through use of their cameras. These can lead to arrests, but also include lower level problems including drunkenness and anti-social behaviour. Each incident cost Wandsworth £69, while West Oxfordshire paid £132, if one assumes this is the sole reason the public pays for CCTV.

The difference becomes sharper when it comes to the running costs per camera. While Wandsworth pays just under £500 a year, West Oxfordshire shells out £1,700. In terms of each camera’s use, the rural district recorded one incident per camera every 28 days – whereas the London borough’s equivalent figure was 51 days. However, this was more than compensated for by Wandsworth’s much lower costs.

Data provided in each case by just one of the councils provides other ways of evaluating the two schemes, although not comparing them. Wandsworth’s cameras produced 2,239 items of evidence in 2009-10 (£317 per item of evidence, if that is seen as the scheme’s reason to exist), while West Oxfordshire reckons its cameras assisted in 227 arrests (£569 per arrest, again if that was the sole justification).

On the basis of value for money, West Oxfordshire seems to be spending a lot. Earlier this year, one town in the district refused to pay a small contribution to have the scheme extended there, with town councillors saying it was not worth the cost. One might wonder why the district, which has a robbery rate one-fifth of England’s average, installed CCTV in the first place.

The answer might be that it bought it at a hugely reduced price. West Oxfordshire’s scheme cost £378,000, but the council paid just £18,000, with the balance coming from the Home Office. The district council now pays just over half the running costs, with Thames Valley police, Witney Town Council and local retailers paying the rest. Wandsworth was not able to provide the capital cost of its scheme, saying that it had been installed over 20 years, but it said it spent £710,000 on capital expenditure – moving to digital recording – in 2009-10 from its own resources.

Wandsworth has plans to expand its scheme, with the introduction of software to integrate a radio scheme for retailers, a new graphic user interface and the refitting of the CCTV control room console. A report sent by the council as part of its FoI disclosure says it has doubled the number of cameras over the past seven years: this has involved taking on the monitoring of third party camera systems, including eight run by a property developer, as well as those at train stations. It expects to manage nearly 2,000 cameras by 2013, as a result of capital spending by the housing department.

Even so, Wandsworth’s scheme employs only five people – all of whom have been accredited by the Security Industry Association, allowing them to undertake the third party work. West Oxfordshire says its scheme, which is operated from Witney’s police station, also has five operators, working around the clock. The employee figures are not directly comparable – Wandsworth’s are monitored by the police for 42% of the time – but they indicate much higher staff costs at the district council, given the size of its scheme.

Several factors, including the levels of crime, the numbers of incidents logged and the size of the two schemes, suggest that rural councils like West Oxfordshire may be paying far more for CCTV than cities in terms of results. Such councils might ask if they need camera schemes at all, or whether they should combine their CCTV operations with others to achieve economies of scale, as six authorities in north Wales led by Conwy are doing, or as South Oxfordshire DC and Vale of the White Horse DC already do.

If Wandsworth’s figures are typical, then the 60,000 CCTV cameras run by local authorities (according to FoI research by campaign group Big Brother Watch last year) cost the UK around £30m a year, not including capital expenditure. West Oxfordshire’s figure would put the bill above £100m: the real figure is almost certainly somewhere in between these two. CCTV is already questioned by some on privacy grounds, but on this – admittedly very limited – evidence, value for money could be a more potent criticism.

Council cameras compared

West Oxfordshire DC LB Wandsworth
Number of council cameras 1140 76
Population 282000 102000
Cameras per 1,000 people* 4.74 0.75
Annual cost of CCTV (£) 563000 129000
Cost of scheme per resident (£) 2.00 1.27
Annual cost per camera (£) 493.86 1700.00
Incidents logged per year 8160 979
Cost per incident logged (£) 69.00 131.97
Incidents per camera* 7.16 12.88
Robberies per 100,000 people 4.1 0.2

All figures are provided by the councils (except for population and crime figures) for the latest year available.

* These figures are based on different numbers of cameras. Wandsworth’s are based on the 1,336 fixed cameras accessible by the council’s monitoring centre. For West Oxfordshire, incidents per camera are based on 72 cameras, as this was the number in operation for the period of the incident log supplied.

First published in GC magazine