The biggest council CCTV spenders per resident: Westminster… then Tamworth

Big Brother Watch’s newly-released data on £515m of council CCTV spending between 2007 and 2011 (covered by my colleague Sade Laja on Guardian Government Computing) is even more interesting when combined with population numbers. Obviously, camera spending per capita is not a perfect measure, as some areas clearly have security needs beyond those of their immediate populations. This would help to explain why Westminster is the biggest spender per head of population: £46.75 over the last four years, compared to a UK average of £8.27.

But that doesn’t explain why Tamworth is second, spending £43.24 over the same period. The council’s recent spending data (PDF) refers to ‘CCTV camera renewals’, but it’s unlikely to be the only council buying new cameras in this four-year period. It did win a CCTV team of the year award in 2009, however.

Map removed as Google Fusion Tables no longer works.

Four councils spent between £30 and £40 per person over the four year period: Cambridge (£39.57), Weymouth and Portland (£34.58), Knowsley (£30.57) and Scarborough (£30.50). Again, it’s possible that there are mitigating circumstances such as capital cost of new systems – but in each case, residents have paid around quadruple the national average for council CCTV.

Another way to look at value for money is how much councils spent over the four years per camera. This varies wildly, although some of the most extreme results have reasons: Hounslow’s apparent lavishing of £4.6m on a single camera has to be seen in the context of the fact that the London borough turned off cameras after complaints, something that Big Brother Watch praised. The top of this list has several small-scale schemes, reflecting the fact that CCTV systems have some fixed costs regardless of camera numbers.

However, on this measure Westminster’s 153 cameras, costing £77,330 each – against a national average of £9,969 – look very expensive. Among medium to large sized schemes, Croydon (£63,447), East Ayrshire (£53,213) and Scarborough (£51,756) all spent more than five times the national average per camera over the four years. It also suggests that two councils I compared in 2010 for Government Computing – Wandsworth (£4,120 for each of its 1,158 cameras) and West Oxfordshire (£11,650 for 37) – are both doing good jobs given their respective scales.

Leaving aside value for money, a final measure is the number of council CCTV cameras per 1,000 people, for which the national average is 0.83. The City of London’s 55.47 cameras per resident doesn’t take account of all the people who work there, or the area’s security needs. But second-placed Shetland (9.38 cameras per person, 210 in total – covered here by the Scottish Sun) and third-placed Eilean Siar (Western Isles, 8.02 per person, also with 210 in total) are very high, particularly given that Orkney – the other Scottish island council, with a similar population – manages to get away with just 14 cameras, 0.7 per resident.

Among big cities, as Big Brother Watch notes Leicester is very high with 6.79 cameras per person (covered by BBC News): with 2,083 it has the largest number of cameras overall. Woking and North Ayrshire both have more than five cameras per person. Already mentioned Wandsworth has four cameras per person, the highest figure in London outside the City.

What stands out from this data is the huge differences, overall and also between similar councils, on all three comparisons. While there may be mitigating reasons for some of the outliers, some councils seem to be spending much more on CCTV than is justified. Given strained council budgets, councillors in places like Tamworth, Cambridge, Westminster, Croydon, Shetland, Eilean Siar and Leicester could reasonably ask some questions.

Technical notes: the survey only covers 51,600 council CCTV – a fraction of the estimated 1.85m surveillance cameras in the UK. Even on this it is incomplete, although Big Brother Watch extracted responses from 407 of 434 councils, as well as including data from its previous research, so 99% of councils are covered to some degree.

Another factor is that this survey covers both county and district councils in the two-tier areas of England, which means some numbers are partial in those areas: a resident of West Oxfordshire paid £4.15 for the district council’s CCTV over the four years, and a further 65p for Oxfordshire’s cameras, although as a resident I am happy to note the total is still below the national average. (The most interesting numbers are anyway from unitary areas, such as London and metropolitan boroughs and councils outside England.) Finally, the map dots generally use Google’s idea of where a council is located based on its name: some have been corrected, but there may still be placing errors.