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The Virtual Re-make of High-Rise Housing

The Virtual Re-make of High-Rise Housing



Since the November 1998 Newsletter a number of important developments have taken place. Firstly, the majority of interviews have been completed. A few remain but most time is now taken up analysing transcripts and other evidence. To give readers an idea of the overall shape of the project a large Case Study Table is included at the bottom of this page. No doubt, there will be discrepancies and errors. Keeping in mind that some data is purposely calculated (to enable comparison), it would be appreciated if readers could inform me of any mistakes. The Table shows the great variety of systems in operation but also a tendency toward wage/cost reductions and ever remoter systems.

Secondly, the Media/Press have taken a great interest in the research. After a conference in January articles appeared in several newspapers (more details given on back page), leading to items in magazines and on radio. Some items where pretty inaccurate in their reporting but the publicity produced a stream of enquiries, including ones from Canada and Germany. CCTV is nowhere near as prevalent in other countries as in Britain. While such interest in CCTV overlooks the many other interesting aspects of concierge systems, it indicates the emphasis currently being given to CCTV (specifically by governments) as some kind of panacea. As most readers will acknowledge, operating CCTV effectively is nowhere near as 'simplistic' as the government seems to think! The main issues are: (a) whether or not the commitment to buying equipment will be backed up with sustained investment in staffing and regulation - without which there will be little confidence in systems; and (b), would money be better spent on other things? Indeed, is there enough discussion about such expenditure at present?

Brian McGrail,
(The Virtual Remake of High-Rise Housing: Electronic Technology and Social Space)

21st June 1999


Government to Plough 153m into CCTV for Housing Estates

The idea that CCTV reduces crime on housing estates received massive backing from the government last month. Hilary Armstrong, the Housing Minister for England & Wales, in conjunction with the Home Office is committing 153m to introduce and expand CCTV systems across the country. This represents a possible 300 new systems at 500,000 each, but even more when used as 'leverage' to attract funds from private investors. Is the government justified in its optimism? Will greater CCTV coverage of estates make a real difference? The government's future plans give us the opportunity to look at some of the evidence coming out of the research with regards to how CCTV is introduced and managed. The project is also highlighting the problem of stretching resources as more estates come under the camera.


1. Housing Managers Not So Sure

The government appear to presume 'bids' for CCTV will come from enthusiastic, highly knowledgeable project commissioners and managers, with access to design experts and an idea of how future revenue (running/upkeep) costs will be met. In reality, many commissioning agencies are split over CCTV's usefulness, with local politicians more in favour of it than managers. There is also a zero-sum game being played out, with managers facing a Hobson's Choice between bidding for CCTV funds or bidding for, and getting, nothing. Looking at Table 1, it can be seen that while Case Studies 6, 8b, 9 and 10 received essentially the same technology (in 1994-6) the outcomes in terms of operating costs are variable. Tenant satisfaction also bears little relation to whether or not an estate has lots of CCTV. Case studies 5 has relatively few cameras but an effective concierge system. As the following quote, from a senior manager, demonstrates there are numerous variables to be considered and skills learnt about how to calculate and evaluate the role of the new technology:

"[A] councillor has suggested linking a deck access block, which she thinks is a problem, into the system. And I think we're now taking a step back and saying, 'Well, look, if we're thinking about doing something like this we shouldn't be doing it on an ad hoc basis but actually looking at what is feasible and whether it's cost effective. Is it the best way of dealing with this particular problem? Is the design of the block right? What is the motivation of the residents in the block to get this system in? What uses has it for them?"

Just as the government are unleashing funds for CCTV on housing estates, managers are concluding (from experience) that it simply is not suitable on every estate. Case study 8a is an expensive block to operate not because of its size (relatively small) but its awkward shape. Likewise, a top down imposition of CCTV is unlikely to spark renewed tenant interest if it was not a priority in the first place.


2. Overcoming or Chasing Social Problems?

One clear justification for CCTV is that it reduces crime. This should generate multiple savings for the government - covering police, court, social work, housing and other costs - hence its interest. There is evidence that CCTV impacts on both crime (see Table 2 at bottom of page) and the organisation of police and managers' time commitments. Such evidence is a key variable in the government's approach to CCTV. What is not always considered is the type of crime CCTV is good at tackling and the context within which changing crime levels are measured. There are, thus, alternative 'readings' of CCTV's role in crime reduction.


3. Revenue Funding

Justifying CCTV on grounds of savings, therefore, has to be balanced against operational costs. One recent estimate for running a typical town centre CCTV system was 80,000 per annum (Norris, 1998). This means that 300 new schemes will require about 24m in annual revenue funding, begging the question of 'where is this money to come from?' In town centres and on industrial estates private companies are willing to pay subscriptions in return for identifiable and measurable commercial gains. On residential CCTV projects such 'commercial' gains are not available and revenue must come from rents or taxes. Reductions in voids and relet times (although turnover remains high) are obvious sources of revenue, but they are not always sufficient to cover the full costs of CCTV operators. This leads to several developmental options: (a) cover more units with the same staff; (b) add commercial premises onto residential systems; and/or (c) add value by offering a greater range of services. The later case studies in Table 1 utilise or have considered all of these techniques. In this respect, introducing CCTV systems usually involves more than surveillance activities.

CCTV control room



4. Limits & Spread of Coverage

"I think CCTV's a good thing, but there's a limit to what it should be used for. [In our blocks] the six doors are all together and a lot of people wanted cameras on the landings because you get a lot of trouble on the landings and stairs, my point there was, 'You get a lot of trouble in the houses - do you want to put cameras in the living rooms?' I think there's a line you can't cross."

A final point, noted by this tenant, is that CCTV has limitations in terms of intensity - as well as having ethical or social limitations, such as invading privacy, which should not be forgotten about. However, interviews with concierge system designers have also indicated fears that extending the technology might undermine gains made so far. If systems fail to perform well through lack of proper staffing, the future of the technology and its suppliers are put into jeopardy. Another aspect of expanded coverage (for landlords who pool concierges costs) is that with a greater percentage of estates under CCTV, there are less tenants paying for a service they personally do not receive but, equally, higher costs to spread across the pool - with implications for rent and benefit levels.

Remote control

In conclusion…



Table 2



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Contents current at 25th August 1999