Fortress Britain: urban design politics gets the NEF treatment

The New Economics Foundation has published a paper entitled Fortress Britain by Anna Minton and Jody Aked, which essentially laments the militarisation of architecture and urban design in the UK. Given the paper’s provenance it may come as a surprise that it is not hilariously awful. Anna Minton is kind of an idiot; the NEF is indisputably London’s most dismal think-tank, a veritable nest of idiots. Aked obviously transcends her colleagues. But not by much. It’s still pretty awful.

It starts with – and is basically predicated on – a claim that “although crime has been falling steadily since 1995, the vast majority believe it is rising”, citing an Ipsos Mori report of 2007.

 Why is a paper published in 2013 using data that is now half a decade old? I mean, I know why: Minton used the figure in her 2009 book, and hasn’t bothered updating it. However, the Office of National Statistics released newer figures on the perception of crime in 2011 – figures which are more pertinent to built environment issues because they cover perception of crime at the local level. Apparently most people still believe that crime is rising nationally, but at local level only a minority of people believe that crime is going up.

This doesn’t invalidate their argument, but when the first substantive paragraph makes sweeping statements based on old or invalid statistics, you know you’re in classic NEF territory.

Their next claim: “High security is a now pre-requisite of planning permission for all new developments, through a government backed design policy called Secured by Design.” “Planning permission for all public buildings, housing and schools is now contingent on meeting Secured by Design standards.”

‘Secured by Design’ is a commercial security certification for buildings run by the sort-of-commercial Association of Chief Police Officers.

The NEF argument (for the moment… for a very short paper, it tends to contradict itself an awful lot) is that these security standards are compulsory. This was because of Margaret Thatcher, obvs.

If there are any planners who want to correct me go ahead, but I don’t think this is legally the case. There was a government consultation last year on whether “voluntary” security standards should be replaced by a mandatory code, but as far as I know the cost-benefit analysis suggested that regulation wouldn’t be effective.

There may be planning authorities who have written the standards into their design codes, but I don’t think it is part of national regulation.

Hyperbole/lie/error. Whatever. In any case, the paper kind of goes on to admit that there are other motivations at work: “increased levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards attract lower industry premiums. In turn, developers market higher security and lower insurance as a bonus and in a virtuous [sic] circle sell properties for higher prices.”

 Note the suggestion that people like these features so much they will pay more for them. In a paper arguing that security interventions make residents sad and angry, that’s a pretty striking admission.

I’ve also seen the standards appear in design and access statements by developers in order to persuade councillors that they are achieving “social sustainability”. For example: “the development shall aim to achieve Secured by Design ‘Developer’s Award’ to reduce crime and adverse effects on neighbours by good design and good practice in construction and operation.”

OK, so they are not, as originally claimed, compulsory. But it’s still happening because it makes insurers and councillors and potential buyers happy.

And yeah, I hate it. I’m a delicate liberal, who is sensitive about such things, and live in Hackney, the CCTV capital of the world. Figures from the GLA Lib Dems (a few years old, admittedly, but I doubt the comparative picture has changed) give a borough comparison: Hackney had 1484 public cameras. Neighbouring Islington (Lib Dem run, at the time), had 202. Merton a relatively unobtrusive 58. Even Barking and Dagenham only had 104.

There is no great effect of the camera-differential on relative crime levels. In fact, the actual preventative effect of various security interventions on local crime would be an interesting thing to look at. The NEF paper doesn’t bother. Whatever the effect on crime levels, what they are interested in is the knock-on effect on social capital and neighbourly trust. I would imagine that if burglaries and stabbings, or rapes and prostitution, went up locally as a result of scrapping physical interventions, social trust would deteriorate more than the warm feeling of liberty would compensate for, but whatever, we’ll let them run with it.

Minton and/or Aked interviewed a couple of people in Pimlico about security measures on their estate:

“Because of the doors, if you see someone you don’t know, there is an element of ‘who is this’?”

“Sometimes CCTV makes me feel even more anxious.”

 But the majority of the quotes from residents and security practitioners that they cite don’t even support the paper’s conclusions:

 A ‘practitioner’ (ie neighbourhood management, estate services, community safety, youth services and outdoor space) said:

“On one of our challenging estates…we’ve increased, like tripled the CCTV over the last three years but they still want more CCTV, they want it monitored 24 hours a day because the perception is where there’s CCTV things don’t happen. And also I think it’s a question of, ‘We need CCTV.’ ‘You’ve got CCTV.’ ‘Well, we need more. It needs to be located in a different place.’ But CCTV’s not the answer.”

 “Because I think I’m in a bad area, I get into a panic sometimes because, for one, you’re not sure the cameras are working.” (a resident)

“It’s the first thing they say about trouble on the estate and [about] security problems the comment is normally, ‘we need some CCTV, that would be the end of our problems.’” (another ‘practitioner’)

Having campaigned with Lib Dem councillors and candidates, I found that people do actually love security interventions of the types described. People on the Market Estate were over the moon when the undergrowth was swept away, meaning that prostitutes no longer hissed at them from the bushes. They like their new block security doors. As the NEF paper admits, and whether effective or not, people do want CCTV. They like it.

We need to have a discussion about militarisation of building design and the mis-sold effectiveness of CCTV. When security professionals are given too much power in building design they go overboard – which is needlessly expensive and alienating to a specific sort of person (including me and Anna Minton), and, maybe worst of all, just plain ugly. The effectiveness of these measures does not seem to have been systematically tested.

This is at least part of that conversation. It’s not a worthwhile part because of the intellectual laziness born of its characteristic Not Economics Foundation nonsense. Soz.

But in the short term, elect councillors with some concern about civil liberties why don’t you?

Published in: on January 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review – Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City

Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City. Anna Minton, Penguin 2009

This book control covers an intensely important issue in modern British life: the alienation of public spaces from the public.  However, it is not a good book.  It’s the kind of book you sometimes see quoted in Guardian comment pieces as if Minton were an expert on the subject (which she is patently not) and the book proves a point (which it entirely fails to do).

And the primary complaint is true.  One can’t even picnic near major London landmarks without being moved on by council wardens. You can’t take photographs in the street without being harassed by the police. Urban designers and traffic planners are engaged to make public places physically inaccessible and unpleasant. Public highways are sold to private companies, who get to make and enforce new rules beyond the law. This is important stuff. Sadly, this is a basically lazy and incurious little book, written fairly badly by a journalist who hasn’t mastered long-form writing.

There is one good section: a straightforward journalistic account of the last Labour government’s scandalous ‘pathfinder’ scheme of housing demolitions, which bulldozed houses on behalf of property developers without giving the displaced communities proper recompense.

Anna Minton is a journalist, and as such she has picked up a lot of bad habits that make her attempt at a long-form wholly annoying to read. The standard technique of the newspaper commentariat is to write 500 words consisting of: statement of thesis, personal anecdote, supportive quote from ‘authoritative source’, restatement of thesis. Five-hundred words, all done. Minton’s book repeats this formula over and over.

She is also lazy like many journalists are lazy. There isn’t a single original thought here. There is no attempt to connect the disparate issues covered together with anything other than Minton’s preexisting and unexamined prejudices.

She also writes with the very distinctively Guardianey tone of a person writing about social problems and the poor from the comfort of a Tuscan villa. Indeed, most of the policy recommendations, such as they are, come from her experiences of living in a Milanese apartment, dining by the Grand canal in Venice and on Roman piazzas, and holidaying in various European capitals.

And while she waxes lyrical about her holiday memories (without ever examining them in detail), it is pretty clear that she never really bothered visiting the places in the UK she writes about.

It just so happens that she uses my own neighbourhood in East London as one of her examples. She describes a new shopping mall in Stratford as being an alien imposition on the landscape, unavailable and unused by local people. But she didn’t survey shoppers to find out where they were from. I don’t think she even visited – her description of ‘high-end’ retail ‘out of reach of local people’ doesn’t match the standard high street offer of the mall. She writes about sitting by the canal in Venice, lamenting that she “couldn’t do this in England”. Had she walked a few minutes along the Regents Canal or Lea Navigation from the aforementioned mall, she could have found dozens of places to do just that, whether hipster coffee shops at Fish Island, barge-cafes in Mile End, or old Clapton boozers.

At one point the book turns from lazy to disgraceful. She spends pages detailing the travails of a family in London and their attitudes to crime. One of the family members looks out from his gated community across the Isle of Dogs and trembles in fear of the locals. Another struggles to find a builder who is willing to remove the security features her flat came installed with. The older members of the family read the Daily Mail and fret about the crime rate. BUT THEN, after pages of this, Minton writes: “they are, of course, a fictitious family which I invented to illustrate [my thesis].”  This was supposed to be non-fiction. It made me wonder what other ‘interviewees’ were invented too.

Most of it is just rehashed commentariat talking points about ASBOs and criticism of the right-wing media. No attempt is made to link these to the built-environment issues supposedly at the core of the book. Because that would require both original research and original thought, things which Minton is apparently incapable of.

Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm  Comments (2)  
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