Locked in the security cycle

A few years ago, I took part in a coach tour laid on for policy experts by Manchester City Council, to look at regeneration in the city. As we swept into an estate in a particularly deprived area, the coach gasped and the tour guide exclaimed in shock. The square in the centre of the estate was surrounded by 30ft-high spiked railings and the council building at one end resembled a militarised fortress.

This experience was the inspiration for my report, to be published on November 1 by the New Economics Foundation, investigating the impact of growing levels of security on fear and trust.

The example I witnessed in Manchester is extreme but it reflects the trend today for all our public buildings, including schools, hospitals and housing, to come with unprecedented levels of security.

High security is now a prerequisite of planning permission for all new development, through a government-backed policy called Secured by Design. While the policy contains sensible recommendations – such as the need for adequate locks on doors and windows – the result of its blanket application is that new buildings are taking on a fortress-like appearance. For example, a gated development in east London which won a Secured by Design award saw the housing commended for its small windows, reinforced steel door with full-size iron gate and grey aluminium military-style roof.

Secured by Design is administered under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers and backed by the security industry, with the initiative funded by the 480 security companies that sell products meeting Secured by Design standards. It is also supported by the insurance industry, with lower premiums for the increasing levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards. In turn, developers market higher security and lower insurance as a bonus and in a virtuous circle sell properties for higher prices.

As a result of this dynamic developers become locked into a cycle, even when they do not want to create high-security environments. I discussed this with Anna Strongman, project manager at developer Argent, which is behind the new 67-acre private estate at Kings Cross in central London. She told me that Argent wanted to create a low-security environment in the squares and open spaces but that private security was a requirement of its insurance. It is the same for housing and schools, with the practitioners we talked to as part of this research frequently describing struggles to avoid what they saw as onerous and unnecessary Secured by Design requirements, which are often seen as interchangeable with health and safety standards.

“We spend all our time fighting with them because they want us to put up huge grilles everywhere. There’s a lot of pressure to put in measures,” Strongman told me.

The aim of this report is to examine the impact of increasing security on fear and trust. Although crime has been falling steadily in Britain since 1995, fear of crime is soaring and 80 per cent of the population mistakenly believes crime is rising. Fear of crime does not correlate with actual crime but with trust between people, which is being eroded by high-security environments.

As security has spread, efficiency drives have led to the removal of the benign authority figures, such as caretakers and bus conductors, who provided an informal guardianship role. Our research made it clear that these figures were universally missed by communities who felt that no amount of CCTV and gates was a substitute for “knowing people”.

One of the key drivers for this project is the dearth of evidence that Secured by Design and high security prevent fear of crime and create strong, stable communities. Of the few existing studies, an investigation into CCTV by the Scottish Office found that while people often believed CCTV would make them feel safer the opposite was true, with both crime and fear of crime rising in the area investigated. The author concluded this was because the introduction of CCTV had undermined people’s personal and collective responsibility for safety. Research has also found an “unintended consequence” of extra security can be that “symbols of security can remind us of our insecurities”, which was echoed by our experience with communities.

The problem with the blanket adoption of Secured by Design is that it is a blunt instrument incapable of adapting to complex unintended consequences. Security is a feature of the contemporary landscape, particularly in very poor and very wealthy areas, providing a visual marker of widening inequalities. Now the all-pervasive influence of this policy, inextricably meshed with the standards culture and the dynamics of the security and insurance industries, ensures this remains the contemporary orthodoxy, regardless of the consequences for fear and trust.

‘Fortress Britain’ is published by the New Economics Foundation on November 1

Anna Minton is the 1851 Royal Commission Fellow in the Built Environment

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