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Dodging the axe: how to protect your CCTV service in the age of austerity

We had a very successful CCTV Question Time session last week with about 25 members of the CCTV User Group, and we wanted to share some of the outcomes from that discussion.

Like all of our Question Time sessions, it was not recorded and it was conducted under the Chatham House Rule to allow everyone to speak freely.

We started by sharing some preliminary results from our survey of CCTV managers. If you haven’t done so already, please take a few moments to complete the survey and help us understand how budget cuts are impacting CCTV.

Key takeaways from the results of the survey so far were:

  • Almost everyone was delivering additional services as part of their CCTV operations but some were delivering far more than others

  • Average revenue (operating) budget was £426,000/year

  • 32% of respondents are currently experiencing budget cuts with 75% of those being permanent, year on year reductions

  • Very few respondents were generating income from penalty charge notices (PCNs)

  • Average police downloads of video evidence per year: 429

  • Average cost per download (back of the envelope calculation based on budgets versus downloads): £1,472 (admittedly, a very rough calculation)

  • 50% of respondents said budget cuts would substantially impact their system

  • 91% agreed that CCTV should be a statutory service for local authorities

  • 83% agreed that there should be a council tax precept to fund CCTV

There was a strong feeling in the comments section of the survey that police were a major beneficiary of CCTV which would justify local authority systems receiving a larger share of the overall public ‘law enforcement’ budget, whether that was via police and crime commissioners (PCCs) or through direct grants from central government.

To view the slide presentation, click here: CCTV funding survey responses.

This was followed by a presentation by our director Peter Webster on “How and why to convert your CCTV control room into a security operations centre (SOC)”. This builds on the work that some control rooms are doing to offer a greater range of services, both to internal customers (eg, out of hours customer service, remote alarm monitoring for vehicle depots and lone-worker monitoring) and external customers (eg, alarm activated remote CCTV monitoring, intruder alarm monitoring and Shopwatch/Pubwatch).

Transforming your control room into a SOC is partly technical but also requires a change in mindset. Calling it a ‘CCTV control room’ fails to acknowledge the wider community benefits such services provide. The key is to imagine what you could do with existing resources (including staff, premises and computer infrastructure) to generate income for your system. It also opens the door to partnering with neighbouring local authorities and re-establishes the old CCTV centre as a core of operations, allowing you to service optional and some statutory obligations and value-added services.

There was a lot of brainstorming and sharing of ideas in the session, but one of the big themes to emerge was the importance of sharing information and best practice with each other, a key objective of the CCTV User Group ever since it was founded.

For instance, it was suggested that local authority CCTV managers should share ideas for income generation, something that the CCTV User Group could organise. Of course, systems vary widely by size and type of operation, making it difficult to compare like with like (contrast, for instance, a big London authority with a parish council).

To achieve this, it was suggested we have a pro forma asking basic questions about the system to help categorise them by budget, system size and number of staff as well as tips for revenue raising so managers could more easily see what worked for comparable systems to them. From this could emerge a menu of practical ideas which would deliver clearly defined benefits to CCTV systems and local councils.

One participant asked if income generation was allowed under the Local Government Act. The answer, based on the experience of our contributors, was yes, it was allowed provided that the council did not actively undercut comparable services in the local market.

Another participant asked if there were any ideas for income generation for their system which is 80% staffed by volunteers. Being unable to guarantee 24/7 coverage, they might struggle to come up with services they could offer – but this would be the purpose of a sharing database, to provide managers like this with a source of ideas from comparable sized systems.

A key issue for CCTV systems is ensuring that the budget to monitor and maintain the system survives the financial axe. The top tip for dealing with this was to ensure your system is seen as ‘indispensable’. How? By proactively ensuring that the CCTV system is aligned with council priorities. This means looking at new and existing programmes in the council with a view to how the control centre – or SOC as Peter would prefer to call it! – can support them. This might be acting as a call centre or help desk, monitoring alarms or IT systems or operating remote systems. By becoming an essential part of another department’s service, you automatically gain a champion in that department who may help defend you against budget cuts.

If you achieve success, there’s no point in hiding your light under a bushel (to use a very old expression!). Develop a communications strategy for your service. Your goal is not just to communicate your successes to a general audience but ultimately to target and influence the senior leadership team. There are many ways to deliver your message to them such as internal newsletters, local press and social media. Don’t underrate the impact of social media because elected members love success stories, and if they share them on Facebook or Twitter, you can be sure the senior leadership team will take note.

Another idea to come out of the session was peer review. This works in business and local government as a supportive framework for sharing best practice in myriad areas, not just CCTV. Managers from, say, three councils would conduct a site visit to a fourth site and offer their professional opinions and suggestions for improvements in line with local objectives. Managers who were the beneficiaries of these visits would return the favour, not only instilling their expertise but also gaining a broader view of CCTV operations in other contexts.

Another suggestion for making your control room more like a SOC – and more indispensable – was to develop an intelligence gathering capability, to help create an early warning system for potential trouble. This is a well developed practice in cybersecurity, and involves monitoring open sources of intelligence, the media, social media and even the dark web to flag up potential threats.

Looking ahead to the day when CCTV does become a statutory service or enjoys a greater share of the law enforcement budget, one participant asked how we might create a funding formula to determine a benchmark for council spending or government grants. Perhaps this could be based on incidents of crime per thousand population and/or numbers of installed and monitored CCTV cameras. Any funding formula would have to have a capital and revenue component, of course, raising additional questions about how this might be divided between central and local government.

A noted trend in CCTV is the increasing monitoring of cameras by the police. Some police forces are offering an outsourced monitoring service for local authorities but this raises a number of concerns:

  • Police objectives do not necessarily align with council objectives. In fact, this is almost a given as police are driven by performance metrics which may favour detection of one type of crime over another and largely disregard low-level crime and anti-social behaviour.

  • Police won’t perform the range of extra functions that a council would be able to offer if it were to pursue the SOC model. As the system is increasingly seen as separate and divorced from the local authority, it’s value lessens, perhaps leading to a downward spiral and ultimate closure of the system.

We were delighted with the quality of ideas and discussion that came out of this CCTV Question Time discussion. The format seems to work well, and we have been fortunate to find good contributors to help lead them.

We would like to thank our two guest contributors for this session:

  • Tracy Umney is Unit Manager for Environment and Community Protection, Regulatory Services, London Borough of Southwark

  • Jason Owen is Deputy Control Room Manager, Housing and Regeneration, serving Richmond and Wandsworth Councils, making it one of the biggest CCTV systems in London

And also a big thank you to Members of the CCTV User Group who brought their questions and comments. We will definitely run more of these in the future.


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