Not long ago, Manchester City Council laid on a coach tour for policy experts. As we swept into an estate in a deprived part of the city, the whole coachload gasped and the tour guide exclaimed in shock. The square in the centre of the estate was surrounded by 30 foot high spiked railings and the council building at one end resembled a militarised fortress, writes Anna Minton.
This is a particularly extreme example but today all our public buildings, including schools, hospitals and housing, come with high levels of security which are transforming the nature of the environment around us. At the same time fear of crime and concerns about safety and security are at an all-time high. Although crime has been falling steadily since 1995, the vast majority believe it is rising.
High security is a now prerequisite of planning permission for all new developments, through the government-backed design policy, Secured by Design, which is aimed at housing, town centre development and public buildings, from schools to hospitals. While this includes sensible recommendations, such as the need for adequate locks on doors and windows, the application of Secured by Design standards tends to create very high security environments which can appear threatening. For example, a gated development in east London, which won a Secured by Design award, was commended for its small windows, reinforced steel door with full size iron gate and grey aluminium military-style roof.
Schools, in particular, have become high security environments, emphasizing gating, high fences and CCTV. Because Secured by Design requirements for schools and public buildings are based on an audit of local crime risk, higher crime areas, which tend to correlate with higher deprivation scores, are now characterised by public buildings, like the council building in Manchester, with a militarised feel to them. At the same time, greater concentrations of social housing, built to Secured by Design standards, tend to cluster in deprived areas. The unintended consequence is that fortress levels of security are now a visual marker for poor parts of Britain and a contemporary feature throughout the landscape.
Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London
The ideological roots of Secured by Design lie in American theories around defensible space which filtered into British policy making circles during the 1980s. Secured by Design, which started life in 1989, is the British version of the American policy Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). Like CPTED, it led to police officers being trained as crime prevention design advisers, known as Architectural Liaison Officers. It has also created design standards and an awards scheme and today its influence is considerable as planning permission for all public buildings, housing and schools is now contingent on meeting Secured by Design standards.
Although it is administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers, Secured by Design is now an independent private company, funded by the 480 security companies which sell products which qualify for Secured by Design standards.
In 2004, Secured by Design standards for schools were introduced in the UK, coinciding with the New Labour government’s large school-building programme. The starting point for Secured by Design in schools and public buildings is a crime risk assessment, which is carried out for the local area to determine quite how high a level of security is needed. While high fences, walls or other “effective barriers” are a prerequisite for any school, the crime risk assessment indicates where additional security measures are necessary. The consequence of this approach is that as higher crime areas tend to be poor, or to have pockets of poverty, deprived neighbourhoods are now characterised by schools – and other public buildings such as council offices – which come with fortress levels of security.
It is important to note that increased security measures are not a matter for debate but are now “standards” which must be met. Indeed, the granting of a Secured by Design certificate depends not only on creating a secure teaching environment but also on reducing the school’s carbon footprint. This reveals the extent to which Secured by Design is now institutionalised, as much a part of conventional orthodoxy as carbon reduction.
The 480 security companies which are entitled to display the Secured by Design logo on their products are part of a burgeoning private security industry, which is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK. In addition, according to Secured by Design director Alan McInness, the initiative is strongly backed by the insurance industry, with the increasing levels of security offered by the standards attracting lower insurance premiums. In turn, developers market higher security and lower insurance as a bonus and in a virtuous circle sell properties for higher prices. American commentators describe this as the “FIRE” economy, which is an acronym for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate, which brings developers, house builders and the insurance and security industries together by offering lower insurance premiums for properties with high security.
The Peabody Estate in Pimlico, London
The consequence of this dynamic is that developers become locked into the FIRE economy, even when they do not want to create high security environments. According to a developer with the property company Argent, which is behind the new 67-acre private estate at King’s Cross in London, the company wanted to create a low security environment in the squares and open spaces of the site, but private security was a requirement of the insurance. Housing and schools face a similar dilemma: the practitioners we talked to as part of this research frequently described struggles to avoid meeting Secured by Design requirements, which they saw as onerous and unnecessary. “We spend all our time fighting with them because they want to put up huge grilles everywhere. There’s a lot of pressure to put in measures,” said one developer.
In a research project linked to this report, we studied a recent housing development in Pimlico built by the Peabody Trust. A member of Peabody's development team described how she struggled to resist demands from the Secured by Design crime prevention officer to permanently gate the entrance to Peabody Avenue. In order to avoid this Peabody had to commission a three-month study of two-storey archways throughout Westminster, at a cost of £20,000. Only when this study revealed that two storey archways were not crime hot spots did the crime prevention officer relent. Secured by Design has “got some sensible things in it”, she told us, “but it suffers from an unimaginative interpretation of what’s going on. It’s very much a tick-box.”
Secured by Design creates a set of standards which, rather like Health and Safety, must be met. According to Alan McInness, one of the initial drivers for the take up of Secured by Design was the enthusiasm from the insurance and construction industries for consistent standards regarding crime prevention. McInness revealed the Housing Corporation (the former social housing regulator) was more interested in promoting Secured by Design to get a standard of product than to reduce crime. This desire for universal standards has led to Secured by Design, and the high security environment it brings with it, becoming an entrenched part of the security, insurance and construction industries.
In turn, these industries reinforce the principles of Secured by Design by encouraging the sale of commercial security products. While this may be good for growth in these sectors, it diverts attention from alternative solutions that are not based on security products. McInnes readily agreed that the ‘informal guardianship’ figures of the past, such as live-in caretakers, created a cohesion in communities that was now sorely missed. But he conceded that, because of its operational model, Secured by Design would be unlikely to encourage their re-introduction.
The more worrying aspects of Secured by Design, such as the militarisation of poor areas and the roll-out of CCTV in schools, are almost certainly unintended consequences of the policy. McInness claims he is shocked by the spread of CCTV in schools and says he hopes that it is not a consequence of recommendations made by Architectural Liaison Officers. But the danger is that all parties are now locked into a pattern of thinking which puts security first, fuelled – almost invisibly – by an alliance of market forces and a standards culture, with little consideration of its social footprint.
This is an extract from Fortress Britain: high security, insecurity and the challenge of preventing harm, by Anna Minton and Jody Aked and published by the New Economics Foundation. Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control