Record response to plan for Heath CCTV

OPINION is sharply divided over police use of CCTV on Hampstead Heath. Some support the surveillance scheme aimed at beating crime over the popular summer months but others remain opposed to being 'spied on' in one of London's secluded beauty spot

Ed Thomas

OPINION is sharply divided over police use of CCTV on Hampstead Heath. Some support the surveillance scheme aimed at beating crime over the popular summer months but others remain opposed to being 'spied on' in one of London's secluded beauty spots.

News of the mobile military technology was revealed last week by the Ham&High, sparking a flurry of interest from the public and civil liberty and gay rights groups.

Speaking this week Tony Hillier, chairman of the Heath and Hampstead Society, said: "I can see how CCTV works when there are crowds of people, so it might have its uses on Parliament Hill where schoolchildren congregate, or at the fairs we have on the Heath.

"If it is being used in popular areas where there have been outbreaks of crime, then using cameras might be defensible for collecting evidence which is otherwise difficult to gather.

"But in the more isolated parts of the Heath, there is a risk of infringing privacy. Cameras may destroy the quiet, secluded nature of the Heath. I would be dead against speculative spying. It is important to draw the line between that and genuinely looking out for people's safety."

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The story attracted a record numbers of internet 'hits' on the Ham&High website, with more than 7,000 people reading our revelations on

Bob Hall, chairman of the Hampstead Heath Management Committee for the City of London Corporation, was quick to allay fears. Writing to the editor this week, he insists the purpose of the camera is not to 'spy' on people and it will not be used covertly. He also says there are no plans to use the surveillance on the West Heath, known as a cruising spot for gay men.

"We want the Heath to be crime-free. The hope is that with reasonable, overt and sensible use, modern technology will contribute to achieving that."

His comments are at odds with those of Richard Gentry, manager of the Heath Constabulary, who last week said the camera will be used anywhere on the Heath where crime is a problem.

The West Heath has seen a number of vicious muggings over the years, as men are coaxed into sexual encounters before being stripped of their possessions or beaten up.

Crime chiefs are keen for the technology to be used to tackle crimes such as anti-social behaviour among schoolchildren around Parliament Hill. But they are also aware of the public's concerns.

Nigel Steward, chairman of the Hampstead Safer Neighbourhood Panel, said: "We have raised these issues. The Heath Constabulary has said CCTV will offer flexibility in overseeing the whole of the Heath.

"I am concerned about the general issue of security on the Heath, and I am happy for anything to be introduced that helps. I want the public to be protected, and anything which limits the risks is to be encouraged.

"However, that should not be done in a covert manner. We realise the gay community in particular has concerns, and we would encourage Camden's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum to come to our meetings and to work with us."

The public interest in the story comes the same week a senior police officer branded the government's investment in CCTV an "utter fiasco".

Chief Inspector Mike Neville, who works with image identification at Scotland Yard, said only three per cent of street robberies in London are solved using surveillance.

"A top police officer said today cameras haven't reduced crime. People come to the park to be private, to have romantic moments. It takes the edge off life. To have someone sitting in an office watching me feels that it takes away the fun part of my day."

Owen Beiny, 30 and a journalist from England's Lane.

"It's an Orwellian nightmare. Fewer people will come here. People who cause trouble will get to know about it and move on. All our freedom is being sucked out of us. It costs two million for a home here - there isn't that much crime in this area."

Rachel Fordham, 17 from West Hampstead and a pupil at the Royal School.

"I think it's a horrible idea, spying on people. It's all about control. I'm really shocked to hear about it. There isn't that much crime on the Heath, is there? Sometimes you get the odd weirdo - why don't they sort that out instead of getting involved in people's private business."

Electra Baller-enis, 50, an actress from Regent's Park Road.

"Sometimes it's important there is some presence, but not cameras... at the end of the day if you're doing nothing wrong you've got nothing to fear.

As a gay person I think the West Heath scene should be deterred. It's dangerous. They should clean up the area."

Neil Hulme, 26 and a barman from South Hill Park.