Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Welcome to the jungle

A little while ago, I was standing out in someone’s back garden as the sun set. It was a lovely, crisp early evening – the kind when sophisticated minds turn to cricket on the village green, or leisurely strolls around the local park. Unfortunately, this was a decidedly insalubrious area, full of people who can be accused of many things but definitely not sophistication. On this particular evening, a group of heavily intoxicated neds staggered up one of those awful 1960s footpaths that run behind people’s garden fences, violently attacking every streetlight they passed until each was plunged into darkness. Mission accomplished, and with the lane now an unprepossessing mugger’s charter, they wove their way into the distance, shouting unrepeatable sectarian abuse at nobody in particular.

So far, so Broken Britain, you might think. However, five minutes later, something extraordinary happened. In the sequence in which they’d been extinguished, each streetlight began to flicker faintly, then more strongly, then came back on with a feeble light and gradually brightened until it had regained its full potency. So remarkable was this Lazarus-like comeback that I and my fellow lamp-watchers cheered loudly when the final one defiantly resumed the job of protecting local residents from feral youths.

We soon realised that this was no accident. We presume – and please post a comment below if you know better - that the lamp posts had been engineered to shut down in the event of being attacked, before coming back on a few minutes later when the danger had passed. Which begs a question: is it really necessary to ned-proof such mundane objects, and if so, what does that say about parts of the country we live in, when manufacturers have to integrate vandal-proof safety mechanisms into their street lighting?

In truth, the town where this incident occurred is the sort of place where self-repairing utilities make a lot of sense. Posting a letter after final collection used to be fraught with risk because people sometimes set fire to post boxes, thereby rendering their contents undeliverable. Having your car broken into or vandalised was commonplace (particularly if it was a certain colour), and muggings and assaults were daily occurences, as were crimes against property and what we generically describe as acts of anti-social behaviour. As a result, much of this town had been engineered to withstand assault, quite apart from those remarkable lampposts. Every shop had protective grills over its windows. The eminently breakable glass in traffic lights was replaced with shatterproof coloured plastic discs. People grew trees and bushes to prevent youths congregating along their boundary walls. Shop workers parked outside the police station rather than their stores, to deter thefts. Security lights and CCTV cameras were everywhere, sometimes encased in mesh boxes to prevent burglars disabling them. It seemed like a constant game of cat-and-mouse between engineers and the underclass, and the battle contiunes to this day.

I wonder sometimes whether this continual advancement of anti-crime techniques ever really achieves anything. The presence of CCTV encourages criminals to cover their faces. People barred from loitering outside one off-licence simply migrate to another. Installing spiked metal fencing along footpaths not only inspires burglars to find another point of entry, but it also looks bloody awful. And as Londoners discovered two summers ago, protective shop window screens may deter a well-aimed bottle, but they’re no match for a protracted assault from looters.

An IT guru once told me that every secure server or encrypted file can be hacked, and every password can be decoded. In much the same way, hardcore troublemakers will overcome great obstacles in their pursuit of making other people’s lives a misery. So are we really making ourselves more secure with all these solutions to (and preventions of) criminality, or are we simply comforting ourselves with the illusion of safety? I fear the latter, and I suspect it will require prevention rather than cures to make people sleep soundly in their beds at night - particularly in areas like the estate with the self-repairing street lamps.

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