167 CCTV camera pilgrimage


Today, Good Friday, there's a pilgrimage in Westminster, from Methodist Central Hall to the Anglican Westminster Abbey, and on to the Catholic Westminster Cathedral. It's a distance of little more than a thousand yards – about three good fairway strokes for Tiger Woods – down Victoria Street. But over the years that I have worked nearby, I've noticed CCTV cameras springing up here and there along the route. In my book, The Rotten State of Britain, I have documented how we are sleepwalking into a surveillance state (not to mention a database state and a nanny state). So I decided to trace the route myself and count the number of CCTV cameras that I could see.

I started at the North door of the Abbey. I couldn't see any cameras on this magnificent building, though a notice by the door alerts tourists to the fact that CCTV is used inside. As I gaze across Parliament Square, and up the bottom end of Whitehall, with Parliament behind me, I must be on scores. But my eyesight isn't great, and I don't want to whip out my binoculars and start scanning the Treasury and other government buildings, in case I get arrested and held for 21 days without charge as a terrorist. Nor can I cross the Square and take a closer look, because it's full of Tamil demonstrators.

But I can see 8 very easily on the new Supreme Court building, another 6 or so on the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, and even two over the entrance of the Abbey bookshop. Thank goodness they didn't disfigure Nicholas Hawksmoor's fabulous West Front with them.

Strolling over the road I find Central Hall pretty well camera-free too, though I know there are some round the bank, and from here I can see 5 down Tothill Street and another 3 on the Treasury building at the end of Storey's Gate. On the other side of Victoria Street, I can see 2 on the Schools Department, and the Department of Business seems particularly anxious about its security, because on this side alone in sports and impresive 11.

As you would expect, when you pass Scotland Yard you are under the gaze of dozens, either on the building itself or on the lampposts outside. I count 18 on the two sides I can see, but there are almost as many at the back. I'm halfway down my route now, and the count has already passed 100.

Past the Albert pub with a very artistic looking CCTV camera pretending to be a streetlight, I can see the Korean Embassy, which boasts another 6, and the Howick Place Post Office, with a modest 1 being visible. But the Ministry of Justice has four heavy-duty cameras with floodlights that look as if they can be swivelled in any direction to meet the need of the hour.

Ashdowne House, which is home to another bit of BERR, is also very security conscious for some reason, with another 6. And at last I'm turning into the marvellous forecourt of the Cathedral. Looking down Victoria Street, I make out 7 on the Kingsgate shopping arcade, 3 on a large pole at the end of the street, and 6 more that seem to be for traffic management. As I reach the Cathedral steps I look back I can see another 9 cameras. And maybe there are more inside the building itself, staring out at me, I don't know.

All in all, I have counted 167 CCTV cameras in my short three-drive walk. I've probably missed a lot more that my poor eyesight and my anxiety to avoid arrest have caused me to miss. And the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ridicules the idea that we are living in a police state!