[updated] ANPR camera rollout across Birmingham city centre commences

ANPR on Broad Street - citybound direction

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have already noticed unmarked black gantries appearing in several areas of Birmingham over the past week or so. Some have already gone up in Digbeth, and from informal discussion with contractors installing the gantries today it appears that there are at least 10 more to go. Today (Monday), two gantries were erected at the top of Broad Street (the Five Ways end), one overlooking each direction of traffic. These gantries will shortly be outfitted with ANPR cameras – so for all you Vehicle Excise Duty, car insurance evaders and generally Naughty People, Broad Street and Digbeth high street (amongst other areas) are soon to officially become No Go Zones.

Update, August 2009: these gantries are now fitted with ANPR cameras – the reason you might not see them is because they are really small! If you look at the gantries closely, there’s one or two ‘lumps’ on each one – those are the cameras. Your travel in and out of the city, including dates, times and durations of journeys, are now being logged by Central Government. Enjoy.

According to sources at Birmingham City Council, the cameras themselves are not under their management or jurisdiction as West Midlands Police undertake day-to-day operational responsibility (with much of the central gantries set to be operated from of their Steelhouse Lane station). However, Birmingham City Council’s CCTV department can supervise and control the CCTV cameras being fitted alongside some of the gantries. 

Personally, I am in two minds to the introduction of ANPR to the city centre (as I am sure many others are)… My car is comprehensively insured, fully taxed and I hold a full UK driving licence. Any reasonable road user expects every other driver and car owner to behave in a similarly responsible manner – so I am incredibly angry when I find that someone is either driving whilst uninsured, untaxed or without a valid driving licence.

Now, while the ANPR system is excellent for catching those who are breaking the law, I am not sure that the introduction of yet more automated monitoring is a good idea. The tricky question is, where does one draw the line with camera-based monitoring systems? I have heard the gradual ingress and creep of CCTV and monitoring systems described as ‘death by a thousand cuts’; The Guardian recently published a fascinating piece on this topic, and it’s available to read online (and I suggest you do).

A theoretical argument in favour of allowing more and more cameras is “well, we already have so many cameras, why not just install some more? It’s not like it would make much of a difference.” ANPR has some excellent applications in the fields of proactive detection of illegal drivers; one watch of almost any episode of Road Wars or Police Interceptors will show the ANPR systems are used often (to very good effect) and increasingly relied upon as well. I have no problem with this, because it catches those who think they are somehow different from all other road users and by doing so inevitably raise the cost of driving for every other law-abiding person. However, by contrast a cynic might argue that the introduction of ANPR gantries to areas of the city centre opens the door for ‘upgrades’ to SPECs cameras for average speed monitoring, as opposed to vanilla ANPR equipment. At that point, Birmingham could potentially become a city of forcibly imposed speed limits, just as Nottingham has become, with city-wide networks of ANPR cameras and both 30 and 20mph zones.

Over the past year or so, there has also been an increase in reports of some London boroughs imposing fines on drivers remotely, via CCTV-observed infractions of comparatively minor traffic laws… The subsequent ticket and demand for payment of the fine being sent to the driver in the post, based on their information being obtained through the DVLA from their vehicle’s number plates. While this may not happen in Birmingham for some time given the comparative paucity of CCTV cameras specifically for monitoring city centre traffic flow, there remain a number of rather glum possibilities.

One of the most paranoia-inducing theories is that the SPECs trigger speed might be intentionally set lower than on current implementations, resulting in an inflated number of drivers receiving penalty points and large fines for exceeding the speed limit by as little as two or three mph. If this were to happen, I am sure many would condone it as both extremely poor policing and a particularly sneaky, devious way of profiting from honest road users. Fortunately, for that the camera network would have to first be upgraded from ANPR to SPECs, involving a degree of maintenance work, and then operational control would need to be transferred to the West Midlands’ Safety Camera Partnership - and I am sure those developments would be well documented in the regional press were they to take place.

For the time being, based on the information I have to hand at this time, these gantries are ostensibly to remain solely as ANPR gantries for monitoring of traffic flows, detection of lawbreakers and, by extension (because it is the elephant in the room) detection of terrorists using the UK’s road network. I did request some more specifics from West Midlands Police via their Press department relating to the planned rollout timetable and provisional completion date, but as of 6pm I had not received a reply. If I receive any more information, I will update this piece accordingly.

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  1. An ANPR system like this will give a measure of the number of untaxed / uninsured cars on the road – but without there being a mechanism in place to prevent that vehicle from continuing it’s journey – it’s useless, especially so if the vehicle is not registered to the current keeper.

    I’m also wondering how long it will be before someone says ‘we have a system in place that could be used for city centre congestion charging, all we need do is add a billing system and we have it’.

  2. Considering the scope of monitoring which is already in place (both overt and covert), it’s surprising that this hasn’t been covered more by major media.

    Or maybe it’s not…

    The Statebook site which has recently sprung up has lots of very revealing information which helps tie together otherwise disparate systems, and it’s recommended reading for anyone who’s not familiar with the sheer scope of surveillence we’re already subject to: http://www.statebook.co.uk/location.html

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