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Now securocrats tell you how to build a house

I have frequently noted here the obsessive fortification of the state during the last decade: how all public buildings in Britain have steadily become the opposite – closed-off, accessible only through guardrooms, by special permission.

A fascinating and frightening piece by Anna Minton in the FT Locked in the security cycle describes something I did not know. Though I had noticed a more general neurotic security obsession in new developments, I thought this was merely a matter of insurance and corporate cowardice. Some of it may be. But some of it is official coercion. Minton explains:

High security is now a prerequisite of planning permission for all new development, through a government-backed policy called Secured by Design. […]

Secured by Design is administered under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers and backed by the security industry, with the initiative funded by the 480 security companies that sell products meeting Secured by Design standards. It is also supported by the insurance industry, with lower premiums for the increasing levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards.

Beware the security-industrial complex!

Note this is enforced by state power: since the all-nationalising Attlee government of 1945-51 planning permission controls all building in Britain. It is a panopticon of the built environment, covering all significant building or alteration of building: nothing is legally done privately; nothing is legally done without prior official approval. So “a prerequisite of planning permission”, means developers comply or they don’t build. But the standards to be applied by planning officers are controlled by a ACPO – a closed professional body for senior police and civilian policing officials – and far from correcting the producer interest, as choice might, deliberately incorporate it as a driving factor.

What will we get – what are we getting – all around us? An architecture calculated to reproduce the assumptions of those in security positions and industries of what’s a good place for people to live, trade or work, for children to play or be educated. Those are assumptions about order, ‘appropriate’ persons and behaviour, the need for oversight, the nature of – and constant presence of – threat. Hence the suspicious building syndrome: you will be increasingly screened to permit entry, and watched, controlled inside the perimeter. Hard, plan-defined boundaries, rather than freely negotiated common use of space.

But look! Lots of jobs for guards and electrical maintenance crews. Compliance by large builders will make their lives easier and competition more difficult. ACPO members will find valuable consulting work. Politicians can say we live in a society with “world class” security. The execution of policy will be deemed its success. Everybody (who matters) wins. Positive feedback.

But not the only feedback loop. The authorities are not interested in contrary evidence. Public bodies and quangos are skjlled at commissioning proleptic studies, and the institution of ‘public consultation’ is highly developed as an art of obtaining affirmation for policy, but even so, there are clear signs that that official security obsession creates psychological insecurity in the populace. Minton again:

Although crime has been falling steadily in Britain since 1995, fear of crime is soaring and 80 per cent of the population mistakenly believes crime is rising. Fear of crime does not correlate with actual crime but with trust between people, which is being eroded by high-security environments. […]

One of the key drivers for this project [Minton’s forthcoming NEF-published report] is the dearth of evidence that Secured by Design and high security prevent fear of crime and create strong, stable communities. Of the few existing studies, an investigation into CCTV by the Scottish Office found that while people often believed CCTV would make them feel safer the opposite was true, with both crime and fear of crime rising in the area investigated. The author concluded this was because the introduction of CCTV had undermined people’s personal and collective responsibility for safety. Research has also found an “unintended consequence” of extra security can be that “symbols of security can remind us of our insecurities”

[my emphasis]

I would add: they also remind us of something else. The pressure for all this comes from regulatory culture. As with the fortification of the state, it reveals and propagates the intense fearfulness in authority itself. Authority is frightened of the unsupervised individual, and thinks we should be too. To recycle a phrase, they hate our freedom. The possibility that life may be lived harmlessly in divers ways is just as much anathema to a secular bureaucrat as a religious totalitarian. If rules and fear are not everywhere, we might not accept that the people who make up rules always know best.

16 comments to Now securocrats tell you how to build a house

  • What we also get is a situation where all these rules are being imposed by people who are not making any kind of economic analysis, ie costs versus benefits. Thus we end up with a situation where it is simply too expensive to actually do anything. So the economy continues to collapse.

  • Tedd

    The possibility that life may be lived harmlessly in divers ways is just as much anathema to a secular bureaucrat as a religious totalitarian.

    Guy, that has earned you a second listing in my collection of quotes, putting you in august company. Well said.

  • A superb and insightful article Guy.

  • I too thought this was fascinating, Guy.

    When I first came across the words “Secure by Design” in 2003 it was as the latest incarnation of one of the sides in a decades old war of words between statist and individualist factions in urban design.

    The funny thing is that Secure By Design was, broadly, the individualist side. Back then I don’t think it had hardened into yer actual policy; it was referred to as a “design philosophy.” One figure who influenced it was Dr Alice Coleman, who I saw speak at a Libertarian Alliance mini-conference!

    OK, these things are relative. By the time a philosophy has become a policy then “individualist” necessarily means “less crushingly collectivist than the other side”.

    The reason SBD had a relatively individualist flavour was, crudely, that SBD was more like the sort of Home Sweet Home houses that most people buy given the choice. And the oversight (by natural lines of sight, not cameras) and the absence of negotiated communal space were key parts of what made people choose it.*

    Back in 2003 I did a series of blog posts in which I said I preferred “Secure by Design” to a rival philosophy, while still wishing we could dump the idea of imposing even a relatively good philosophy over the whole nation. Dammit, I was more eloquent then than now:

    For a few years the Official State Advice on how to build estates was actually quite good advice. But, as I’ve observed in the context of education, good emperors are followed by bad ones. That’s why it’s better not to have emperors or modern equivalents thereof. Just when you are getting used to Wise Imperial Decree Number So And So, some new faction gets influence at court and all the good is undone.

    I can’t seem to get links to individual posts to what I wrote in 2003 working, but if you are interested, use Ctrl-F to search this page for the phrase “Secure by Design”. Here’s what I said about the desirability of passive surveillance:

    Her message was what you might call, if it’s not too much of a paradox, intuitive at second glance. Read Iain Murray’s list of the key points of “Secure by Design” and you will see it set out. (I am pretty sure her work was one of the source materials there.) A key point is that space should be owned and supervised, literally and metaphorically. It’s curtain-twitcher heaven in other words and that’s the idea. Curtain-twitching old grannies call the cops when they see someone nicking your car. And they know it’s your car because they know you and they know you because your street is a cul-de-sac and strangers have little reason to walk through it.

    *One point I remember from Dr Coleman’s book was that studies of how much people liked living where they did suggested that both fully communal space and fully private spaces can work, but semi-communal spaces that have to be negotiated over seem to end up occupied by the least diffident negotiators – i.e. yobs – or not used at all.

    I hope you don’t see these remarks as “doing down” your post. In fact there is an obvious libertarian moral here about how no good idea survives being implemented by force.

  • Hmm

    As we regulate more we become less mature – our thinking processes get dampened by the need to conform to mindless protocol. This adds another feedback factor that helps breed more regulation, as management becomes thoughtless and people become automatons; working towards making more regulations to dubiously make up for the increasing lack of capable management.

    In this way: Increasing “security” increases insecurity.

  • Tedd


    Years ago I dated a young woman who worked for IBM. She attended an IBM course that had something to do with resolving workplaces conflicts, or some such. They were presented with scenarios — most quite common, such as people taking the last cup of coffee and not making more — and asked to come up with solutions. Every proposed solution involved making a new rule of some kind, or a new enforcement mechanism. When asked by the course instructor to come up with solutions that didn’t involve making new rules, the class was stumped.

    The young woman, who was a cat lover, had a colourful way of describing this phenomenon. She likened the way people try to control your life to the way a cat plays with a mouse it has captured; a little bit of false freedom, then a quick swat to bring you back in line, then repeat.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Excellent point, Hmm! Well said.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tedd– That does it! Your story positively compels me to announce that I am currently watching a video of a panel discussion among a bunch of U.S. legal heavyweights, the title of which is “The Rule of Law and the Administrative State.” (Richard Epstein is one of the panelists, and he speaks faster than usual.) It’s a 2-hour video, and I’m at the 1-hour mark. It’s already been made quite clear that in the Administrative State, agencies and rules beget more agencies and rules, and just listening to the discussion I find myself more aware than ever that the result of all this worthless, pointless activity is that we folks and the rulemakers themselves are becoming so rules-bound that effective action of any kind by anybody is practically impossible.

    This fits in perfectly with your story, and with Hmm’s point. Well…”there oughta be a law!” has been around for over 60 years. Something to do with human nature? But we ought to be teaching our kids to resist that tendency, and not to enshrine it as a Fundamental Principle of Social Life.

    Oh–the video. Well, it was produced by the Federalist Society and uploaded to YouTube on 6/28/12. Each panelists speaks for about 15 minutes, I think, and there is a Q&A at the end.


  • Paul Marks

    The statists are always on the lookout for ways to increase statism.

    According to the “mainstream” British towns and cities were horror zones before government “Planning” a city such as Bath could not have been created without the Planning system – accept, of course, it was created before the Planning laws and the “Sack of Bath” was done by the Planners (in alliance with developers).

    It is the same in other countries – for example a little known provision of Comrade Barack “Stimulus” Act of 2009 (the one that was written by the “ex” terrorist Jeff Jones, old Comrade-in-Arms of Mr and Mrs Ayers, and his Comrades at the Apollo Alliance in New York) was to impose “Building Codes” on States that did not have them.

    Alaska was a State that had no State Building Code – and this was a problem for the collectivists as, according to their ideology, private people would build houses that fell down if it were not for detailed government regulations. Alaska is not exactly known for gentle weather – yet buildings there were clearly NOT falling down.

    Something clearly had to be “done about” Alaska (or collectivist ideology would stand exposed as a fraud), hence the provision (one of many evil provisions) in the “Stimulus” Act of 2009.

    Governor Sarah Palin resisted – even refusing the “Stimulus” money. However, Sarah Palin was removed as Governor, by the simple means of continuely sueing her, on groundless matters, till she ran out of money. In the American system the loser in a legal case does not pay the winners legal costs, and a Governor of Alaska can not pass on the costs of defending themselves against “Ethics” charges to the taxpayers. And, of course, in Alaska the judges are not freely elected and they are not politically appointed either – they are de facto choosen by a Bar Association dominated body (i.e. the Progressives select the Judges) so they will not just throw out politically motivated legal actions – no matter how absurd they are.

    Governor Palin faced financial ruin (in spite of winning case after case) and was having all her taken up by legal fights – so the only alternative was to resign. “Bottom line” – Alaska now has a State wide building code and the collectivists can pretend that buildings in Alaka would collapse without noble statism.

    “Why do not the media report any of the above” (Jeff Jones, or any of it) – because the “mainstream” media (like the “education system” – the schools and universities) are part of the same Progressive movement – with the same objective of imposing Progressivism and exterminating what is left of freedom.

    Some msm publications even put their alliegiance to the cause of Progressivism (“trust busting”, “competition policy”, i.e. government planning, Welfare State building government “investment” and on and on….) on their front cover.

  • Bruce

    And then there are “gated communities. The transition from “nice place” to “prison” is achieved by a change of whoever is in charge of the gates.

    Once such a place is locked down, dissenters can and will have their attitudes “adjusted”.

    Some building codes, eg, those for storm resistant structures, make a bit of sense. Many others seem primarily designed to vacuum out the householder’s wallet

  • John K

    The participation of ACPO in this does not surprise me in the least. It is one of the most unaccountable and sinister bodies in British public life, except it isn’t even public. I somehow doubt Robert Peel would approve of the way a cabal of chief constables has come to influence public policy in such a hidden way, it is the antithesis of everything he was trying to do when he set up the Metropolitan Police.

  • CaptDMO

    Gee. Security by design? What a great “new” concept for “big thinkers” of the rent seeking ilk.

    Let’s see.
    The Three Little Pigs vs. The Three Bears.

    Gen. George Patten also had some practical ideas concerning the investment of assets in defense of “permanant” enclaves.

    You’re welcome.
    Please remit my “consultation fee” in gold bullion, rather than the traditional wind-fall apples.

  • llamas

    The original Security by Design would be a properly-functioning police force and criminal justice system that puts real fear of apprehension and ghastly punishment into the hearts of potential criminals.

    Security by Design 2.0 would be to place a real fear into the hearts of potential criminals that their victims will have the means, the motivation and the societal backing to resist their nefarious deeds with robust vigour.

    Perhaps the UK should give that approach a try? I dunno, it could work, I guess?

    Neither of thse apparaches, of course, offer many opportunities for statist basnturbators and the concomitant growth of Leviathan, so I don’t expect to see them take place anytime soon. Pity.



  • Hmm

    Tedd, I’m truly surprised that any course instructor working within industry formally recognised the role of rules and the inability of those ruled by them to think beyond the use of rules. It is one of those little human habits that manages to remain hidden while always being in plain view (Mostly for three reasons- 1, It’s not immediately obvious; 2, People who are used to rules automatically assume that once there are rules then the rules “should” be extended to cover all eventualities; & 3, Even when the habit and it’s flaws are pointed out, anyone who is used to rules tends towards the default of thinking that “rules make life easier”).

    PS. I’d love to have heard what solutions (other than more rules ) the instructor had.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Democracies have 2 flaws.
    We are all aware of the risk of majorities oppressing minorities- lots of people want to oppress the rich with extra taxes, for instance. The second flaw is exposed here- the endless expansion of red tape! Sometimes it happens because of bureaucracies, sometimes a politician has made promises to get the public to vote for him- and then feels mandated to expand government along these lines. We could call this the problem-solving impulse. If I could just think up a third law, I could call them Gray’s three laws of Democracies!

  • Dave Walker

    I’ve just listened to this week’s “4thought’ piece on Radio 4, on the same topic.

    I’d actually like to take a contrarian view, from a position of enlightened self-interest.

    I run a little security firm. Much of my work, when not at customer site, is done at home. Where I used to have a dining room, I now have a (very small) datacentre and lab.

    With the new UK Govt initiatives to give more Govt work to SMEs like mine, and in the hope that this work enables us to go from being “cottage industries” (in some cases, literally) to more substantial companies, the more buildings it’s possible to readily convert into approvable List X facilities, the better. While there are former high street bank branches and former police stations available today, hopefully they won’t be so readily available for long…