U.K. News
Home is where the high-tech security fortress is
By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent  
Apr 22, 2004

AN ENGLISHMAN’S home will be more than just his castle under new European rules on building design: it could become a veritable fortress with towering walls and enough surveillance equipment to ensure that both burglars and downmarket neighbours are kept at bay.

New standards drawn up by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) have raised the spectre of a divided and polarised society in which the rich live in hermetically sealed, barricaded estates while the abandoned poor remain outside.

Such polarisation in Britain’s towns and cities flies in the face of the Government’s policy of achieving an economic and cultural “urban renaissance” through the creation of balanced, socially mixed communities. It is also in direct conflict with moves to rekindle civic engagement through greater neighbourhood integration.

The experience of the US, where at least 12 per cent of the population lives in gated communities, often with their own shops, gymnasiums and rubbish collections, has shown that in addition to being a factor in the growth of economic “hot spots” and “cold spots”, gated communities have led to greater social isolation.

Some estates in the US have even incorporated themselves as separate entities, becoming entirely independent of local government.

British housing experts are appalled at the new standards, arguing that they may increase crime as well as fear of crime, instead of reducing it. They believe it is possible to increase security on housing estates through alternative, less divisive measures. The new regulations suggest introducing a range of “access control devices” at the entrance to housing estates and suburban areas. These could include gates operated by remote control and joined to “mechanical fences supplemented by electro-technical parts, such as anti-intrusion sensors or ‘shock lighting’ connected with an ‘intrusion alarm system’.”

The standards, drawn up specifically to reduce domestic burglary and related crimes, also advise using walls, hedges and fences of a minimum height of 1.8 metres (6ft) to “maximise private space and minimise public space”.

Property developers should also imitate the defensive circled wagons of the Wild West pioneers by building houses facing inwards towards a small open space, “in such a way that dwellings face a relatively limited length of street”, the standards suggest. Culs-de-sac are the preferred street design in the document, which notes that housing areas should ideally have “only one road in and one out”, to minimise escape routes for burglars.

The new rules also reduce the possibility of domestic intrigue and secrecy by suggesting that nobody should be able to enter or leave any house on the estate unobserved and saying that “the layout should ensure maximum possible surveillance from property to property”.

The document also recommends the creation of psychological barriers. Road humps and textured road surfaces, for example, should be installed at or just before the entrance of estates to deter anybody who has no business to be there from entering.

CEN is an independent trade body whose members include the official standards organisations of individual European states, such as the British Standards Institute. The new technical specifications were approved by a CEN technical committee at conference on Tuesday and will be voted on by the CEN membership later this year.

Although they will theoretically be voluntary in Britain, if passed, they are likely to be used as a benchmark by insurance companies and are expected to result in rising premiums for those in homes that do not comply.

British housing authorities attacked the rules. With an estimated 1,000 gated communities of all sizes in Britain, containing anything from 6 to 100 homes, many urban experts are concerned that the rising popularity of such estates is misplaced, arguing that they offer occupants a false sense of security and divide communities.

The standards also contradict the position of Cabe, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment set up by the Deputy Prime Minister’s office, which said that an obsession with security was turning Britain’s urban areas into fun-free, soulless spaces.

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