A project to place two Muslim areas in Birmingham under surveillance has been dramatically halted after an investigation by the Guardian revealed it was a counterterrorism initiative.
Bags are being placed over hundreds of cameras which were recently installed in the neighbourhoods of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook, to reassure the community that their movements are not being monitored until a public consultation takes place.
Announcing that the cameras would not be turned on, West Midlands police and Birmingham city council apologised for not being “more explicit” about the funding arrangements of the project, which stipulated they should be used to combat terrorism.
But officials insisted the £3m project could still go ahead if the consultation showed support for the cameras. The programme could also be shelved altogether, which would require police and the council to take down the cameras.
Under the initiative, Project Champion, the suburbs were to be monitored by a network of 169 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras – three times more than in the entire city centre. The cameras, which include covert cameras secretly installed in the street, form “rings of steel” meaning residents cannot enter or leave the areas without their cars being tracked. Data was to be stored for two years.
There was no formal consultation over the scheme, which includes an additional 49 CCTV cameras. The few local councillors who were briefed about the cameras appearing in their constituencies said they were misled into believing they were to tackle antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and vehicle crime.
Tanveer Choudhry, a Lib Dem councillor for Springfield ward, said they should be “taken down immediately” rather than mothballed. “What the community wants to see is the cameras removed and a full investigation into how they were put up in the first place without consultation.”
There were angry public meetings in the city last week, after the Guardian disclosed the cameras were paid for by the Terrorism and Allied Matters (Tam) fund, administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Its grants are for projects that “deter or prevent terrorism or help to prosecute those responsible”. Police sources said the initiative was the first of its kind in the UK that sought to monitor a population seen as “at risk” of extremism.
Parliament has been asked to denounce Project Champion as a “grave infringement of civil liberties” in an early day motion tabled this week by the Labour MP for Birmingham’s Hall Green constituency, Roger Godsiff.
Senior officials involved in the Safer Birmingham Partnership (SBP), a tie-up between the police and council to oversee the project, were unaware of the counter-terrorism link until two months ago.
The partnership said in a statement: “We completely accept that earlier consultation with councillors from Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath – the main focus of the project – should also have included elected representatives from all other areas affected.
“We also accept that we should have been more explicit about the role of the counter-terrorism unit in the initial project management of Champion.
“Although the counter-terrorism unit was responsible for identifying and securing central government funds, and have overseen the technical aspects of the installation, the camera sites were chosen on the basis of general crime data – not just counter-terrorism intelligence.
“Day-to-day management of the network was always intended to become the responsibility of local police. We apologise for these mistakes, which regrettably may have undermined public confidence in the police and the council.”
The U-turn follows almost a fortnight in which city officials tried to fend off outrage surrounding the project. Several of the cameras have been vandalised with slogans such as “You are now entering a police state.”
Testing of cameras had already begun, and officials had planned to go live in early August.
Human rights lawyers have pledged to seek a judicial review of the scheme.