Eyes spy on problem neighbours: should Islingtonians be informers?

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She scans the area. An abandoned car adds to the clutter. Another call; another normal walk home has made this a cleaner, greener street.This hawk-eyed helper isn’t a local bobby or neon-jacketed council worker. Rather, it’s Sarah from around the corner or Kate from across the road. The 1,300 informants walk among us, spying discarded needles as they fetch the paper or unsightly rubbish piles on their way to the bank.

“Community spirited”

Together, they are Eyes for Islington and they report thousands of problems around the borough each year, including fly tipping, abandoned cars and noise pollution. But far from considering themselves snoops, members of this council-run project aim to make their community safer and tidier.

“I wanted to get involved so that Islington can be a cleaner, brighter place to live in,” says Pauline Anwyl-Jones, also known as Eye No. 10, who became involved with the scheme when it launched in 2002.

“It makes residents more community spirited. You become more aware of what’s going on around you,” she explains.
When Pauline spots a hazard, council staff respond as quickly as their numbers allow. If it’s a high-risk issue, such as broken glass, one of the borough’s six road sweepers responds within an hour. If there’s a concern about loose pavement slabs, the highways team get there within two or three.

“People power”

The scheme was set up in response to the deluge of daily concerns about pavements, graffiti and litter.
“People felt they weren’t getting anywhere,” explains Megane Quashie, who runs Eye social events. “It made sense for them to group together. The more voices they had, the more they’d achieve. It’s about people power.”

Now, Quashie explains, there’s a dialogue between those living in the borough and those working for it. And, with too few council employees to police the area, community involvement is important.

“The Eyes let us know about things we don’t see. There are lots of things we miss on our inspections. We don’t have enough staff for everything,” she says.

Curtain twitchers?

But others think it’s a responsibility that encourages suspicion. Since the scheme launched, the media has suggested it fosters a Big Brother society. The scheme’s sinister-sounding name probably doesn’t help, conjuring images of curtain-twitchers and peeping telltales.

Islington isn’t the only borough with eyes on the streets: 17 councils across the country run similar schemes. Harrow Council has enlisted bin men to look out for burglaries in the early hours.  And there are national projects, such as the £4m scheme announced last December encouraging nosy neighbours to report any properties they think are “unlawfully occupied”. Their snooping is rewarded with a £500 reward.

Unhealthy

Dylan Sharp, campaign director for anti-surveillance group Big Brother Watch, believes Eyes could create an unhealthy community.

“These schemes encourage mistrust in society where everyone is looking at everyone else for a crime,” Sharp says. “Of course it’s a public good for people to report a crime, but things like looking for litter dropping and fly tipping start a different sort of mistrust. It’s just not good for community relations.”

According to Sharp, councils present schemes such as ‘Eyes for Islington’ with a veneer of concern, yet, with a shortage of staff, they are actually created out of necessity. And, as members of the public do not have the same training as council workers, they often misidentify crimes.

Better place?

Yet Quashie thinks these Big Brother theories are absurd. “We’re not asking them to grass on each other. There’s no encouragement from us to get them to say: ‘Number 46 is causing trouble’. The project is about roads, parks and graffiti – not telling on their neighbours.”

And these are the sorts of improvements Eye No. 10, Pauline, enjoys bringing to her community. “I think that residents make a vital difference to the appearance of the borough by reporting any faults,” she says.
“And I hope that what I have done has made Islington a better place to live in.”