JCDecaux’s “communication hubs” don’t fool us

Do you remember when phone booths were a good public service and not just the defunct, piss-soaked sibling of the TARDIS?

Since our almost cyborgian attachment to mobile phones, these retro red boxes have been disappearing from our streets; soon to be replaced with multifunctional, data farming surveillance slabs designed, run and installed by our friends at JCDecaux.

Lambeth Council are currently reviewing applications for 12 of these ‘Communications hubs’ to be installed across the borough. Predictably from the company, the ‘hubs’ are basically large digital advertising screens with a defibrillator attached for good community value to get them past planning officers.

We need your help to put a stop to these plans, and you can find out more about how to object and sign our petition at the bottom of the blog.

Communications or surveillance?

While telephone boxes were about straightforward service provision, these ‘hubs’ are all about advertising, cloaked in a veneer of dubious public service offerings. JCDecaux are trying to get round the council’s sensible anti-advertising policies in the 2021 local plan (more on this at the end of the blog) by dressing up their advertising displays as something that is actually useful.

They will be installed with a phone that has the ability to be voice-activated to call landlines and charities, navigation aids, free wi-fi and device charging. They will also be fitted with CCTV cameras and equipment to monitor weather, air quality and street traffic. Sounding quite handy? Unfortunately, we are here to shatter the illusion that these will much improve public life.

Let’s move onto the nagging suspicion of ‘information gathering’ and surveillance, and the possibility that this technology fails to take into consideration the international human right to privacy. The technology used to track street traffic cannot collect information completely anonymously as it needs to assign each mobile device with unique movement trails. This is a clear indication that these units could be used to track individuals across the city, especially when combined with the in-built cameras and integration of other interactive Android technologies designed to better tailor ad content to passers-by. No wonder the Met were keen to be involved in their design.

Services for all?

The police ‘Designing Out Crime’ unit has been involved in the application process in order that the hubs be able to adapt to local policing needs and potential misuse. This means that the display screens can feature police public safety messaging and, rather questionably, the functions can be adapted in ‘problem areas’ to avoid misuse – so for example the charging facilities will be time-limited for emergency charging only and the unit will disable free calls to only allow access to emergency services, or use the monitoring features to deter loitering.

To us this sounds an awful lot like criminalising poverty which, for a non-tory borough, isn’t a great look. If you are going to provide a public service, then actually PROVIDE THE PUBLIC SERVICE. There is no fair justification to deter disadvantaged or vulnerable people from accessing some power for their phones to help get them home safely or to seek help when they need it. Placing yet more digital, metal monoliths on our streets which have the ability to watch and track our movements whilst issuing public service announcements or loitering alarms seems like yet another step towards a dystopian sci-fi police state. Especially when you consider the climate of mistrust surrounding police conduct and proliferation of powers.

We are already the most surveyed country in the world, so more CCTV that invades our privacy without opt-outs is the last thing we need.

Unlike telephone boxes, which usually included see-through panels, these monoliths will create a solid obstruction on the pavement which could be used by an attacker as a hiding place to jump out on pedestrians. As a result, women and girls walking at night through public spaces could find themselves in greater fear for their safety.

The units will be on for 21 hours a day, emitting LED light which is proven to increase migraines and harm wildlife, whilst drawing power directly from the grid which can never be guaranteed to be 100% renewable. In fact, when you consider that these robo-cop units will begin to deter users from asking for too much power or too many calls, the idea of these glowing monuments to consumer capitalism illuminating poverty-stricken streets during a national fuel price rise crisis and global climate emergency is actually quite offensive.

How can i help?

These applications may seem like a mighty elevation of the humble phone booth into a modern component of a tech savvy, smart city scape, but really this is yet another landmark in the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of our public space. Help us to fight back. Sign this petition and if you have time, object to the hub application nearest to you (or all of them!) The proposed locations are listed below:

A: Pavement outside 74 Albert Embankment, SE1 7TL – 21/04829/ADV

B: Pavement outside 269 – 308 Surridge Court, Clapham Road, SW9 9AE – 21/04831/ADV

C: Pavement outside Lambeth North Station, Bayliss Road, SE1 7HW – 21/04833/ADV

D: Pavement outside Waterloo Road, Junction Bayliss Road SE1 8UR – 21/04835/ADV

E: Pavement outside 200 South Lambeth Road, SW8 1UT – 21/04837/ADV

F: Pavement outside 238 Kennington Lane, SE11 5RD – 21/04839/ADV

G: Pavement outside 65 Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7JQ – 21/04841/ADV

H: Pavement outside Waterloo Hub Hotel, 54 Kennington Road, SE1 7BJ – 21/04843/ADV

I: Pavement outside Waterloo Hub Hotel, 1 Lambeth Road, SE1 7BJ – 21/04845/ADV

J: Pavement outside The Hercules, 2 Kennington Road, SE1 7BL – 21/04847/ADV

K: Pavement outside 146 Streatham High Road, SW16 1BJ – 21/04849/ADV

L: Pavement outside 33-35 Baylis Road, SE1 7AY – 21/04851/ADV

You can object to any or all of the above by going to the Lambeth Council planning portal and typing in the relevant code listed above.

So far, our greatest success in opposing outdoor advertising has come from objections on the grounds of amenity, so it may be worth tailoring your objections to highlight how you think the hub will damage the look of the local area without offering any real compensation. It may be helpful to quote from the 2021 Lambeth Local Plan, which states:

No advertisement shall harm amenity or highway/public safety. The council will support proposals for advertisement panels (hoardings) where they:
i. are individually or collectively well integrated into their context, the design of new or existing buildings or landscaping schemes;
ii. deliver design excellence in terms of access structures, framing, lighting/ illumination;
iii. contribute positively to the local scene;
iv. do not add unacceptable street/visual clutter; and
v. do not diminish the setting or significance of heritage assets

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