Just get out and have fun!

More security and more closed-circuit tv aren't the answers to crime. Instead, argues Mark Leonard,

A few years ago, Nick Ross, the veteran presenter of Crimewatch, told us that "we are barking mad about crime in this country. We have an obsession with believing the worst, conning ourselves that there was a golden age - typically 40 years before the one we're living in." And every now and again someone else pops up to tell us to stop getting in a flap about crime and pull ourselves together.

But the British people are not mad, they are just scared. As many as half of us claim that we are frightened to go out after dark. We worry about the safety of our homes, lives and limbs. And though our neuroses are fed by the statistical terrorism of the annual crime figures (which show that violent crime has trebled in 15 years) and ghoulish accounts of crimes in the media (not least on Ross's own programme), we have all experienced the consequences of criminality at first hand.

We try to deal with this by shutting danger out of our lives. We invest millions of pounds a year on security lights, locks, door chains, metal bars and burglar alarms, turning our houses into fortresses. We hear regular stories about US-style vigilante groups and private security firms taking up the beat in our streets and neighbourhoods - the latter-day equivalents of private armies. Indeed, we are reluctant to leave our houses at all. It is not just streets that are seen as dangerous places, it is all public spaces: railway stations, car parks, bus stations and parks. In fact, anywhere that is public and accessible to other people - where criminals might roam - is seen a possible threat. We are living out Jean-Paul Sartre's famous statement that "hell is other people".

And if hell is other people, the route to heaven is strict surveillance. Closed-circuit television has become a panacea for all our problems, the cure for our sleepless nights, keeping an eye on other people round the clock and recording their misdemeanours. A recent survey found that 75 towns in Britain - from Edinburgh to Torquay - have installed sophisticated surveillance systems. The cameras are concealed behind two-way mirrors, above doorways, on roof-tops, inside vending machines, cash-points and on buses. They record our every movement and every desire, and they help us catch criminals. But they do not eliminate crime, they merely displace it.

In fact, we are so worried about public spaces that many of us work out ways of avoiding them altogether. Many have simply traded them in for the synthetic delights of the indoor shopping mall. We jump into our cars and drive to controlled environments where we can buy everything from Habitat sofas to M&S briefs, surrounded by private security, CCTV, tropical temperatures and tropical plants. These new arcadias have been such a phenomenal success that city centres - in a desperate piece of rearguard action - have aped them. The ethos of customer care has become so pronounced that in many redevelopments the town centre is indistinguishable from the shopping centre.

But this is not a real solution to our problems. This just means that real public spaces become more and more empty, more threatening and more dangerous. Those who can afford private security and cars just avoid the public realm. Those who can't are increasingly finding themselves in "no-go" areas.

So it is not crime that we are barking mad about as a country. That is real. The thing that we are mad about is how to deal with it. There is a line in T S Eliot's play The Cocktail Party where a character says that "Hell is oneself; hell is alone". And in many ways he is right and Sartre is wrong - at least as far as crime is concerned. Other people are not what makes our cities dangerous; it is the thousands of missing people who are now shut away inside. The key to making public spaces safe again is not to fill them with more technology or private security firms. It is to fill them with people and activity.

Twenty years ago the public realm was full of people. As Ken Worpole and Liz Greenhalgh point out in their visionary study of public space, The Freedom of the City, British Rail and London Underground used to have thousands of porters, ticket collectors and platform staff. Housing estates had resident caretakers, public toilets had attendants and parks were full of keepers. But today our transport system relies on unmanned ticket machines and self-service trolleys. Caretakers have given way to mobile patrols, and most public toilets have been closed.

We suddenly woke up to the consequences of this in 1994 when John Patten, then secretary of state for education, called on bus conductors and park-keepers to mount a crusade against truancy - only to discover that there were hardly any bus conductors or park-keepers left. These people didn't just do their jobs: they made public spaces safe simply by being there in case of trouble, or lending a helping hand if needed. They showed that the public sector was investing in these spaces. Now that they are gone, we get the sense that public space is neglected and abandoned.

Repopulating public spaces is about making them fun. Instead of seeing people as a threat, our planners should encourage them to go out more. Cafes, restaurants, kiosks and market stalls can make deserted parks, streets and squares bristle with activity. They can restore life to run-down areas, improve our quality of life and drive out crime.

Unfortunately our local politicians and planners are often more interested bringing calm and quiet to our cities than making them more enjoyable. Their herculean quest to recreate a suburban garden city idyll in the heart of city centres is one of the factors that can make city life so dangerous. Their concern to protect their citizens from the hustle and bustle often fails to protect them from the more corrosive interference of violent crime. Coupled with restrictive planning of our physical space is the even more draconian planning of our use of time. The national conspiracy to get us all into bed between 11.30 and midnight means that cinemas, restaurants, cafes and pubs all close their doors at the same time. Public transport stops as well.

This is a crazy way to run our cities. The sudden outpouring of drunken punters at closing time means that our streets become threatening and violent for a few minutes, and then remain empty for the rest of the night. Quite apart from fostering unhealthy drinking habits, this has disastrous consequences for public safety. After dark, and after hours, we need the presence of people more than ever - to feel and to be safe - but our outdated licensing laws hollow out our city centres at the worst possible time.

What this amounts to is a straight choice about our lifestyle. We can shut ourselves away behind closed doors and watch Crimewatch in the safety of our fortress homes; or we can demand a better time from our planners and politicians and enjoy our evenings in safe public spaces that are bustling with people. An evening with Nick Ross or a pint of John Smith's - the choice is yours!

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!