Private security companies have taken de facto control of London’s streets

Oxford Street and Regent Street are now routinely patrolled by men and women dressed in black jumpsuits and boots

An officer from the Metropolitan Police on duty beside the Cenotaph on Whitehall, central London. PA Wire
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Something is afoot on the streets of London. A fundamental change has taken place in who provides security where you live, work, dine, shop or visit in the UK's capital city.

It is now an arguably unnerving reality in the West End, in particular, but in many other enclaves of London, that the city is most visibly "policed" by private security staff – funded by corporate landlords who own most of the retail spaces in central London – and their demeanour and dress and even powers are increasingly akin to those they mimic and are sometimes more demonstrative.

After English, the language I overhear most in London’s West End is Arabic, with tourism and family visits from the Gulf throughout the year. Visitors from the region are likely to make good use of the new ETA entry visa, though perhaps will keep any prized watches safely at home.

Recent visitors might have noticed that Oxford Street and Regent Street are now routinely patrolled by men and women dressed in black jumpsuits and boots, frankly resembling paramilitaries. These plastic police are sometimes stopped by tourists for directions, just as once a tourist might have stopped an actual police officer.

With the Metropolitan Police reeling from a series of crises it is at a low ebb, despite it in many ways fulfilling its mandate brilliantly, especially in anti-terror measures. This comes just as small private armies of men in bright yellow tabards have, rightly or wrongly, become the first responders in the West End.

The number of licensed private security operatives in the UK has grown by almost 100,000 in the past three years

I watched as private security guards wrestled a man to the ground and restrained him very forcefully, with his head hard on the pavement, to the extent that he was calling out for the police. Eventually a police car pulled up and thankfully officers took over the situation.

On another evening, as I left a Leicester Square cinema, uniformed and plain-clothed police were arresting two men in the immediate aftermath of a crime I had thankfully just missed. Eight of them screamed at and grappled with the suspects and chased accomplices around the corner, as a crowd gathered. With a hint of pepper spray in the air, it was just the sort of grim experience any Londoner would expect, but at least it was the police force at work and not civilians doing the bidding of an unseen landlord.

Data published by the regulatory body, the Security Industry Authority (SIA), reveals that the number of licensed private security operatives in the UK has grown by almost 100,000 in the past three years, dwarfing the 20,000 extra police officers on the streets added in a similar timeframe after the number of police fell below 130,000 five years ago. There are now more than two licensed private contractors for every police officer employed in the UK.

Many of these extra guards for hire are located in London. It is an astonishing increase that reflects the growing demand in services as bespoke as close protection for VIPs to what has become as familiar a sight as bar and nightclub door staff, as well as behind the scenes operators such as CCTV supervisors, and the West End "paramilitaries". The SIA this week published research that shows that six out of 10 British people have confidence in private security contractors, which though not an overwhelming vote of confidence, is fairly respectable.

While these plastic police are highly visible in hotspots such as the West End, we should not kid ourselves that the real police are ultimately there to help ensure our safety, in whichever country we live. A confident, friendly "Good morning" to me from a police officer when I left my front door a few weeks ago, after a triple stabbing in the next street, was a reassuring reminder that whenever something bad happens, the real police are just around the corner.

Published: February 02, 2024, 6:01 PM