Sunday, 30 January 2011

Turning off the street lights?


This morning, the Sunday Telegraph kindly provided – following yesterday’s garden birds guide – a CD of the ‘dawn chorus’. Half an hour of ‘uplifting birdsong’. Wonderful stuff!

But not when the entertainment is a one in the morning under the street lights. There’s growing evidence that the prevalence of street lights disrupts the behaviour of song birds – with the dawn chorus starting earlier. Not a truly terrible thing – unless of course the song is right outside your window when you’re trying to sleep.

Birds aside, the matter of street lights presents an interesting dilemma – a contest between the desire to make places safe and the need to reduce our consumption of energy. At present, it seems to me that the question of safety tends to trump the matter of cost savings and resource use although plenty of local councils have looked at and, in some cases, acted to reduce the number and intensity of street lighting. And, as usual, it’s the Liberal Democrats – clutching their green credentials only lightly – who lead the charge against reducing lighting:

Jason Zadrozny, a Liberal Democrat Councillor for the area, has collected signatures from more than 2,000 people protesting against street lighting reductions:

"I'm not in opposition to cuts, we know that money's got to be saved after years of Labour mismanagement, but I'm raising my concerns in county hall and in national government," he told Newsnight reporter Matt Prodger.

And the reason for Jason’s opposition is concerns about safety – people being more vulnerable to assault and attack while they go about their innocent business. Yet the proposals aren’t to get rid of lighting but to do one of two things – dim the lights or turn them off during the early hours of the morning (when not that much ‘innocent business’ is taking place on Ashfield’s suburban streets).

A further concern relates to road safety – reduced lighting on busy roads will make them less safe. Yet in Buckinghamshire where some lights have been switched off there has been no increase in accidents:

A controversial scheme to switch off street lights to save cash has not led to an increase in accidents, a council boss said today. A Buckinghamshire County Council chief said there was “some evidence” that extra street furniture was in fact bringing accidents down.

We can expect plenty of local councils to follow Buckinghamshire’s lead – after all it’s a pretty obvious saving in a substantial budget and one that doesn’t involve closing services. And we can also expect to see opposition along the lines of that in Ashfield and Buckinghamshire – the cry of “people will be too frightened to go out at night” will be heard up and down the land. Even when the lights aren’t turned off until one in the morning!

However, there’s another prospect – turning off lights on motorways. At a time when motor vehicles have better lights than ever, it seems odd that our motorways are lit up like a 1970s rock concert. Stark, bright white light bangs down on the three and four lane highways – illuminating half-a-dozen cars speeding by at 95mph. It seems a gross indulgence – unneeded and excessive. This isn’t to say that we need no lighting but that we could get by with quite a lot less. And for sure it’s pretty daft that we’re spending millions each year lighting largely empty roads for hours at a time – in the interests of safety!

I’ve supported turning lights off, dimming them and spacing them out for some years – without much support from colleagues (as witnessed in the idea’s absence from Bradford’s service efficiency proposals). However, such an action would not only be ‘green’ but would realise a sustainable saving with little or no impact on the public. And it would stop pissing off astronomers and screwing up the body clocks of song birds!


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