Monday, 22 December 2014

"Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light." - thoughts on crime and streetlighting.


It's the longest night of the year (or pretty close to it) so what better choice of subject for a Labour Party press release than the practice of councils - as a cost and carbon saving measure - turning off or dimming street lighting. Unsurprisingly the Labour chap doesn't like this:

Labour’s shadow communities secretary, Hilary Benn, warned that ‘significant areas’ of the country were being ‘plunged into darkness as a result of David Cameron and Eric Pickles’ policies’. ‘Streetlights ensure that people are safe on our roads and feel safe walking home, especially at this time of the year when the nights have drawn in,’...

And I'm guessing that you will probably have a similar response after all as Roger Ekirch, author of 'The City Dark' observed:

...humans have long feared the dark, and...crime was the original impetus for widespread street lighting on the planet. 

The cloaked figure skulking in the shadows, of the thief using the cover of darkness for his crimes and the frisson of terror as we scoot past the entrance to the dark alley on the walk home - these are what comes to mind when we consider the dark. Nighttime is when evil does its thing, the domain of the robber, the murderer and the thief. So Hilary Benn, by appealing to this instinct is playing good politics.

The problem is that it's just not as simple as this - the link between the dark and actual crime (as opposed to actual fear of crime) really isn't a clear cut as Benn's comments make it out.

...some research indicates that an increase in number and brightness of streetlights actually increases the occurrence of crime, noting that street lighting allows perpetrators to monitor their own actions without the use of flashlights or other lighting devices that would make them visible to others. A case has also been made that offenders need lighting to detect potential targets and low-risk situations.

Indeed there is a catalogue of evidence suggesting that additional lighting has at best a marginal effect on levels of crime, that most crime takes place during daylight hours or where there is good artificial lighting, and that there is a point (accepting some crime reduction benefit) when lighting makes no difference.  After all there is some logic - assuming your typical criminal can't see in the dark - to the observation that ne'er-do-wells need light just as much as us law-abiding folk.

None of this is to suggest that turning off the lights is always a good idea or that the installation of better lighting (such as the LED lights we now have in parts of Cullingworth) isn't a consideration. However, we should look carefully at the extent to which we are lighting up isolated stretches of road throughout the night when only a very few cars and no pedestrians are making use of the lights. Rather than indulging in a typical piece of modern politics - a shouty press release designed to scare people rather than cast illumination on the issue - maybe we should be discussing how to reduce the waste (and it is a waste) of lighting up large parts of the country merely on the off-chance that somebody might pass by.



Mick Anderson said...

The local Council decided to change all the street lighting for low-energy LED. Obviously they went about it in the most expensive way possible, by a PFI contract that involved pulling up all the lamp posts and replacing them.

This is a small village, and half an hour after the Legion closes there will be no pedestrians until morning. Street lighting is a complete waste here during these hours, but as you say it's subjective.

I preferred the old sodium lights to drive by anyway - you could see the headlight beams of cars coming out of drives or approaching around corners. Now it's all white you can't tell the difference.

Calvin Beckford said...

Calvin here from The Crime Prevention Website. Thanks for the backlink to my page on public street lighting.

This was a shocking piece of West Wing politics by the Labour party; simple as that. Someone in authority telling another that turning off or dimming street lights will lead to more crime and accidents and people will believe them.

I would argue that this is an opportune moment to assess the impact of street lighting against crime and accidents, but the research must be conducted by someone who is not funded by the public lighting industry or be in any way related to someone who is part of that industry (This is one of the problems with some of the previous research)

For the record, I am of the opinion that we waste huge amounts of energy lighting our roads and floodlighting public buildings, landmarks and our gardens at 3 o'clock in the morning!

Nice article by the way