Is Britain Returning to the Dark Ages?

Cash-strapped councils turn to street lights as a quick way to save money.

More and more councils across Britain are making plans to switch off the lighting of entire streets during the night. This is causing concern among residents and care-givers alike. The latest decision, by Derbyshire council, to switch off up to 40,000 of the county’s street lights for part of the night, has prompted fears over public safety.

According to Age UK chief executive Katy Pugh, this decision could lead to feelings of isolation and fear in the elderly. “Looking out of the window and not seeing any lights on could lead to a sense that people cannot go out – even if they want to”, said Mrs Pugh.

Furthermore, this could cause problems for care-givers who have to visit the elderly during the night. Without any ambient light, it is easy to trip on loose paving stones and fallen branches. Low height wire fences and other obstacles are also very difficult to see. Last week, we reported similar issues faced by milkmen in Somerset who have to deliver the milk in the dark.

The council said the move would cut £400,000 a year from its energy bill and reduce its annual carbon output by 2,000 tonnes. It said the switch-off, starting in April, would take place in separate areas at different times, allowing a four-week public consultation period with each affected community, which may lead to “minor adjustment” of local schemes. Another 900 of the county’s 89,000 lamps will be switched off altogether.

Councillor Simon Spencer, cabinet member for highways and transport, said the aim was “not to plunge Derbyshire into darkness”. “We’ll look carefully at every area before we switch any lights off and there are many areas; town centres and high crime areas for example, where we won’t switch any lights off at all.”

Although turning off street lights may seem an easy and relatively painless way of saving money, many people voice concerns about the safety of those who are out late at night or must work and respond to emergencies in the middle of the night. Tragically, on Christmas Day 2011 in Somerset, a young man was killed by a car in a street that had all its lights turned off. While the darkness cannot be blamed for the accident, his family and friends are left wondering if it could have been avoided or his injuries less serious if the street were well lit.

LED streetlightingWhat many in the lighting community are wondering is why be so drastic? If you don’t have the money to replace old street lights with new, energy saving types, then why not switch off every other light? Or every third light?

Technology is available, relatively cheaply, to fit street lights with sensors which will switch on when they detect a car or a pedestrian. You can also install hardware which will reduce the light output and save energy without turning the lights off completely.

Other options have been taken up by cities across the UK such as the PFI scheme. The Private Finance Initiative ( PFI ) was launched in 1992 to open up opportunities for more private sector involvement in the provision and modernisation of public services. Cities such as Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and even Derby itself have all taken advantage of this financing arrangement to fund the upgrading of their streets and highways.

In 1997, Derby became a Unitary Authority, meaning, among other things, that it would be responsible for maintaining the street lights within the city limits. Prior to this, the whole of Derbyshire’s street lighting was maintained by Derbyshire County Council. Derby City Council announced their PFI program in 2003 and work began in 2007.

Street light PhotocellAlmost 25,000 street lights are being replaced with either the bright white light of CosmoPolis or the golden glow of High Pressure Sodium, housed in Iridium luminaires from Philips Lighting. The new lanterns are fitted with special photocells from Royce Thompson. The blue cones are a way of identifying the year that the cell was fitted (the idea is that a different colour is used every year, making identification and maintenance easier).

It took 4 years of extensive consultation with all involved parties before the work commenced. But many are convinced that it was worth the wait. While it is clear that cities and counties need to save energy and money, there are certainly more options than simply turning everything off. Technology and financing options are widely available. And while they may not be a quick fix, they are certainly worth it in the long run.

Written by Julie Allen
This article was originally published February 2012 on and is reprinted with their kind permission.

29 Jul