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The Lamps are Going Out…

December 18, 2016


Those of you who read this blog regularly will perhaps have become used to me musing on matters global, or at least national. This post is about something a little closer to home. Outside my front door, actually. As I write, I’m looking out of a window onto my street. It’s early in the evening – it got dark a couple of hours ago. A few yards from where I sit, there’s a street light blazing away.

If we live in a country that considers itself to be part of the developed world, we take it for granted that the lights stay on at night, don’t we? Just as we expect the garbage collector to appear every Tuesday, the postman to bring our letters every day and an ambulance to be only a few minutes away if we get a heart attack.

Some of us in Britain are old enough to remember the Three-Day Week, when as a consequence of a miner’s strike we began to run out of coal. To save fuel, the government switched our street lights off and banned electric shop signs.

There are also plenty of people still around who remember the blackout during the Second World War.

But for everyone else, dark streets are part of our history, not of our present. Not for much longer, it seems.

You could easily understand the reason for blacking out the streets during the Blitz. The last thing we needed was to provide an easily-recognisable target for the swarms of German bombers looking to level our cities. And as the miner’s strike dragged on, whether or not we sympathised with the miners themselves, it was clear that we needed to conserve fuel to keep essential services running.

Now, in my neighbourhood, some Smart Alecs have decided that whole areas don’t need street lights to be on between midnight and 5am. Again, if the motive had been to save the planet by burning less fossil fuels, and if this had been a national initiative, perhaps there would be little resistance to the plan. We’d summon up the spirit of the Blitz, keep calm and carry on.

But that’s not the motive. The council estimates that by switching off up to two thirds of its 89,000 street lights, it will save princely sum of £210,000. The cost of a council dust cart, perhaps. Or the salary of one of its senior employees.

To those who object on the basis that dark streets give licence to rapists, muggers and burglars to roam undetected through the darkened but well-heeled streets of Surrey, the Smart Alecs would no doubt have plenty of arguments up their sleeves. They might point out that we have far more to fear from Russian cyber-criminals trying to steal our money than from nasty people waiting up dark alleys to prey on our children walking home from the last train.

They might also say that in this age of austerity, dark streets are preferable to grannies being abused in care homes because the council can’t afford to pay a rate for beds that enables the owners to make a profit  – unless they use staff who aren’t paid enough to give a damn about those in their care.

They might also say that potholes need to be filled, library books need to be bought, the homeless need to be housed, and so forth.

If I thought that £210k would materially fix all these stresses on the council budget, I’d probably be sympathetic to their arguments. But quite obviously it won’t, though every little helps, I suppose. Then I think back to an incident in my business career when an overzealous chief financial officer decided to save a few bucks by abolishing the longstanding custom that the company paid for the staff’s tea and coffee. The consequences of the hit on morale massively outweighed the savings. Every little didn’t help on that occasion.

I’d also cite the cost to parents and spouses of having to collect their loved ones from stations, workplaces and parties, when otherwise they’d let them walk down illuminated streets. It’s important that people feel safe, right?

All the while, as we taxpayers whinge and moan, the Smart Alecs might be thinking to themselves “how dare you object to this small economy, you prosperous, spoilt residents of Surrey, whose houses are increasing in value every year by the equivalent of the wages of ten thousand brick-makers in Pakistan? Get over it!”

Putting it this way, they might have a point, even if the new measure isn’t selective enough to apply only to home owners.

But there’s something symbolic about a return to darkness, isn’t there? In early days of urban electrification, street lighting was seen by city fathers not only as a way of reducing crimes against people and property, but also as a sign of progress, of civic pride.

When the streets go dark, a message goes out to nervous residents that progress is being reversed. That we’re going backwards.

And in many ways we are, usually for the same reasons: pursuit of profit dressed up as modernisation. Pursuit of savings in the name of necessity.

Commuters in towns like mine are been driven to distraction by a dispute between Southern Rail, one of the train franchises, and the train drivers’ union. The company wants its trains to be able to run with one person responsible for hundreds of passengers: the driver. It calls the elimination of the need for a second person, who wanders up and down the train, inspects tickets and opens doors at stations, “modernisation”. It blames the union for resisting the change in order to preserve the jobs of its members.

Now I’m no great fan of trade unions per se. Some do indeed go too far in preserving practices that no longer make sense. But in this case, I’m with them all the way. If I was driving that train, I would want to share the responsibility for my passengers with someone else who watches my back – literally.

It’s pretty obvious that a single train guard can’t deal with every emergency that might come up in ten fast moving carriages – a bomb, a fight, someone having a stroke. But what can a CCTV operator do other than call for help? Can someone in a control centre miles away tell the difference between a drunk and someone having a seizure? Is the train company expecting the passengers to deal with every problem? And what can the driver do, apart from stop the train at the nearest – possibly deserted – station?

No doubt the train company would say it’s investing in its franchise, and needs to get a return through efficiency savings. But if you’ve had a little experience in running businesses, it’s easy to cast a jaundiced eye over Southern Rail’s claim. Cynics, me among them, might take the view that it’s not about safety, it’s not about modernisation and it’s not about customers. It’s about maximising profit.

Elsewhere, companies not encumbered by awkward trade unions are able to ride roughshod over their employees. The minimum wage is no longer a safety net. It’s a cost objective for the likes of Sports Direct and Amazon. Did we think about the price their employees pay so that these companies can drive down their prices to customers, thereby putting high street book sellers and clothing retailers out of business? Do we think of the farmers who have to accept razor-thin margins if they are to supply Tesco, so that we can pay £1.20 for a litre of milk?

George Osborne, our former Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an interesting admission the other day when reflecting on the failed Remain campaign that cost him his job. He said that he was so obsessed with the economic arguments for staying in the EU that he forgot about people – their experience, hopes and fears.

He could have spoken for a hundred government departments and local councils who are to a greater or lesser extent at arm’s length from the people they are supposed to be serving. He could also have spoken for employers – from coffee shops to online retailers – whose overriding concern is not the people they depend upon to function but extra bucks they can make by cutting salaries and benefits to the bone – because they can. He could simply have said “we’ve forgotten about people”. Not “The People” of Brexit mythology. But people.

When our resident’s association sent us an email alerting us to the Smart Alecs’ bright new wheeze, they referred us to a Facebook page. I immediately thought oh-oh, fake story. But a comprehensive list of streets affected is unlikely to be clickbait originating from a Macedonian teenager, so it must be true.

Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic. The people of East Aleppo have no hospitals left. That’s a crisis. But the slow erosion of services we think of as being benchmarks of an orderly and developed society feels like a new normal. And if it happens in prosperous Surrey, whose residents are far too polite to do more than sign an online petition, how long before similar measures in other less well-off areas evoke a more extreme response?

My concern about this issue is not born of any political ideology. I don’t hold a candle for any of our current crop of political parties. I do however believe that such stupid measures are rooted in a terror of asking people to pay more for stuff, when the reason for asking them is not the enhancement of shareholder value or a responsibility to taxpayers, but the common good. To ensure, for example, that less people have to walk through dark streets, sit in unguarded trains and struggle on the minimum wage.

The Alecs aren’t that smart. I suspect that a fair number of people whose street lights go off at midnight on January 1st would be quite capable of spending a day in the council offices and working out a better way of saving £210k.

Perhaps I’m being unkind. But as the year draws to a close, and a darker 2017 beckons, I can’t resist quoting Sir Edward Grey’s words. On the eve of the First World War, our Foreign Secretary remarked that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

For Europe, read Surrey. Or maybe not – perhaps Europe again.

  1. John Butler permalink

    And you will be able to see the stars! Snowdonia has been declared a Dark Sky Area. Yes, even Snowdonia has been endangered by artificial lighting, and is now protected. The Lunar Men (Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, James Watt etc) in the 18th century met on the Monday night nearest to the full moon so they could get home safely after sharing their creative ideas that we all benefit from. Lucky Surrey, ‘the lights going out’ is a privilege all should be able to enjoy. Until you feel the dark you don’t fully appreciate the light (there’s a Christmas sermon for you). Happy Christmas, when it comes!

  2. Unfortunately they will leave the main roads lit. But yes, the stars are wondrous things. One of the joys of rural France is the ability to see the Milky Way. And a very Happy Christmas to you! S

  3. It’s worth noting that efficiency in lamp design has reduced the electricity consumption of street lighting by a factor somewhere between 15-20 over the past 50 years. Far more significant savings have been made in reducing electricity consumption through new technologies than could have been achieved by a return to darkness: that is why the saving is so small.

  4. Thanks Doug. The whole thing is pretty dumb. SIgn of the times! S

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