The Cambridge Streetlight Switch-Off: what we know so far

torchlight

Like it or not, Cambridgeshire County Council seems determined to press ahead with its plan to turn off the county’s streetlights after midnight, even if they’re in our busy city. At Monday’s City Council South Area Committee meeting, residents got their best chance yet to ask questions about the scheme. Here’s what we learned.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the County Council as a body is not willing to engage in person with residents about the issue. Our own county councillor, Amanda Taylor, asked the chair of the County Council Highways and Community Infrastructure Committee, a councillor from Linton named Roger Hickford, if he would attend the meeting, and also if the council officer responsible might join him. Ms Taylor reports that Mr Hickford refused the request, on the grounds that despite his role, the ultimate decision would not be his personally. He also said that officers do not have the time to do so. This argument was slightly undermined by the fact that the council officer responsible for the cycleway scheme had earlier found the time to attend this meeting, where he had been made most welcome.

According to Ms Taylor, Mr Hickford went on to suggest that it was her job, as the local county councillor, to tell the residents what was going on. The problem there is that after talking to local residents and taking advice, Ms Taylor has come down against the proposed switch-off, and is therefore hardly the right person to explain the supposed benefits of the idea.

Public consultation

Curiously, however, the whole situation ended up being explained to the meeting by none other than Lewis Herbert, Leader of the Council at Cambridge City Council. As somebody not responsible in any way for the County Council’s actions, it was most generous of Mr Herbert to give up his time to do this. He told the meeting that there is to be a public consultation on the plan to turn off the streetlights, but that the County Council had not yet told him what form the consultation will take. We’ll circulate details to readers here as soon as we have them. However, on the County Council’s website, the relevant Q&A page does appear to be presenting the switch-off as a fait accompli.

Mr Herbert pointed out the map (below, click to enlarge) which has been produced by the County Council showing the main streets (shown in blue) which will not be affected. In all other cases (green), the lights will be switched off at midnight until 6am, or presumably in the summer they will not come back on at all. He went on to say that lights were already being dimmed as early as 8pm.

qe-lights

The switch-off is being presented entirely as a money-saving exercise, not for any environmental benefits. Some of the questions from the public and councillors referred to this. They asked:
– How much energy will be saved? Is it worth it?
– If money saving is an issue, why are the expensive new streetlights everywhere not using LED technology?
– What will be the cost to the health service of an increase in accidents? Why are these ideas always justified in isolation?
– Can individual streets, or the whole city, pay for the streetlights to stay on? Will the county council allow it?
– Have services such as Addenbrookes been asked about the costs to them? They may have interesting input.

Net cost to the public purse

Ms Taylor was able to answer some of these questions, as she is on the County Council’s ‘Highways Committee’. She said that the energy saving should be 45%, but couldn’t say of what. She said that LED lighting had not been specified because the replacement streetlighting project had been put in place up to 8 years ago when the technology was not an option, and had dragged on, but absurdly could not be renegotiated. Ms Taylor believes that an online-only consultation would be quite unsatisfactory, and agreed that the increased risk of injuries would surely result in a net cost to the public purse. She said that the County Council has been talking to parish councils about ‘keeping the lights on’ at a cost to them of £12 per streetlight per year, but she did not think this would be available in city.

Other councillors had their say. Tim Moore said: “I laugh at the saving. Environmental aspects may be important but compare any financial saving against the cost of falls. It’s an obvious problem for those with visual impairment but also for anyone with mobility problems. The dimming of lights earlier in the evening is just as significant as an after-midnight switch-off.”

Zoe O’Connell said she understood that a change to LED technology would have delayed installation and that would have caused costs to the contractor, who therefore did not wish to offer the option. But who’s writing the contract?

George Pippas said: “We were assured a long time ago that the new streetlights would be on 100% until 11pm, then dimmed. I believe we were lied to, as there was no mention of switching them off originally. We need support from residents to fight this.”

Shapour Meftah remarked that it seemed strange to spend so much money on new streetlights only for them to be switched off. He asked: “Can we divert some of our city project money to this?” Russ McPherson pointed out that the report from the City Council points out that the County Council “cannot specify the saving resulting in the city”, which rather makes a mockery of any cost-justification.

Issues over safety

Mr Herbert tackled the issue of whether the city could pay for the streetlights to stay on by saying that it was reluctant to pay for a service that the County Council should run, but that they will take advice from residents. There are most certainly issues over safety, as well as walking or cycling journeys to and from colleges, the station and hospital, which are not faced in rural areas. He said that the City Council has engaged with police, who are not happy with the proposal, and they are also talking to the universities. It’s acknowledged that many commuters start before 6am. There is no specific logic to the switch-off times. He aims to make sure people know what is proposed, and to have a dialogue. Ms O’Connell added that is would be undesirable “to have richer streets paying for their lights”, leaving any adverse impact to be felt by less affluent areas.

Mr Herbert agreed that the biggest disappointment of all is for so much of the city to have been dug up for new streetlights, only to then switch them off. Mr Herbert said: “We will make a cogent case based on what has been put to us, but we need a clear voice. I’ve picked up a number of good points tonight. It’s a shame that the ruling group of the County Council does not have a single councillor from the city, which explains why there’s so little connection between the city and the county. The city lives heavily at night and expects the lights to be on past midnight.”

Finally, Mr Herbert generously commended the residents in the south of the city for being in the forefront of bringing the streetlight switch-off proposal to wider attention.

There is a report from the City Council on the issue here, which is worth reading. I will report any further developments, including details of the consultation, as soon as I hear about them. For those of us who don’t want to go back to the days of the Blitz, the omens are not good. In Essex, where the streetlights were switched off at night some time back, the opposition from town and city residents has been vehement. But the issue there became a political one, with a spiteful County Council apparently refusing to let town and city councils turn the lights back on, despite raising the funds.

Unfortunately, a similar situation exists in Cambridgeshire, where the County Council is run by largest group comes from one political party, and the City Council here is almost entirely comprised of councillors representing other parties. Mr Herbert was diplomatic in his description above. It could still well be the case that our streetlights are switched off at night on the whim of some eccentric, vindictive councillors from towns an hour away across the Fens, who rarely visit the city and take great pleasure in causing problems for any politicians from another party here.

12 Replies to “The Cambridge Streetlight Switch-Off: what we know so far”

  1. Thank you for your report of the meeting, Chris.

    On the energy saving that might be achieved by switching off lights at night, what I said is that the new lights make a 45% energy saving compared to the ones they replaced but that I could not give a figure in energy units off the top of my head. I’ve asked the Council’s lighting engineer if he can provide figures and he’s gone away to do the calculation. What we do know is the financial saving: across the county, the night-time switch-off is estimated to produce financial savings of about £275,000.

    The Council is researching a business case for LED lights; as I said at the meeting, this option was not viable when the PFI contract was drawn up and it would require new capital investment. Renegotiating the PFI contract would indeed be complex.

    The option for third party funding is open to the City Council or other third parties but at present there is no easy system for city residents to pay for their own lights should they wish to. However, as Cllr O’Connell said at the meeting, there is an equalities issue here.

    I have received a range of opinions on this topic, from those who applaud the savings of energy to those who predict increased crime and accidents. An on-line consultation by the County will be commencing on the streetlighting this month. Liberal Democrat councillors are consulting via email and printed newsletters.

  2. Hallo David.

    It is actually less than that. The population of Cambridgeshire is about 650,000, so this measure would save approximately 42p per person.

    This is only one of many deeply undesirable cuts being considered by the Council in the face of a 27% cut in central government funding. To see the bigger picture you might like to take part in the County’s budget consultation: please see http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/news/article/358/cambridgeshire_budget_challenge_consultation_launch

  3. It’s an obvious point perhaps, but doesn’t it show how useless this PFI contract is when it’s written in such a way as to exclude any negotiation/flexibility whatsoever about what technology is used?

  4. I didn’t say there was NO flexibility, but it would not be straightforward to renegotiate, because the PFI is a contract of labyrinthine complexity. The Conservatives, who ran the Council at the time the contract was set up, gave us a rigid contract, with very little flexibility on issues such as removals and light types, but with loose provisions other areas, such as standards of service. The councillor who drew up the contract, has said in public, ‘If I had the chance to rewrite that contract, I would.’

  5. By the way, can I ask about the County Council survey? I’m put off filling it in because the questions seem weighted towards those people who might be out between 12 midnight and 6am. I’m unlikely to be but do want to give my two penn’orth. I’ve noticed this with the survey for the Chisholm Trial (build it now!), by the way and it troubles me because it looks like they’re ignore people who won’t be affected, positively or negatively. (That may not of course be the case but it’s the impression I get.)

    1. The questions are framed so as to elicit information abotu people who are out and about between midnight and 6am, to find out frequency, how they would be affected, what the purpose of the journey is, etc. I agree it is not easy if you are responding thinking about other people.

      The County is also running a more general survey about spending priorities, called Cambridgeshire’s £100 million budget challenge: http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/challenge. This gives the bigger picture with services such as streetlighting and roads maintenance shown alongside other services such as children’s centres and adult social care.

  6. The survey at least gives you the chance to make some comments, so it’s worth it for that alone. I think they’re keen to hear from people who won’t be affected, because they’d like to gauge just how many of them there might be. After all, if it was everyone, then switching off the lights would be a no-brainer.

  7. If they put one of the new bus stops in every road then there will be no need for street lights. The one opposite our house is like Blackpool illuminations all night. Suggestions on how to cut down the glare have been put to the private operator (Clear Channel) via the County Highways Dept. and I await their response. There will be 3 more once the cycle paths are finished with one at the top of Hills Road, opposite Marshall Road soon to be switched on.

  8. It seems strange to me there is cash for large notices at the end of this Avenue to say the 20 mile limit may now be 30 miles per hour – plus umpteen notices all over Cambridge. Many young children live in Hinton Avenue. My father-in-law many years ago said ” chemicals in food would send us all barmy”.

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