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Street Lighting (Residential Areas)

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in Parliament an issue of great importance to people in my constituency of Corby and in East Northamptonshire. The earliest street lights were used by Greek and Roman civilizations. They were used in Egypt more than a thousand years ago. They were common in the UK by the time wax candles turned to electric candles. Electricity transformed the efficiency and effectiveness of street lighting, which for well over 100 years has illuminated our towns and cities. From the Romans to the Victorians to today, street lights have been a civilising force in our communities. They help us to move about more safely, whether on foot or cycle, or in our cars or on public transport. They help us to be safer from crime, whether that is crime on the person, vehicle crime or burglary. In short, they are essential to our safety and security.

Street lights give us a greater sense of well-being; they give us more confidence as darkness falls; and they help us to go about our business, whether going to or returning from work, including those who work shifts. They help us when we are going to a social club, a pub, a church group, a gym, or when we are visiting family or friends or popping to the shops. Most of us, most of the time, for most of our lives, have taken street lighting for granted, but suddenly, in many communities in the UK, it is not there.

Let us imagine the iconic scene, if you will, Madam Deputy Speaker, of Gene Kelly under a lamp post. He is about to sing in the rain, except that he cannot because he cannot see to dance and we cannot see to watch him—his council has switched the street lights off. So it has been in Corby and East Northamptonshire for the past 18 months. A darkness has fallen across our towns and villages; a dark age, rolling back time, as though we live in a time before civilisation, before electricity, and before councils and local government and all the good that they can do to make our places liveable and our communities strong, safe and vibrant.

In 2011, Northamptonshire county council turned off more than 30,000 street lights. The off switch was pressed on approximately half the lights in the county. The general pattern was every other light. In some places, more were off. There was little consultation, precious little listening, and even less consideration of the implications, both generally for people’s safety and well-being and specifically about those highways, alleyways and pathways where the arbitrary turning off of street lights would have a particular impact.

Two reasons were given. The first was to save money in the face of drastic cuts from central Government. Let me say that I do not support that scale and pace of the introduction of those cuts to our councils. They have been hugely damaging to our communities and our economy, all part of an approach that has plunged the UK into a second recession and stopped the economy growing. Perhaps the Minister and I can leave that debate to another day and accept that councils need to make efficiencies. They need to ensure that their budgets are balanced.

Local authorities have many important responsibilities and one is street lighting, which at pre-cuts levels in Northamptonshire cost just 0.08% of the council’s budget. I will put that more simply and in language that I, and everybody I represent, can understand: it costs each household £1.14 a year to have decent street lighting. That is a very small price to pay for adequate street lighting, and I think all the residents in Corby and East Northamptonshire would see that as good value for money. The council tells us that its cuts had an environmental rationale—to replace the lights with more energy-efficient, cost-efficient and effective lighting. I think that is right in principle, but let us look at what it did in practice.

The council should have had a plan for switching over to newer, more energy-efficient lighting that did not involve turning off half the lights first for several years. It should have had a plan that did not involve putting people’s safety at risk. A nine-year-old boy was taken to hospital after being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing on Oakley road in Corby. The street lights had been turned off near a pedestrian crossing. The county council stated that because the road has a 40 mph limit

“this meant it required fewer street lights to be left on”.

The boy was treated and he recovered. The council did not take responsibility, but the lights were turned back on. It should not take an accident before the council acts properly and sensibly in the public interest.

When the streetlights were first turned off people said, “There will be an accident there before long”, and so it proved: prangs and bumps, trips and falls. However, for many more, the fear of accidents prevented them from going out at all, as did the fear of crime. When the county council started turning off lights, more than 1,200 people signed up to the “Corby Street Lights” Facebook page. Across Northamptonshire, people protested. Stefano in Raunds pressed the council to turn street lights back on in Primrose Hill, where elderly residents feel unsafe. Sonia, a mum of three in Corby, told the Northamptonshire Telegraph, which is represented in the Gallery today for this debate:

“The main thing is a complete lack of consultation. I have been a victim of crime myself. I have had wing mirrors kicked off and car windows broken. Come winter it is going to be dark at 4.30 pm and it is like imposing a curfew if you are old or infirm.”

Those people in my constituency are supported in their concerns and first-hand experiences by much evidence that the Minister will no doubt be aware of. A systematic review by the Home Office on the effects of street lighting on crime found that

“improved street lighting led to significant reductions in crime...with an overall reduction in recorded crime of 20 per cent”

in towns across the UK. I think that the Minister will agree that something that results in a 20% reduction in crime is a good thing.

The Institute of Lighting Engineers believes that

“the many benefits street lighting provides the community far outweigh the limited returns that can be achieved by switching off or removing lighting”.

Cambridge criminologist David Farrington said that

“improved street lighting should continue to be used to prevent crime in public areas. It has few negative effects and clear benefits for law-abiding citizens”.

Paul Watters, head of policy at the AA, said that turning off the street lights

“may save money in terms of energy, but then you have to look at the cost in terms of security, safety and accidents and it may actually be more”.

I am a fellow Northamptonshire MP. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been considerable consultation on this matter? The county council has indicated that it consulted via its YouChoose website, comment cards available at libraries, tweeting, e-mails and contacting the local press and other representative organisations. Does he also agree that a lot of the measures that the county council has had to take are because of the profligate spending of the previous Labour Government?

I do not agree. If that is the best that the hon. Gentleman has to offer on his constituents’ concerns about street lighting, I am very disappointed in him. The things he describes are an example of what people in my constituency call “nonsultation”—when people consult but do not listen. That is what happened in this case.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Let me tell him, if he will listen, about the case of Gary Tompkins, a 25-year-old man in Milton Keynes who died after being hit by a car. Let me tell him what the coroner said—the Minister will be interested in this, too. The coroner found that turning off of the road lights contributed to this death, and that

“no formal risk assessment was carried out by the council before the decision was made”.

I am not aware of a proper risk assessment taking place in Northamptonshire, and that is why people such as the nine-year-old child in my constituency were injured.

In Dorset, street lights are being turned back on following a spate of arson attacks on cars. Through these cases, in my constituency and many others, a pattern emerges of councils playing “street light roulette”. They over-eagerly turn them off without sufficient risk assessment and proper consultation, someone gets hurt or property gets damaged and the council looks again at the street lights and starts to turn them back on. That is no way to ensure public safety.

The Highway Electrical Association will publish research next month that, following a comprehensive review of switch-offs across the UK, will recommend the following approach for councils to take. First, it will recommend that the local authority should carry out a detailed risk analysis of lighting provision and particular areas of concern, and secondly that the local authority should then determine what can be done with the existing lighting. Lots of councils around the country have looked at whether they can switch of, or dim, the lights at certain times of the night, and they have looked at areas where the lighting is less important to public safety. I think we can all support that as a sensible approach.

Thirdly, the report will advise that local authorities, before taking any action, should consult properly with residents and other stakeholders. Those three steps, which were not taken in Northamptonshire, seem to make good sense. I hope that the Minister will agree and endorse this approach. That is one positive outcome that could come from this Adjournment debate.

If Northamptonshire county council had acted properly, I would not have heard from Mr Robson, who contacted me to tell me that

“when he and his co-workers finish after midnight, they face walking along Willowbrook road. Part of the path here goes into the woods, where all the lights have been turned off”.

Neither would I have heard from Ann Leonard, the secretary of the Corby co-operative women’s guild, who tells me that the group leave all together and help each other into their cars, because they are afraid. Darren Melville told me that he has had to stop going on his regular runs. Not only did he find it difficult to see where he was stepping, which led to a couple of falls, but he no longer felt safe.

Many right hon. and hon. Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, know how Mr Melville feels, because they too have walked the streets of my constituency. During the by-election, our teams used head torches to get around, and on doorstep after doorstep they met residents who raised concerns about street lights. That is why it is one of my top priorities and remains so.

On Saturday, I was out campaigning in Irthlingborough in my constituency. I met residents on Meadow walk, a road of old people’s bungalows, where all the lights are out. People there not only feel afraid to go out, but feel trapped and afraid in their homes. This becomes even more pertinent in the depths of winter, and not just because of the long nights and short days. My constituent Matthew Reay said to me that

“it is particularly worrying that lights are off during a period in which most paths and roads are covered in ice”.

Northamptonshire county council has not properly addressed the concerns. People have been told, “You need a security alarm”, or, “Get yourself a torch”, when they have complained to the council about specific problems. There is a better way. Sheffield city council has shown a better way of investing in white LED lights, which are better and brighter, and Salford city council has done the same. Looking ahead, I want to see the street lights being turned back on in Corby and investment in more energy and cost-efficient lighting, but we need our street lighting now, in the interest of public safety, and we need a programme of replacement that does not compromise that safety as we go forward.

Perhaps even in the dimly lit corners of Eland House, where the Parliamentary Under-Secretary toils, some thought and consideration is being given to the proper way in which councils should conduct their business. I ask him to use the power of the Dispatch Box this evening and the power of his pen tomorrow to prevail on Northamptonshire county council to light properly the towns and villages of Northamptonshire once again.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this evening’s debate. I am pleased to be responding to what I believe is his first Adjournment debate since becoming a Member of Parliament last November, on what is clearly a subject of great importance to him. I also congratulate him on his speech. He started with a number of clearly well researched historical facts. He could have easily answered the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, although I was greatly pleased that he resisted the temptation to sing and dance.

It might be helpful if I begin by saying a few words about the background on street lighting in residential areas more generally before I talk about the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s case. Street lighting is often taken for granted, but it is an important service for local communities. Most residential street lighting in England is the responsibility of local highway authorities. Local authorities, such as Northamptonshire county council, which covers his constituency, have a duty under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 to maintain the public highways in their charge. That duty covers street lighting. That said, authorities do not have a duty to light any particular parts of their networks, but where lighting has been provided, the authority has a duty to maintain it. It is therefore for each local highway authority to decide what level of service it wishes its street lighting network to deliver. It is also up to the authority to decide on the appropriate technical solution to ensure suitable lighting of its highways, as well as deciding what level of funding is appropriate to maintain its lighting networks.

I am aware that many councils are now taking a proactive approach, looking at a number of ways to reduce their overall funding programmes. Some councils are thinking innovatively about how to deliver their services, and that thought is indeed being inspired by the Ministers at Eland House. I, of course, toil at Great Minister House as opposed to Eland House, which is where the Department for Communities and Local Government resides. I know that my hon. Friends who reside at Eland House are encouraging local authorities up and down the country to look at new and innovative ways of delivering services to their communities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, many authorities are looking at ways of delivering their street lighting commitments. Many are implementing a policy of dimming street lights between midnight and 6 am or even turning them off during those hours. Some, such as Northamptonshire county council, have taken further steps and decided to turn some lights off completely. Let me be clear: central Government have no powers to override local decisions in these matters, nor should it be the job of bureaucrats or Ministers in Whitehall to dictate to local government how it determines local solutions.

Let me turn to Northamptonshire’s street lighting policy. I am aware that when considering its budgets—in light of the challenge to everybody after the profligate spending of the last Labour Administration—the county council’s cabinet considered a proposal in 2010 to make £1 million of savings by changing the county’s street lighting policy. As part of that exercise, including the consultation, the council made it clear that its intention was not just to make savings, but to respond to a growing recognition in many parts of Northamptonshire that the pre-switch-off policy had been somewhat over-engineered and was not as energy efficient as it could be. The county council also stated that it wanted to reconsider street lighting as part of its overall environmental agenda.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not only a question of energy efficiency and energy savings, but—as usual—of hearing the Labour Opposition reject any form of savings without offering any ideas on how they would save instead, in times of austerity that are due largely to Labour overspending for many years?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend.

I shall touch on a solution that Northamptonshire county council offered to Corby in a moment. The council decided in January 2011 that it should find an additional £1 million saving from its street lighting, bringing the total amount of savings that it wished to achieve to some £2 million per annum. The council undertook a consultation on its proposals, which was promoted in the local press as well as on the council’s website. I know that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents had concerns about that process, and felt that it was not sufficiently widespread.

The council commenced switching off lights in April 2011, and the process continued through to August of that year. Out of the council’s asset of 67,000 street lights, almost 30,000 were switched off. In Corby, 3,681 of the 8,275 lights have now been switched off. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in response to some of the criticisms of the consultation process, a further consultation was carried out with county councillors.

I am slightly confused by the Minister’s approach. He says that it is not his position to direct the local authority, but I have not asked him to do that; I am a localist. I have, however, asked him to advise me on the Government’s position, in the light of all the research that I have highlighted, including that of the Home Office. He seems to be reading from a brief from the county council, which can well speak for itself, rather than setting out the Government’s position on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman has made his speech, and if he will forgive me, I am now setting out the Government’s overall responsibility and the liabilities and duties of county councils. I am setting out the situation, as he did, and if he will wait a few minutes longer, I will make some comments on the Government’s response. It is important to set out the case, so that we can understand it and so that we can all agree on what is actually happening. That is what I am attempting to do.

I have just made the point that, in response to criticism, the county council carried out a further consultation. The chief executives of all of the county’s borough and district councils were sent letters and invited to meetings on street policy. Written responses were received from three borough councils in Northamptonshire, including Corby, which asked that the lights be put back on in crime or accident hot spots. I think that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that the county council has addressed some of those concerns, and that changes were made to the policy as a result, specifically in regard to the reduction of repair times, as well as to switching the lights back on.

During the switch-off period across Northamptonshire, the public were invited to submit appeals if they felt that the proposed policy was not being correctly applied. In theory, that appeal period was due to end in September 2011, but in practice it was extended until December 2012. During that period, the council considered some 4,000 appeals and, as a result, nearly 1,000 street lights were turned back on.

I understand that the leader of Northamptonshire county council met the leader of Corby borough council—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present at that meeting—to try to come to some arrangement on the street lights in Corby, and offered to switch back on any lights that the borough council wanted to be kept on, so long as the borough provided a 50% funding contribution. I also understand that, although the borough council has made a certain amount of noise, it has not yet taken up that offer.

My constituents were affected in the same way as Corby residents, but a number of parishes across my constituency pay for their own street lighting. I have thus received almost as many letters complaining that people were having to pay twice for street lighting across the county as I did from those complaining about switching off the lights in inappropriate places.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point.

Before I leave Northamptonshire, it is worth saying—and it is important to point out—that the reduced energy usage that the change in policy will have yielded by the end of March 2013 is expected to be approximately 10,500 tonnes of carbon saving, and there will be annual savings in excess of 5,000 tonnes in the future.

Given that the Minister has chosen to focus many of his remarks on local research about how Corby council responded, let me remind him that my constituency covers two local authorities. I have mentioned examples in Raunds and Irthlingborough in another local authority. In the interests of balance, those people might be interested to know the Minister’s views on how their local authority responded, the number of lights turned off in their areas, and so forth. That would be very interesting.

I am happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman with the numbers, but my point is that Corby did respond and it was made an offer. [Interruption.] I am saying that Corby did respond to the leader of the county council, who then made an offer to respond to Corby council’s demands. So far, Corby council has not responded.

Let me say a few words about the Government’s policy on street lighting. It is, of course, right that local authorities, not central Government, consider—in the interests of cost-saving and the environment—whether lighting can be sensibly dimmed or switched off, consistent with proper safety assessments. We are aware that a number of local authorities around the country have commenced similar lighting projects to deliver energy savings and carbon usage reductions. Guidance produced by the Institution of Lighting Professionals is available for any local authority that wants to adopt such a scheme. We are aware that a number of local authorities are taking the decision, following traffic incidents, to switch some lights back to an all-night operation at certain locations, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is, as I have said, the duty of the local authority to ensure that street lighting is maintained if it has chosen to provide it.

The hon. Gentleman raises perfectly reasonable concerns about possible increases in crime. That is understandable, and the reduction of street lighting might cause some people to question their safety and security. However, evidence to date from authorities up and down the country that have adopted switching-off policies between midnight and 6 am, or have switched off lights permanently, shows no relationship at the moment between reduced street lighting and increases in crime levels. That has been backed up by a number of police authorities, which have made statements to confirm that crime levels have not increased since councils adopted the policy of switching off lights between midnight and 6 am.

The Department is aware of work undertaken last year by Warwickshire county council, which contacted 30 local authorities to see whether there was any measurable impact on crime or road safety. The evidence is not conclusive, but from the monitoring undertaken by the county council and by these authorities so far, no significant increases in either crime levels or road accidents have been reported. There will be individual cases, and I offer my sympathy to the young gentleman who was knocked down, but nationally recognised research papers, including Home Office research, are similarly inconclusive on this point.

The Government would, of course, advise that any authority should work closely with the emergency services, community safety and other key partners when considering the street-lighting needs of local people. We also advise local authorities to monitor the impacts following implementation of any street-lighting changes and to ensure they have provision for reversing any of the changes, should the need arise.

So, in conclusion, remote monitoring, dimming, trimming and switching off of street lights can play an important part in reducing energy costs, light pollution and carbon emissions. That is clearly a matter for local authorities.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. He made a powerful case on behalf of his constituents, and I note the concerns that were expressed. I suggest that he should continue to raise them directly with the county council.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.