Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Many councils switching off street lights to save money

Watch Matt Prodger's full Newsnight report

Many councils are turning off street lights as a means of saving money, BBC Newsnight has learned.

Of 75 councils it spoke to in England and Wales, 32 said they would turn some lights off, nine are dimming lights and 14 considering street light cutbacks.

There are is no statutory obligation for councils to light the streets and flicking the switch is a cost-effective option in a time of austerity cuts.

But a charity is warning it could leave people with sight problems vulnerable.

RP Fighting Blindness, which works with one in 3,000 people who suffer retinitis pigmentosa - or night blindness - said it would put them at risk of street crime.

Street light

Chief executive David Head said: "This will surely lead to more people with sight loss becoming isolated in their own homes."

Among the 32 councils turning off lights are East and West Sussex, Devon, Dorset, Durham, Powys and Blaenau Gwent, while some lights will be dimmed in areas including Monmouthshire, Lincolnshire, Surrey and Hampshire.

In Scotland, where councils have warned they are facing the toughest budgets they have seen in decades, only one of the 22 councils Newsnight spoke to confirmed it would be turning off street lighting.

Highland Council - the least populated of all Scotland's 32 council areas - said it would be turning off some street lights, while Stirling, Fife and Angus Councils said they would be dimming lights.

Dumfries and Galloway Council told Newsnight that they were considering implementing changes to their street lighting.

Price rise

Nottinghamshire County Council is another of the councils in England which is implementing a policy of dimming and switching off street lights.

It's going to take about four years to introduce, but in any area where it is introduced we calculate that the cost of introduction will be paid back in three years
Martin Southers, Deputy Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council

It currently costs the county more than £5m a year to light its streets - five times more than it did in 2005 due to recent steep rises in energy prices.

The council's overall budget is to be slashed by £150m over the next three years.

The council says that even though the initial risk assessments which officials say will be done for every light will cost over £3m, switching off some lights is still a cost effective option, saving £1.25m a year.

"It's a very substantial scheme. It involves up to 93,000 lighting columns and… it's going to take about four years to introduce, but in any area where it is introduced we calculate that the cost of introduction will be paid back in three years," Councillor Martin Suthers, Deputy Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, told Newsnight.

Lights along main roads will be dimmed, while up to a half of lights in residential areas will be turned off between midnight and 0530 and lights in rural areas turned off completely - changes which could cut energy use by 25%.

Local opposition

However, the Conservative-led council's plan has sparked a local political row between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Stanton Hill has the highest crime rate in Nottinghamshire, and according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary's (HMIC) 2010 report, Nottinghamshire has England's worst performing police force.

There was a stabbing just down the road from here. The people that cause trouble at school, you don't want to be mixing with them in the dark. You just feel safer in the light
Stanton Hill teenager Tom Hollis

Jason Zadrozny, a Liberal Democrat Councillor for the area, has collected signatures from more than 2,000 people protesting against street lighting reductions:

"I'm not in opposition to cuts, we know that money's got to be saved after years of Labour mismanagement, but I'm raising my concerns in county hall and in national government," he told Newsnight reporter Matt Prodger.

When Prodger visited Stanton Hill he spoke to local residents equally concerned.

Jenny James, who said that there was a great deal of anti-social behaviour and youth crime in the area, said that such a move would be "absolutely dreadful".

"These streetlights aren't the brightest but they are there at least," she said.

Astronomy benefit

Seventeen-year-old Tom Hollis said: "There was a stabbing just down the road from here. The people that cause trouble at school, you don't want to be mixing with them in the dark. You just feel safer in the light."

However, the council says many lights will not be affected, including those near hospitals and accident black spots, and that it is working closely with the emergency services and will monitor the project to make sure crime and collision rates do not rise.

"If the police advise us that it was a mistake to reduce the lighting in a particular area because there has been an upsurge in crime, of course there's a simple solution - put the lights back on," Mr Suthers told Newsnight.

As well as saving money, the scheme will cut carbon emissions and light pollution, the council says.

And supporters of the plan say there can be other benefits too.

James Ince of Nottinghamshire Campaign for Clear Skies told Matt Prodger he supports the street light cuts on the grounds that he is an astronomer, but that "there are also very good environmental reasons like pollution and protecting the habitats of local nocturnal wildlife for dimming the lights".

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