Will 2012 be the year the lights go out?

I arrived in Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, at 5am. Something about the place didn’t look right. As I rode through the streets in a taxi, through my bleary-eyed stupor I realised why. It was pitch dark. Not pale-orange city dark but black countryside dark. The city had streetlights but none of them were working. The only light came from the private sector; from car headlights, hotel lobbies and the occasional posh shop that had left its window display lit overnight. I had never seen urban streets so dark. A city the size of Birmingham with no streetlights. It was spooky and slightly unnerving.

The reason was simple. Like most Russian cities at the time, Ekaterinburg was broke. During the Yelstin years of the 1990s, the Russian state, at national and local level, almost lost its ability to collect taxes. As it failed to pay police and tax collectors, their vulnerability to corruption increased, so the problem got worse. Ekaterinburg became one of Russia’s gangstergrads and much of what little state money remained was skimmed off through corruption. A couple of days into my visit it rained and huge ponds appeared in the potholed roads, unrepaired after many Siberian winters. This was what a bankrupt city looked like.

There was something chilling about the sudden collapse of post-communist Europe. The economic system that had sustained the infrastructure was pulled away and, in some places, the trappings of the modern world seemed to disappear with alarming speed. I’ve been to countries which don’t have street lights and where the toilets are holes in the ground. But if a country has never had modern amenities it’s somehow less disturbing than visiting one which seems to have gone backwards. If the streetlights are there but no longer working, and the broken remains of a ceramic toilet bowl lie next to the hole in the ground, you feel that bit closer to the thin line which separates civilisation from chaos.

And now many of our cash starved local authorities are planning to switch off their lights too. Kirklees, Essex, Watford and North Somerset are among a growing number of councils planning to switch off or reduce their street lighting. Many councils which have implemented tough spending cuts this year are being asked to make savings of a similar size next year. Having cut back on all the nice-to-haves, the axe will inevitably start to fall on the essentials.

So far, the cuts have been invisible to many people. If you don’t use libraries and social services and your children’s school has, as yet, escaped the accountants’ scrutiny, you may not have had any direct experience of austerity. But this may be the year that the reduction in council spending becomes visible to all. Unmended and unlit streets are hard to ignore.

Some councils argue that switching off streetlights makes little difference to public safety and accident rates. Maybe they are right. But dark streets are deeply symbolic. Only the oldest among us can remember cities with dark streets. Most of us who live in cities have grown used to the permanent neon glow. Take it away and the streets look eerie. Whether or not dark cities are statistically any less safe doesn’t matter. Dark urban streets make people feel less secure. Putting the lights out is a very visible sign of austerity.

I’m told that the lights are back on in Ekaterinburg these days. The Russian state pulled back from the brink of collapse and the city has benefitted from central government and private investment.

I’ll never forget those unlit streets though. I hope we never reach the point where whole cities are plunged into darkness. The effect on the public morale and sense of well-being could be damaging for councils, for the economy and for the government. Local authorities should think hard before reaching for the light switch.

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9 Responses to Will 2012 be the year the lights go out?

  1. While I don’t disagree with your main argument, there are two points I think worth mentioning in relation to your example:

    a) Liverpool in the mid 90s was notorious for dark patches – it was not uncommon for stretches of main road between January and March to have no lights for nearly half a mile. It was poor management not the overall level of funding that caused the problem (miraculously all the lights were fixed in early April when new budgets came in)

    b) There are quite strong environmental and other reasons for switching street lights off in the early hours of the morning, which are unrelated to the current financial pressures on local government (the Campaign for Dark Skies has been leading on this issue for some time)

    • James F says:

      Hear hear.

      There’s a difference between switching off all of the lights all of the time, as described in the post, and switching off some of the lights, some of the time, which isn’t just economically sensible, but is also environmentally better in terms of both reducing unnecessary light pollution and limiting a city’s unnecessary consumption of power with associated carbon emissions.

  2. sanabituranima says:

    “Some councils argue that switching off streetlights makes little difference to public safety and accident rates. Maybe they are right. But dark streets are deeply symbolic. ”

    So what would you rather they cut instead?

  3. Pingback: Will 2012 be the year the lights go out? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  4. Back in the 1980s, some folk used to explain the apparent widespread tolerance of the Thatcherite cuts via reference to the development of a ‘1/3rd/2/3rds society’- that is a world where sufficiently large numbers of people actually benefited from the otherwise painful ( ‘painful’ used here to mean ‘politically impossible in the previous decade’) spread of unemployment and reductions in public service as to make it political and economically palatable to the majority . The sale of council houses and the ‘Telling of Sid’ spread of individual share ownership were also important pill sweeteners. But the important thing was that mostpeople found themselves better off, or at least no worse off, and the pain was disproportionately concentrated on a minority.

    Now, you don’t have to buy this explanation of the underlying dynamics of 1980s politics in it’s entirety to wonder whether is it actually possible for Cameron et al to repeat this trick ? Thus far, it would seem they have had some success in convincing people that the crisis is largely due to Labour profligacy. But this explanation is unlikely to be quite so widely accepted if and when the Coalition’s response to the crisis begins to lower living standards or ‘everyday’ experience of quality of life as per your example of street-lighting. Eventually, it must impinge on even this Government that the UK’s debt crisis is not primarily a question of Government debt,but one very much concentrated in the financial and, to a lesser extent, household sectors.(see graph at other end of link).

    In other words, most people’s pensions and most people’s mortgages are overvalued. The current programme of severe cutbacks in government spending is not simply making things worse, it’s ignoring the real problem.

    When and if this becomes political ‘visible’ I suspect we’ll see a big sea change in people’s opinions and views.

  5. Sean Jones says:

    As the owner of a telescope I would be happy for there to be the occsional dark sky night. On the other hand, once you’ve eliminated the astronomers the other people who would benefit from dark streets tend to be the sort of people I would not want to meet on a dark night.

  6. Pingback: That was the local government week that was « We Love Local Government

  7. Tone says:

    I reside in a rural village with no street lights:

    Crime rates are low, accident rates are low (both practically non-existant)

    In a couple of spots newcomers (presumably moving in from well-lit parts) have installed their own ‘security’ lights to the annoyance of those who preferred the starry nights and the ability sleep peacefully in total darkness.

    Controversy arose a few years back when the CAA insisted lights on a local radio mast were uprated and which now illuminates half of the county, but residents are mostly resigned to being unable to stop light pollution from creeping ever-onwards across our green and pleasant land (mores the pity!)

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