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.