Saturday, 8 November 2014

The stars are the street lights of eternity…

Moonlight is sculpture; sunlight is painting.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne

In this month’s edition of the Tysoe & District Record, Jane Millward, our hardworking (but, of course, voluntary) Parish Council Clerk, wrote that “The cost of providing street lighting around the parish has gone up by 40%”; and added that the Parish Council, therefore, “would like to sound out opinions from our residents on some of the options.”

I have posted about Tysoe’s “rude interruption of sodium” before; as well as describing my night-time peregrinations around the village: where “The pools of darkness, inbetween, highlight what a beautiful place we live in”. But I do accept, and understand, that, earlier in the night, there may be a need for street lamps – for example, where “continuity of lighting levels is important to pedestrians” – although our neighbouring villages of Oxhill and Pillerton Priors manage without them (as did the village of Fovant, in Wiltshire, where I used to live: and where the nightly view of the Milky Way was so much more than compensation for the dark – but not consequently mean – streets).

Many councils – regional, county, district, town and parish – are already turning off a goodly proportion of their street lamps between midnight and 05:00 or 05:30 GMT (with them not then coming back on if it’s already light, and the sun has begun to rise…) – for ecological reasons (the benefits to wildlife; lower emissions…), as well as economical; and without any obvious downsides. For instance, approximately 80% of Warwickshire County Council-owned street lights now operate on a ‘part night’ basis: leading to nearly 40,000 street lights being switched off for some of the night. And in Essex – contrary to what you might expect – “The experience to date is that there has been no increase in crime or accident levels which could be attributed to the introduction of part night lighting.”

There is, as well, no statutory requirement for local authorities in the UK to provide street lighting. The Highways Act simply empowers local authorities to illuminate our roads: stipulating that any “lighting units are kept in safe condition”.

I know that the Parish Council “will be checking to see we are on the best tariff available”; but I wonder if there are additional ways of mitigating costs. Part of the 40% increase is “due to increased VAT levels”; and I therefore would be interested to learn if the Parish Council is – or could be – registered as a charity: as, according to HMRC, “subject to certain conditions, your charity may be able to buy fuel and power at the reduced VAT rate”. There are probably details in the council’s constitution that I am not aware of that would make this impracticable – but I feel I should mention it for the sake of completeness: especially as any organization that is registered for VAT may also be able to claim some of it back.

Another possible strategy would be to change the source of the electricity used. I have written before about the feasibilities of generating our own wind power, and how this could be financed by the village. To simply fuel our few street lights – and for short periods of time – would not require the leviathans striding across the Edge Hills that I presume most folks would imagine: an image which seems to be the largest obstacle – and the “only one honest objection” – to onshore wind power’s acceptance and deployment. Or we could use solar-powered low-energy LEDs: which have a potential to generate excess – green – electricity that can then be sold back to the grid to raise revenue for the Parish Council, or provide dividends to residents who have invested.

Such lights might again raise aesthetic disapproval: because of the “bright white light” most of them are designed to produce. But I see no reason why high-wattage LEDs need be used; or why we should not break the mould (if we are to carry on lighting our streets), and keep to the dull orange we are accustomed to.

As well as saving money, it will be a boon to skywatchers in the surrounding countryside, as LED lights provide more illumination on the ground and less to the clouds. Close to 100% of the light goes downward, unlike conventional street lights which send a third of their glow into the night sky, causing light pollution.

Financial help for such projects is now available – at least for local authorities: and I admit that I do not know if this applies to parish councils, or if they are allowed to borrow money (although I am sure that Stratford-on-Avon District Council could play a pivotal rôle here, if needs be…) – for making the switch to low-energy streetlights “with the launch of a new Green Loan from the UK Green Investment Bank (GIB)”: which offers “a low, fixed rate… over a period of up to 20 years”.

We have the means to limit climate change…. The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change.
Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Having said all that – and having walked around Tysoe many times during the dark hours mooted by the Parish Council, and never met another soul, and encountered next to no traffic – I believe that (disregarding any other reasons) there isn’t actually any need or demand for street lighting then (if at all…): especially, where lamps generally are left on, by other authorities, it is principally to safeguard the interaction of large amounts of traffic and pedestrians.

And if you’re worried about the increasing number of vehicles parked overnight on the Main Street chicane, these should already be protected by the requirements of the Highway Code: that is, not parking “on a road at night facing against the direction of the traffic flow unless in a recognised parking space” (so that their rear reflectors catch the attention of any oncoming headlights); and displaying “parking lights when parked on a road or a lay-by on a road with a speed limit greater than 30 mph”.

Mind you, keeping BST throughout the year, and limiting the centre of the village to 20 mph (as Clifford Chambers is in the process of doing) – which, realistically, is the maximum sensible speed for traversing it (at any time of day) – would also help; and, anyway, the current street lamps do little to negate the need for main beam headlights, if you are driving through Tysoe with safety in mind (and are not instead updating your Facebook status on your smartphone to “Currently in intensive care” or, perhaps, more likely, “Currently in custody”).

Whatever is finally decided, it must, I suggest, be uniformly applied (and policed); and follow an audit of the entire parish. As I have written previously, “Windmill Way must contain as many lamp-posts as the full length of Main Street”: and is therefore one of the largest sources of light pollution in the village. Subject to residents agreeing, the number of lamps that are lit there – at any time – could be reduced drastically and permanently.

It is especially important that, in historic towns and conservation areas, particular attention is paid to the aesthetic quality of street furniture and lighting. Care should be taken to avoid light pollution and intrusion, particularly in rural areas. In some cases it may not be appropriate to provide lighting, for example in a new development in an unlit village…. Where street furniture or lighting is taken out of service, it should be removed.
– Department for Transport: Manual for Streets

The decision must also apply to any new-builds. Imagine if Gladman’s proposed eighty houses were built, and all lit as densely and uniformly as Windmill Way. Upper and Middle Tysoe residents would drastically lose the number of stars they could count in the night sky, as would those living nearby.

Light at night not only disrupts your sleep but also interferes with your circadian rhythms. Recent research indicates that intrusive lighting may reduce the production of melatonin, a beneficial hormone, and a resulting raise in the rates of breast and other cancers.

And, finally, villagers should be conscious that any lights they fit to their homes – for security reasons, perhaps (especially considering the recent heating oil thefts in Tysoe, highlighted by David Sewell, editor of the Record) – should not be excessive, and contribute to such pollution themselves: lighting only their own properties; not trespassing onto the public highway, startling motorists and passing pedestrians with their “unsafe glare”; and certainly not – as does one property in Upper Tysoe – flash on and off, every minute or so, like some Warwickshire Pharos, when it is gusty (not an uncommon occurrence at the windmill end of the village). There is nothing worse, once you have gotten your night eyes in – and “It takes between 40 minutes and an hour for your eyes to become fully adapted to seeing in the dark”– than then being blinded by such an unthoughtful and solipsistic installation.

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