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What gets politicians elected? Streetlighting, says the AA

Give me streetlighting, or give me death: The AA says UK politicians should expect a voters' revolt over streetlightinng. Above, the Virginian Patrick Henry, whose fiery 1775 'Give me liberty or give me death' speech led to American overthrow of British rule.

Common wisdom says that in politics, it’s jobs and taxes that really matter to people. But as Britain’s electorate heads to the polls in 2015, another issue will whip them into a frenzy: Streetlighting.

That’s according to the Automobile Association (AA), which predicts repercussions for authorities that have turned off streetlights to save money and energy.

‘Discontent with street-light blackouts threatens a backlash in next year’s elections,’ the motoring group says on its website.

Many counties, towns and municipalities have switched off lights from around midnight to 5 or 6 a.m., a move that the AA says has increased accidents, especially in 40 miles per hour zones. Coroners have cited dark roads as a contributing factor to 6 fatalities since 2009, the AA notes. The unlit roads are unsafe for drivers and pedestrians, who will take the issue to the ballot box, it warns.

‘You have to wonder if many councils fully appreciate the difficulties and concern their street light blackouts create for their electorates, particularly those who commute or drive early in the morning,’ said AA president Edmund King. ‘For instance, Hertfordshire County Council’s policy review found that the first and last trains of the day required travellers to walk to and from the station in the pitch black. Little wonder perhaps that counties on the outskirts of the capital, where workers have to get going very early or late to beat the rush, are seeing such a strong backlash.’

The AA wants councils to switch lights back on during the wee hours, especially on 40-mph roads, and it encourages the move to LED streetlighting to save money and energy.

It says that the potential for a voter backlash is greatest ‘to the north and east of London,’ where several councils scored among the lowest in a recent public satisfaction survey by a UK government funded group called the National Highways and Transport Network.

‘The five worst councils for street lighting in this year’s National Highways and Transport Network public satisfaction survey all operate a black-out during the early hours of the morning,’ AA said. It cited the worst performer out of 78 councils as Essex, with a satisfaction score of 45.1 %. The next four were: Hertfordshire, 51.7%; South Gloucestershire, 56.5%; Buckinghamshire, 58%; and Suffolk 58.7%.

Blackpool, which has implemented LED streetlighting, scored top satisfaction marks at 75.8%.

The issue has even featured on the national stage, as one Tory candidate for Parliament, Giles Watling, campaigned to keep the lights on in his unsuccessful bid to win last October’s Clacton by-election, the AA noted (Tory defector turned UKIP party member Douglas Carswell won).

Streetlighting advocacy has flared up in Southend, Chelmsford and Kent, among many other localities, the AA pointed out (see more below).

In response to public pressure, the mayor of Oswestry recently said he was reconsidering the town’s policy of turning off the lights, as Lux reported last month.

‘In retrospect if we had the facts about what LED lighting would have done, I think the saving could have been made then,’ Mayor John Gareth Jone said at the time. ‘We do need to look at it again because there are dangerous places in Oswestry. I’ve had no end of complaints.’

But even LED streetlighting, for all of its money-saving and CO2 reduction virtues, can raise public hackles. Wigan has decided to use warmer colour LEDs streetlamps after campaigner Simon Nicholas questioned possible health damage from the originally planned cooler varieties.

It seems that nothing stirs up the public more than jobs, taxes and streetlights. 

Image of A. Chappal painting of Patrick Henry is from the New York Public Library via Wikimedia

A sampler of  streetlighting politics: