Comment, Outdoor

When it comes to public lighting, everyone’s got an opinion

A poster in the front window of a house in South London. People really, really care about their streetlights

If you’re thinking about changing the lighting for public spaces such as roads, parks or railway stations, you can expect to hear from Joe Public about it.

He probably won’t write you a letter of thanks for slashing electricity bills or carbon emissions, but he’ll sure as hell get in touch if any light spills into his bedroom.

In Croydon a couple of years ago, residents threw their arms around their heritage lampposts in a vain attempt to stop them being taken away.

More recently in Peckham, South London, locals have posted ‘Save Our Streetlights‘ posters in their front windows, hoping to stop ‘ugly’ new lights replacing their nice old ones.

In Trafford, local man Simon Nicholas got so annoyed about what he saw as bad quality, bad value LED streetlighting that he began hassling not only his local council, but others whose LED plans he disapproved of, including Wigan and Cardiff. He’s become something of an amateur expert in streetlighting, and has even been involved in helpint the ILP update its guidance. Most recently he has mounted a legal challenge to Trafford’s claim that its latest streetlighting spec has to stay secret because the job is being handled by a private contractor.

Those who manage lighting estates are acutely aware of the power of public opinion, and the importance of listening to those who have to live under these lights. But they are also conscious of the need to improve light quality and reduce costs – which isn’t always the same as giving people what they want.

Some have coped with this by sneaking upgrades through on the sly. In a recent LED rollout on a big transport network, the client feared that careless travellers would blame the new lights for trips and falls, claiming they were too dim or too glary (regardless of whether they actually were). So to avoid frivolous lawsuits and tabloid scare stories, the changeover was made discreetly, with new lights that looked as much like the old ones as possible.

Another strategy is simply to defy public opinion. Nottinghamshire County Council, which is bringing in LED streetlighting after residents reacted badly to a switch-off programme, has a wonderfully blunt Frequently Asked Questions section on its website, in which it addresses the question, ‘Why wasn’t I consulted?’ Its answer is: ‘Everyone has a view on streetlighting, some like them off, some like them on, some like the orange lights and some like the white lights… It’s therefore a no-win situation to please everyone, if we were to consult and take all residents’ personal preference into consideration then we would never get anything done.’

Tough talk from an elected body to its taxpayers. The council goes on to explain that its team of lighting experts try to be sympathetic to individual residents, but have to look at the big picture.

That’s the trick, really: seeing that big picture, while keeping the public happy too.


Read Lux’s special edition on outdoor, transport and industrial lighting here