Monday, 30 September 2013

What's the difference between a town and a city? Street lights

After years of my own moaning, my Mum made the point with more clarity than I ever have: "We're supposed to be a city, and we can't even light our own streets".

In 2012, the town of Chelmsford officially became a city. This was a surprise to many people who thought that it already was a city, since it has a cathedral, and is 800 years old, and is built on the Roman town Caesaromagus. I always enjoy telling people how it was the Roman toilet stop/service station on the march from London to Colchester.

But the thing is, Chelmsford is still a market town. You can't stick a label on a golf ball and turn it into a football. Chelmsford is an identikit copy-and-paste town of all the other market towns across the country who have the following features:

  • A yellow-brick pedestrianised High Street, colonised by chain stores, with few independent shops/cafes/bars
  • Many people commute to a bigger city nearby (e.g. London), and party there too
  • Smart young people leave for university in exciting cities, gutting the town of the exact demographic and demand for new & interesting bars, cafes, art and culture
  • A lack of ethnic diversity. In recent months I've heard and seen more white Polish people walking around than possibly all the brown, black and yellow people of Chelmsford combined. I'm stoked we now have lots of Polish people here, I think it's cool, but it's fascinating to me as a social change that the town has been more accessible in 5 years to white Poles, than British people of other colours ever.

In a town that once had a corn exchange (typical city music/performance venue) which hosted Jimi Hendrix and The Who, there hasn't been a permanent music venue since the Army & Navy pub closed down in 2002. (There is now a Travelodge with "ARMY & NAVY" written on the side. If that's not heritage, I don't know what is.)

Nevertheless. Years of applications paid off, and Chelmsford Borough Council fulfilled all its dreams by becoming a "city" last year.

I won't be cruel. The fact is, Chelmsford really is improving, year on year, and being back after 4.5 years has let me see a clear difference since I left. There are more cultural events, not just behind the scenes but out in public. There are more new little bars and cafes and venues opening than closing (just). There seems to be a better general atmosphere, even late on a Friday or Saturday night.

So maybe it's on its way to becoming a "real" city?

But this is where street lights come in.

Essex County Council (ECC) has decided that one solution to their/our economic problems is turning off the street lights between midnight and 5am. There were apparently some promising trials, and it's being phased in at various locations, including Chelmsford. Not many people use the streets during this time, and they estimate savings of £1 million a year.

As a man of social science, I'm the last person to assume that "tabloid crimes" will instantly rise - muggings, theft, home break-ins, rapes, murders and all the things trashy and/or right-wing people fear the most (unlike corruption, corporate fraud, and financial crimes which cause far more hurt all round).

Human beings had towns long before street lighting, and generally get along with each other under whatever political or cultural system is around at the time. You need at least a few months to see the stats change and decide if cutting street lighting past midnight really does affect crime rates or not.

But, I can confirm it's pretty fucking freaky walking home alone in the dark. ECC made a decision that affects a minority of the population, but a lot of young people like to stay out after midnight. People are probably no more likely to be stabbed or raped, but people will think it is more likely, and there will definitely be a lot of young women who will stop walking even a short distance home. There will probably be a lot of other people who work or travel during the night who will feel less comfortable too, and there will slightly more trips, falls, crashes and accidents.

The arguments over light pollution and carbon emissions are fake and insincere. Sure, light pollution is a serious issue which developed countries are slowly facing up to. But let's not pretend that Essex County Council gives a damn about the light pollution in residential areas, or that there's thousands of people in Chelmsford and Essex who give a damn about light pollution anyway.

People who care about light pollution and the Dark Skies movement are greenies, liberals, environmentalists (and photographers I guess), who live in big cities where progressive movements can meet in a pub and take up more than 1 table. There are precious few of them here, in this conservative town, in this conservative county.

  • If people really preferred to see the Milky Way in their own little street, rather than being able to see where they are walking, wouldn't we have heard an uproar decades ago?
  • If street lighting really does make a serious impact on carbon emissions and public costs, why isn't the whole country doing this as a national policy? Why aren't big cities cutting it already? Big cities and national government, with the interesting, smart, better-paid people, who make the interesting policies first - which the rest of the country then follows.

The fact is, real cities keep their street lights on. Real cities will continue to pay for street lighting and contribute carbon emissions and produce light pollution, all in relatively small amounts, because turning them off at night for the sake of small change is a red herring and a petty false economy.

It's laughable to think that established cosmopolitan cities would get away with it - cities like Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Norwich, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Southampton, Exeter, Leeds, even small ones like Bath, Winchester, Worcester, Chester.

I don't have a comprehensive list of which authorities are switching off which lights in the country at what times. But I know it's crazy that any of these places would seriously consider it. And that is the difference between a town and a city.


  1. Only 1 million pounds a year doesn't seem that much -- why not switch to energy-efficient bulbs, turn out only *half* the lights, or turn the lights out on selected streets (using all those cameras Britain has to determine which ones pedestrians don't use at night).


  2. I was walking around your way the other night - the maze of old Moulsham in the dark was quite an experience, and not a particularly pleasant one!

    It isn't too bad for me as I can use the main road most of the way to mine, plus they have (obviously) kept the lights on the bunny walk switched on all night.

    I know many astronomer friends would disagree with me, but we live minutes from the countryside, if I want to see the Milky Way it really isn't that difficult to find a nice quiet spot - although maybe I would feel differently if I had a decent garden.