Monday, 18 October 2010

Cost of keeping the lights on in the Isles

I'm told it costs half a million pounds a year to keep lights on in the Western Isles - that's the streetlamps, the orange sodium floods that keep Stornoway, Tarbert, the harbours, airports and the little-walked village roads lit all winter.

With the nights fair drawing in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council, is facing up to the prospect of funding gap of £5.5m in 2011-12.

Some £2m of cuts will be sought through efficiencies, that's shorter working hours and redundancies, and £3.5m through service cuts. Another £5.5m of cuts has to be found in 2012-13.

The council is currently consulting with on where the axe should fall at a series of public meetings, and they're open to suggestions. It's probably a step in the dark to suggest that all the street lights be switched off?

Street lighting has become such a political virility symbol in the islands that there isn't a councillor who doesn't measure their worth by the amount of light pollution produced in their ward.

The result is that there are over 6000 street lamps trailing through the Western Isles, about one for every four residents.

They're popular too, a whole generation has grown up not knowing what the darkness is or even seeing the night sky.

I was reminded of that when on a Northern Lights "hunt" to Iceland a couple of years ago. When the Dancing Men revealed themselves to us, atop a dark mountain, they proved to be dramatic, that is about as dramatic as the "Fir Chlis" we used to see over Broad Bay in childhood when the novelty was counting the small number of street lights during a night-time car journey.

But, hats off to the Icelanders, they are selling the darkness as a tourist attraction while at home we insist that the islands glow with an orange nightbelt from Minch to Atlantic coast. Other remote parts of Scotland promote themselves as Sky parks, where the stars can be seen free of light pollution, but I can't think of a better location in Britain than 58 degrees north to get close to the heavens.

There are safety considerations but even outside urbanised areas the roads are now mostly paved and pedestrians separated from car traffic. There's the crime argument, but housebreaking stats are about a fifth of the Scottish average on the islands and vandalism about half.

Switching the lights off altogether would save £500,000 a year but that would leave everyone, literally, in the dark. So, just switch off every second street light and save £250,000 a year? Okay, how about every third one, that's £160,000 saved? Here, look at this nice torch...

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