HC Deb 24 April 1991 vol 189 cc1089-91 3.31 pm
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require relevant local authorities to make an annual assessment of street lighting needs; to set standards of quality, maintenance and improvement; and for connected purposes. I make no apology for raising the subject of street lighting once again, as it is important for hon. Members to recognise that the existing stock of street lighting in Britain is in an appalling state. Much of that stock is already unsafe as well as shamefully unsightly. In fact, most of the United Kingdom stock of municipal lighting is more than 40 years old, worn out and well past its true shelf life. A massive backlog of work cries out to be done.

Street lighting has become one of the Cinderellas of local authority spending, and as other pressures are exerted, the renewal of Britain's lighting stock has been put to the back of the queue. Worse still, every year, when the sun comes out and the clocks go forward, the problems of inadequate street lighting are forgotten for another year. For the most part, therefore, existing budget levels are totally inadequate.

Spending at current levels, for example, is now insufficient to meet the replacement of deteriorating columns in all metropolitan districts. Overall, estimates reveal that metropolitan districts should be spending some £19.5 million per year over the next five years to replace expired columns. However, only £6.9 million per year is being spent—a shortfall of about £12.5 million per annum.

A major spending programme is, therefore, genuinely required. That will not be achieved if we continue with the inaction and neglect that means putting things off year after year. The solutions lie with central and local government. It is no use the one blaming the other. Both must recognise that what is required to tackle the problem is a radical change of policy, with a new framework to produce solutions and actions, and funds to finance those actions.

Historically, street lighting has been installed to enable the safe movement of vehicles and pedestrians in the hours of darkness. Such installation has been related largely to the public highway and is based on accident reductions from nationally accepted "accident saving" figures.

The Department of Transport readily accepts that effective lighting reduces night time accidents by at least 30 per cent. and that lighting can reduce accidents in fog. It has been argued that the recent M4 carnage might have been avoided if lighting had been fitted as standard on the motorways, as the police had previously urged.

In recent years, there has been increasing evidence that the appropriate level of street lighting can make a significant contribution to crime reduction and, in particular, to reducing public apprehension of crime, not least among the elderly and women. A British standard now requires that pavements should be better lighted—in the past, the object was to light roads for traffic rather than give a care for those on foot.

Today it is evident that good road lighting installations improve the confidence of road users, particularly pedestrians, and assist the police and emergency services. Before and after studies of relighting schemes carried out by Middlesex polytechnic's centre for criminology in some London boroughs showed that good lighting has a valuable role to play in the reduction of crime and the perceived fear of crime.

Recently, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham commissioned one of the reports as part of its relighting programme. The feeling of personal safety was increased for 63 per cent. of householders and 62 per cent. of pedestrians questioned. In addition, the threat of harassment to women decreased spectacularly.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, another revelation was that 69 per cent. of people interviewed felt that their personal safety had increased and 94 per cent. believed that fear of crime had been reduced. In addition, residents believed strongly that crime and anti-social behaviour had decreased.

The Home Office has a tendency—indeed, it is always tempted—to dismiss this kind of strong human reaction as unscientific, perhaps because it does not do the research itself. That is probably why, of all London boroughs, it chose Wandsworth for its research, the results of which we have been awaiting for far too long.

The House will also be interested to know that six independent academic surveys are being carried out at present in the major cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Glasgow and Cardiff on the relationship between street lighting, crime, the fear of crime and the quality of life. The work involves a relighting scheme preceded and followed by detailed survey work by academics from local universities and polytechnics.

I am informed that as yet it is too early to provide a comprehensive picture from the initial survey findings, but the results in some of the large cities are as dramatic as those of the first surveys in London. Street lighting has been shown to have an important effect on crime, fear of crime and the quality of people's lives. Between 65 per cent. and 75 per cent. of people regard fear of going out alone after dark as a problem.

Some examples of that include the fact that more than half those questioned said that they deliberately avoid certain streets at night because of fear. More than 60 per cent. of people regard their street lighting as inadequate and poorly spaced. In a large 1960s housing estate in Leeds, 95 per cent. of people believed that improved street lighting would be the most effective way to increase women's safety in the locality.

One problem for local authorities is that street lighting cuts across different Government Departments. The benefits of better public lighting are of real importance and are the proper interest of the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and the police. Yet the spending decisions fall to the Department of Transport and the highway authorities. As long as no one Department ultimately has responsibility, we are likely to have difficulty and we must find a way to bridge that crossover of interests.

In recent years there has been a revolution in public lighting technology. In many cases, spending on improved lighting can have a demonstrable pay-back—a positive rate of return. The London borough of Enfield is devoting half the funds raised from recycling glass to renewing its street lighting. A £300,000-a-year programme to replace existing street lighting will be combined with improvements to footpaths, shopping parades and mini-roundabouts. The borough engineer and surveyor has also been authorised to carry out a boroughwide survey of accidents and to report on how improved lighting could help to enhance safety.

Today's lighting is better and cheaper. A single street light burning all night, every night, provides for seven households at an operating cost of £30 per annum. New lighting soon recovers its cost because it uses less energy and is much cheaper to operate. It brings benefits by reducing accidents, crime and fear of crime and by improving the quality of life especially for women and the elderly.

Local authorities must be encouraged to develop assessment criteria and techniques to build on the work of the academic surveys to date and the example of places such as Enfield, and they should be required to use that approach in ordering spending priorities. They should be required to ask themselves the following pertinent questions to show the physical state of clapped-out columns and equipment. First, what is the spending level of replacement lighting equipment and how does that compare with the levels required to prevent further deterioration? Secondly, when do we start the programme of replacement? Thirdly, what assessment has been made of the impact of improved lighting upon crime, the fear of crime and the quality of life of residents? Improved lighting is highly popular with men and women, young and old, and is a visible demonstration of concern for people as well as vehicles in the priorities for transport and highways.

The after-dark environment of our towns and cities is a key factor in our quality of life. In our residential areas as well as our town centres, a decent environment demands freedom from robbery and burglary, from vandalism, harassment and threats and from anxiety and fear and freedom to walk the streets at night. That would make better public lighting attractive to ordinary people.

I firmly believe that community problems such as street crime, vandalism, harassment and fear can be solved by well resourced. co-ordinated initiatives managed by local authorities. Better public lighting is a basic requirement of local communities. It would help to cut crime, to increase people's sense of security and to inspire wider community activity.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Frank Haynes, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. George Robertson, Ms. Joan Walley, Mr. Ted Rowlands, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Jimmy Wray, Mr. George Buckley, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse and Mr. Ray Powell.