#FoI Request ~ Wirral Council’s Street Lighting switch off

02 12 13 - street lights out

3rd December 2013

Despite the controversy, there doesn’t appear to be much public information on the Wirral.gov.uk website on the subject of “switching off street lights”.  After spending half an hour searching what is always a difficult place to query and navigate, I came up with just one relevant report.  This was largely written up with other concerns in mind, related to the proposed introduction and full roll out of a Street Lighting CMS or Central Management System – done to increase control and improve efficiency.

What I was seeking in particular was something referring specifically to the controversial switch off of street lights in Bayswater Road, Wallasey, reported recently here in the Wirral Globe – and condemned by Councillor Leah Fraser.  At the moment I’m not even sure if they’re switched off only during the very quiet hours, or right through the night.  There seems to be a dearth of information.  Will public oversight come up against a brick wall, where there should have been “openness & transparency”?

Perhaps Phase One, and a good starting point for the council if it was acting reasonably, would have been some engagement between councillors and the council’s own lighting experts, done to evaluate the potential impact of any switch off, and to come up with some likely roads / areas; presumably sites which would meet the target of saving the most money, whilst posing a minimum threat to life and limb.  A difficult balance to strike.  Phase Two could then have been a public consultation.   They are ‘public servants’ after all.

Here’s the Street Lighting CMS document.  It’s a report written up by Kevin Ellis, Street Lighting Group Leader, submitted to councillors relatively recently in September 2011 (while the switching off of street lights was an emerging issue nationally, and only a couple of months after this Daily Mail story went out).   Here’s an important extract from the document written by Wirral’s Street Lighting Group leader:

8.2 Switching off lights was not considered to be an appropriate course of action for a predominately urban borough. There would also be the risk of litigation in the event of an accident at a site where the lights had been switched off.

So, quite apart from Councillor Fraser’s concerns and the torrent of public fears expressed beneath the Wirral Globe article, it turns out a senior Council officer, who knows precisely what he’s talking about, was one of the first to voice his own concerns, as early as 2011.  Whilst the statement doesn’t confirm a likelihood of an increased threat to life and limb, and any switch off is “…not considered to be an appropriate course of action…” it seems a little on the vague side.  But he goes on to be quite clear on the potential legal / budgetary impact:

“a risk of litigation in the event of an accident … where the lights had been switched off”.

There’s always a risk of litigation in the event of an accident, but a different element is introduced here.  Can the council, during a time of austerity, afford what would be a heightened risk of being taken to court, where the deliberate switching off of lights is a factor?  See this December 2012 incident in Warwickshire, where a university student was killed at a site where lights had been switched off for only 5 days.

Very little will have changed in the interim period between the CMS report of September 2011 and now…  apart from the reduced level of funding from central government.  But all the same hazards associated with switching off street lighting remain:

  • Increased safety risk to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians
  • Increased crime risk to local householders and the local public
  • Increased risk of movement of any existing crime threat from lit areas to an adjacent unlit area

There is no statutory requirement for the Council to provide lighting.  There’s also no overriding duty on a local authority to provide street lighting in order to prevent crime.  The provision of lighting is a power and not a duty, but where lighting exists and has been provided in the past, the council still has a duty of care to the road user, be they drivers or pedestrians.

I’m wondering where this “duty of care” now stands after a decision has been made to switch off the lights for what seem to be economic reasons.

At risk of resorting to cliché, as more and more of the borough gets gradually plunged into darkness, apparently without consultation, and the council seeks to blame others, I doubt very much, the longer it goes on, that nobody will be injured or killed as a consequence.

For now, I’m assuming even this council will have consulted with its own Street Lighting Section for expert advice on the most ‘suitable’ areas for switch off, part night operation or dimming.  But where’s the info?  I don’t know.  Does anyone out there know?

I imagine, if consulted, the engineers will have come up with a report which includes a list of suggested roads.  However, the viewing of this report by the cabinet, with their own “political safety” to consider, will be the crunch point at which “other considerations” may come into play.

As the subject matter is so massively in the public interest, I’ve made a Freedom of Information request for the information.  If the council were behaving reasonably, this information would exist, and would already have been placed into the public domain as part of the council’s “publication policy”.

That would be the reasonable thing to do…  but this is Wirral Council.

16th December 2013 – UPDATE – A response has come in for this request

 The council have responded and provided most of the information, however they didn’t say for how long the lights would be turned off, and a very important document, which I’m sure will exist, has not been provided.  This is the report which will have been written by the Street Lighting Group Leader.

I’ve asked for an internal review and will update this post when the review’s completed.

14th January 2014

The review’s finished – and the report has finally arrived.

See this new post.

About Wirral In It Together

Campaigner for open government. Wants senior public servants to be honest and courageous. It IS possible!
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