The turning off of street lights is an issue perhaps not immediately associated with criminology, but one which has significant associated consequences. Last week the Labour Party revealed the results of a survey they had commissioned into the number of Councils which were turning off street lights in the early hours of the morning.
The survey found that 106 of 150 English Councils are turning off or dimming street lights in order to save money. 50 of the 141 Councils that responded were switching off some streetlights; 56 were dimming some; 42 Councils were both switching off and dimming; and 35 Councils were doing neither.
The survey revealed that of the 5.7 million streetlights across the 141 Councils, 558,000 were being switched off overnight, an eight-fold increase compared with 69,000 in May 2010, while 797,000 streetlights were being dimmed, compared with 79,000 in May 2010.
The survey also found an increase from 148,000 in May 2010 to the current figure of 1.36 million, in the number of street lights which are either switched off or dimmed at night.
The survey also revealed that 29 per cent of streetlights are switched off or dimmed in Conservative areas compared with 13 per cent in Labour ones.
This may be because the Conservative led Councils have been more willing to buy into austerity measures, or possibly because Labour controlled Councils are more likely to be in urban areas where lights are more likely to be needed, I am merely speculating.
The Labour Party is asking voters to “Choose a Brighter Future with Labour” which does leave one wondering which of the survey or the slogan led to the other. Regardless, their objections to the darkness are as follows: it leads to an increase in accidents; crime; and the fear of crime.
A lack of lighting leading to accidents; yes I can agree that darkness may make driving more dangerous, however cars are fitted with lights of their own, and there are relatively few cars on the roads in the early hours of the morning. Yet, this is a point which I will admit has some merit, and is not one that I wish to debate in any detail as I am not well-versed in the intricacies of the debate.
That a lack of light leads to an increase in crime; this fits nicely into the routine activities theory of criminology, whereby a lack of light reduces the likely presence of a capable guardian. Situational crime prevention operates on a basis that crime is prevented by reducing the opportunities for it to occur without being caught (apologies for the simplification, but an elaborate explanation is unnecessary for my present purpose). By providing the cover of darkness it is arguable that the Councils are increasing opportunities for crime to occur, and as such instances of crime will increase.
A rebuttal provided by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, earlier in 2014 was as follows:
“In a time when we are on the cusp with regards to our electricity supply, we can’t have lights burning all night on the off chance someone wants to get out and do aerobics at 3am…”
“I love it because I am economy-minded. It’s saving a phenomenal amount of money, it’s decreased crime because burglars love ambient lighting, it’s nice to see the night sky and, as someone who lives in a main street that has had its lights cut off, I can get a good night’s sleep.”
I agree that it is a good money saving measure; I also agree that there are few people out and about at 3am; indeed it is nice to see the night sky; and yes when the street lights go off it is easier to sleep. However, the ever so slightly amusing claim that burglars love ambient lighting must not be allowed to pass without comment.
As someone who often walks home after the lights have been turned off, I believe the point being made was this; if you cannot see where you are going, you are going to find it difficult to break into a house. I tend to agree in theory. There would be little more conspicuous than someone hacking at a window, holding a torch, at 3am. But I also concede that there are those who may be considered expert burglars, who are rather adept at breaking and entering (you could say that they could do it with their eyes closed), and would therefore appreciate the reduced chance of being seen.
Out of curiosity I looked at the Crime Survey for England and Wales (formerly the British Crime Survey) to see whether there had been a noticeable increase in the type of crimes one might associate with turning off the lights. Since 2010 police recorded theft offences have decreased year on year; following an initial increase in 2010/2011 the number of domestic burglaries have decreased each year; following a slight rise in 2011/2012, the number of vehicle related thefts has also significantly decreased, an estimated 13 per cent on the previous year; and following an increase from 2009 to 2012, instances of theft from the person have also decreased over the past two years.
This proves little and in isolation has modest evidential value, but what it does suggest is that crime has not increased since the street lights were turned off, certainly not in correlation with the number of lights being turned off.
The increases in certain crimes in 2011/2012 may be attributed in some part to the riots which erupted across the country in August 2011, but a more thorough investigation than I am able to provide would be needed to claim this with any certainty.
So far as the fear of crime is concerned, I believe that the best response is education, and not measures which solve an illusory problem, whilst reinforcing the original fear by reacting to it.
In summary, should the lights be turned back on? I am not convinced, but I would suggest a thorough evidence based inquiry. An independent academic research project with the findings thereof used to influence policy. We can but dream…Happy New Year.