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Safety fears as councils cut lights

Significant areas of the country are being "plunged into darkness", it has been claimed, as research showed that more than 1.3 million street lights are being switched off or dimmed by councils attempting to save money.

Motoring and pedestrian groups have raised concerns about the move, suggesting that accident rates on darkened roads in towns and cities are rising, and is leaving walkers feeling unsafe.

Labour claimed the squeeze on budgets coupled with high electricity prices were leading councils to turn off or dim almost a quarter of all lights, compared with under 3% in May 2010.

A total of 1.36 million lights are either off or dimmed at night, compared with 148,000 in May 2010, out of a total of 5.7 million in the areas surveyed by the party.

Labour obtained information from 141 of 150 councils responsible for street lights, with just 35 saying they were neither switching off nor dimming lights.

The figures showed 106 are either dimming or switching off lights, with 42 doing both.

Separate data obtained by the Press Association through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, based on 134 English councils, show that across 32 authorities which supplied figures, around a third of street lights (33.5%) on average are being turned off, with this varying from just a few percent in some areas, to all or the vast majority in others.

Local authorities cited cost savings and environmental considerations as their main reasons for moving towards part-night lighting policies, according to PA's research.

Although the policy costs money to implement, many councils indicated that they were recouping the outlay quickly, with savings totalling £10.5 million per year across 25 councils that supplied figures.

The PA's analysis also suggests collective annual carbon savings across 18 authorities of around 44,100 tonnes.

Shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn said: "Street lights ensure that people are safe on our roads and feel safe walking home, especially at this time of the year when the nights have drawn in.

"Our research shows however that significant areas of Britain have been plunged into darkness since May 2010 as a result of David Cameron and Eric Pickles' policies."

Labour's figures showed 558,000 lights are being switched off at night, compared with 69,000 in May 2010.

Some 797,000 are now being dimmed at night, compared with 79,000 when the Government took office.

The AA suggested that accident rates on darkened streets in towns and cities are rising, with particular fears about roads with higher speed limits.

Luke Bosdet, a spokesman for the motoring group, told the PA: "Statistically the accident rate on roads where street lights are switched off or are unlighted in towns and cities continues to go up, and it's particularly bad on roads which are 40mph or faster."

He claimed there have six inquests since 2009 in which coroners suggested that switched-off street lights had been a factor in the fatality.

The AA said it wants street lights on faster roads switched back on; in the meantime, it is advising motorists on such roads to drive with their headlights on full beam.

A leading eye charity warned that the switch-off was leaving tens of thousands of visually-impaired people facing a struggle to navigate dark streets and feeling vulnerable to attack.

David Head, chief executive of RP Fighting Blindness, which raises money for research into Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), said that while the pressures on local government to save money and the planet were understandable, a recent survey found that 80% of people with inherited retinal dystrophy - the largest cause of sight loss in working-age people - have no useful vision in dim conditions.

Night vision is often the first sense to be lost in RP patients as their sight degenerates.

"This night blindness is bad enough in dim street lighting and of course far worse where street lighting is removed," Mr Head said.

Joe Irvin, chief executive of charity Living Streets, which campaigns for pedestrians, said: "'We know from our supporters that this is an issue.

"Our own survey found insufficient or broken street lighting or lighting turned off was an issue for over a quarter of people; it makes them feel unsafe and deters them from walking."

Town hall chiefs said that switching off lighting would not happen everywhere.

But Local Government Association transport spokesman Peter Box said: "Some councils may decide it can save taxpayers' money and improve the environment without compromising public safety.

"With local government funding cut by 40% during this Parliament, reducing or dimming street lights can also free up vital cash to protect under pressure services such as child protection, adult social care, collecting bins and filling potholes.

"Decisions to reduce street lighting are not taken without consideration given to the likely impact on road and community safety. Councils monitor subsequent safety statistics and act if presented with evidence of a public safety risk."

Responses to the PA's FoI show that several councils are pursuing policies of switching to more energy-efficient lights as an alternative way of saving money on street lighting.

A spokesman for Cheshire East Council, which has opted for energy-efficient LEDs, said: "LED lighting, which is significantly more reliable and energy-efficient, has now reached a price point which allows for a payback within five years."

Communities Minister Brandon Lewis said Labour's research was "complete hypocrisy", accusing the party of bullying and cajoling councils into cutting street lights while in office as part of their "climate change zealotry".

"This Government values the role of street lighting - but it should be a local decision, street by street, on what local residents actually want in their neighbourhood," he said.

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