Illuminating Durham’s streetlighting

This weekend saw the return of the biennial Lumiere Festival in Durham – a spectacular showcase of lightshows and artwork across the city which injected a new lease of life into some dark November evenings. However, Durham Cathedral wasn’t the only thing illuminated by this event – Lumiere has thrown light on the current state of streetlighting in Durham, something which leaves many students quite literally in the dark.

With the nights drawing in, many of us find ourselves traipsing home at 5pm in the gloom. Gone is the summer of balmy evenings and sunsets at 9pm; instead, a third of our day is conducted under the night sky. However, it seems Durham is ill-equipped for these ever-growing hours of darkness – the Science Site, particularly outside the Bill Bryson Library, has a notable lack of lighting, and the overhanging branches on Church Street obscure the streetlamps. Indeed, one faulty lightbulb on the footpath by the Islamic Prayer Room hasn’t been changed in at least two months, plunging the nearby steps into unsafe darkness every night. While Durham County Council has produced a map of the routes lit at night-time, and urges people to use these routes when walking home at night, the fact remains that many pathways are badly lit, and sometimes not at all.

Why does this matter? A study carried out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents demonstrated that 40% of fatal injuries happen in hours of darkness, despite the fact that only 25% of vehicles are active at this time. While the study went on to conclude that reduced streetlighting does not necessarily correlate with increased fatal accidents, we must not overlook the psychological feeling of security in well-lit areas. Indeed, 73% of respondents to the study agreed that better streetlighting would improve children’s (and, by extension, students’) safety. We’ve all heard the horror stories of fatal nighttime accidents by the river, something which should surely compel the implementation of improved lighting and safety measures.

That said, streetlighting does come at a high price. In the 2022-2023 period, government spending on streetlighting hit £844m – the highest cost of streetlighting ever, up £63m from 2021-2022. While the causation is unclear – presumably a mix of more streetlighting and higher energy costs – it nonetheless puts the cost of streetlighting projects into harsh relief. With council budgets stretched more than ever, replacing lightbulbs pales into insignificance when compared with funding childcare and other social projects. However, solutions are close at hand, with Nottinghamshire having transitioned 98% of their streetlights to LED bulbs, replacing energy-intensive filament bulbs. The results are striking, with £20m saved on energy costs in the 9 years since the beginning of their implementation in 2014.

It would be remiss to suggest that Durham County Council isn’t playing an adequate role – indeed, maintaining 80,000 streetlights and achieving a 99% functionality rate is no mean feat, and routine inspections and faulty streetlight online reporting form further indicates a commitment to their upkeep. It is telling, therefore, that many of the darkest spots are on university grounds, suggesting that this aspect of student welfare and safety has slipped under the radar slightly.

While the appearance of Christmas lights are imminent, and will undeniably brighten both pathways and our spirits, the dismantling of the Lumiere displays over the coming days reinforces the gloom of many Durham streets and pathways, no longer brightened by artwork and coloured lightbulbs.

Image by Karol D via Pexels

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