Street lighting is to be switched off at midnight by a council aiming to cut energy bills and reduce carbon emissions. Essex County Council, one of the UK's biggest councils, hopes to reduce energy consumption by a third through the scheme, which begins in the autumn.
Environmental campaigners broadly welcomed the move but urged policymakers to consider using more energy-efficient light bulbs instead.
Many street lights in the rural areas of Maldon and Uttlesford will be fitted with timing devices to switch them off between midnight and 5am. This replaces the current system whereby lights are operated by a photoelectric cell which turns them on at dusk and off at dawn. The council funds the majority of street lighting across Essex, a total of about 120,000 lights. The annual energy consumption of this is 44 million kilowatt hours of electricity, producing 19,000 tons of carbon emissions.
Rodney Bass, cabinet member for highways and transportation, said the initiative was unprecedented. It was driven by environmental concerns, he said, and would achieve significant cost savings. He said the council's lighting bill had climbed by 63 per cent to £3.8m in the past three years. It would cost an initial £1.8m to install the timing devices, but bills would be reduced by £1m per year, according to council estimates.
Mr Bass said: "We have reviewed our use of energy and recognise that whilst it will clearly be appropriate for all-night lighting to remain in certain limited areas, it is wasteful for this practice to be generally applied across the county."
The pilot scheme will apply to rural areas well away from urban centres. The council plans to extend the project and new areas will be chosen in consultation with parish and district councils, residents and police. District councils that are chosen for the scheme but refuse to participate will foot their own lighting bills, and council tax payers face bearing the extra financial burden.
Germana Canzi, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "As long as it is well targeted at rural areas then it seems a good idea. If it was wrongly used in built-up areas it may create fear and you would get people taking the car instead of walking. However, we would urge policymakers to consider using more energy-efficient bulbs."