Time for a little daylight - and sanity

There is a good chance that dark winter afternoons - and GMT - will vanish. Peter Popham can't wait
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Thanks to the luck of the parliamentary draw, an overwhelmingly logical reform should soon be enacted which, at no cost to anyone, will improve the nation's health, cut crime and deaths on the road, and increase tourism and exports.

John Butterfill, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, wants to kill off Greenwich Mean Time, putting our clocks forward one hour in winter and an extra hour in summer. His Bill to bring this about came top of the annual ballot of private members' bills on Thursday. Mr Butterfill claims the support of 160 MPs of all parties: if the Government does not block the Bill, our clocks could change for good by the end of 1997.

If it comes to pass, this will mean dark breakfasts and gloomy journeys to school or work in winter: at the end of December it will be dark in London until about 9am, in Glasgow until 9.45 and in Inverness until nearly 10am. But in exchange, we will get our afternoons back: at the same season, London will be light until nearly 5pm, Glasgow until 4.45, even Inverness until 4.30. And as the days begin to lengthen into the New Year, wintertime activities inconceivable during the afternoon for most of this century - tennis without floodlights, gardening, daylight dog-walking - will once again become possible.

The reform still has its stubborn opponents. Scottish MPs of all stripes are leery of it, because it will cast much of Scotland into gloom for half the morning. Farm workers will get frostbite, building workers will struggle with iced-up materials, postmen will have the working hours of a bat. Most emotively of all, they say, children will be struck down by cars as they pick their way to school through the pitch black. "John Butterfill is a would-be time bandit," Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, said yesterday, "threatening Scotland with daylight robbery."

But ranged against the Scottish MPs is an increasingly broad spectrum of opinion throughout the country who see the reform as long overdue. More and more people are buying into the arguments of Dr Mayer Hillman, of the Policy Studies Institute, whose report on the subject got the ball rolling in the mid-1980s.

The key objection to the reform, he acknowledges, is the fear of children being hit by cars on the way to school: it was the increase in the number of these accidents that scuppered a similar reform when it was introduced experimentally in the late Sixties. Such fears are more than outweighed, however, by the decrease in such deaths and injuries at other times of the day. "What people overlooked," says Dr Hillman, "is that children make far more journeys other than to and from school. More than 80 per cent of traffic accidents in which children are killed or seriously injured occur when they are not going to or from school." They happen, in other words, after school - and would be far less likely to happen if afternoons were lighter.

At present, Dr Hillman argues, children and old people are effectively subject to a winter curfew, while the rest of us lose hours every day that could be spent on healthy outdoor pursuits. Putting the clocks forward an hour in winter and an extra hour in summer, he calculates, would give us 12 per cent extra time for what he calls "daylight-dependent activities" at weekends, and 35 per cent extra on weekdays.

To appreciate how we arrived in our present unenlightened state, a brief history of British time is in order. Greenwich Mean Time only prevailed with the establishment of the railway network. Up until then, every town in England had its local time, computed from the moment the sun was due south at noon. Between London and Plymouth, for example, there was a time difference of 16 minutes. With the creation of railways and railway timetables, time throughout the country was homogenised as GMT.

But the disadvantages of GMT were soon recognised. It is instructive to discover that on the two occasions this century when efficient use of time became a national priority - in the world wars - GMT was modified. Summer time was introduced during the First World War. In the last war a fiendishly complicated system was adopted whereby the clocks were put forward twice - in February and May - and then back twice - in August and November - to make optimum use of the available daylight.

In 1968, "British Standard Time" was introduced for an experimental three- year period, whereby time - GMT plus one hour - was fixed throughout the year. But parliamentary excitement caused by children's deaths and injuries in the mornings persuaded the government to revert to GMT in 1971 - despite the fact that overall there had been a reduction in accidents involving children. As Dr Hillman points out, it is easier to make political capital out of children who have died than out of children who haven't.

The last serious attempt to put the clocks forward, in 1989, was scuppered when Margaret Thatcher banned all controversial new legislation in the wake of the poll tax fiasco. This time round, despite public diffidence from both front benches, it should stand a better chance of success. Public opinion has increasingly swung the reformers' way; even Scottish opinion is divided evenly and the National Farmers' Union is now neutral. Besides Scottish MPs, only the building industry remains doggedly opposed. The suggestion that it go the way of Scandinavia and start the working day an hour later has gone down like a frozen breeze block.

What should our new time be called? The Home Office has dubbed it Single Double Summer Time, though a less resonant (or comprehensible) rallying cry is hard to conceive. The obvious alternative is Central European Time - though John Butterfill is quick to reassure waverers that "If they don't want to be associated with Central European Time, they can call it anything else they like."

One of the principal benefits of the reform will be to bring us into line with the rest of Western Europe all year round. But nobody seems in a hurry to point this out: the wrath of the Euro-sceptics is easily roused. And it would be tragic if this sane reform were to be aborted again - for another bad reason.