Steve Connor: The dark nights return

Lab Notes

Monday 01 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Everyone reading this should be aware by now that the dark, winter nights have "drawn in" like an unwelcome northerly breeze.

The clocks have gone back an hour and British Summer Time (BST) has transformed overnight into the dark evenings of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Living at the northerly latitude of the British Isles has its advantages in summer. The days are long, and twilight lingers on into late evening. But in winter, the northerly latitude inflicts short days, long nights and all the misery, both psychological and physical, that arrives with a scarcity of natural daylight.

How much better it would be if kept BST (which is GMT+1) through the winter, and put the clocks forward an extra hour in spring to GMT+2? This arrangement, known as "double BST", would mean more of our waking hours would be spent in daylight, both in summer and winter. We would also be in the same time zone as our European neighbours.

The arguments for abandoning GMT get rehearsed almost as often as the clocks are changed. The inhabitants of northern Scotland are said not to like the idea, although opinion polls suggest that Scots overall are evenly divided on the topic. In England and Wales, similar polls show that 75 per cent of the population would favour the change.

Time has never been the fixed entity that we often imagine it to be. Prior to 1916, Britain enjoyed – if that is the word – GMT all year round. Then in the midst of the First World War, where saving fuel and money was a priority, the British government passed the Summertime Act: the clocks were put forward an hour in spring, and back again in autumn.

The idea of making better use of summer's daylight had in fact been proposed several years earlier, but it had taken the crisis of a war to bring about the change. A Surrey builder called William Willett was incensed to find everyone still in their beds on his early morning horse rides through his local Petts Wood, and campaigned tirelessly for the clocks to be put forward in summer. A memorial to him can still be seen in Petts Wood in the form of a sundial set to BST.

During the Second World War, again to save fuel and money, Britain adopted "double BST", but it was abandoned after the end of the war and the Summertime system returned.

Between 1968 and 1971, the government again experimented with the nation's time. It introduced GMT+1 all year round (labelling this system, confusingly enough, "British Standard Time"). When the experiment ended, the Home Office carried out an exhaustive review of the pros and cons, only to rule that the costs of being an hour ahead of GMT all year long outweighed the benefits.

Safety campaigners and environmentalists want the experiment to be repeated with modern methods of evaluating the possible benefits of ridding us of GMT and moving either to BST or to "double BST".

Mayer Hillman, a retired senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute in London, estimates that the change would increase the opportunities for outdoor leisure activities at the end of each day, improving the health and general wellbeing of the nation.

Getting rid of GMT would produce, in view of our sleeping habits, an additional 300 hours of daylight for adults each year, and an additional 200 hours for children, Dr Mayer says in the current issue of the British Medical Journal. Adopting this change to the clocks is a remarkably easy way of better aligning our waking hours with the available daylight, he says.

We cannot, of course, change the amount of total daylight hours we get in winter, unless we all relocate to a more southerly latitude! But at least we can make the evenings less oppressive – even if it is at the expense of darker mornings (when most of us are still in our beds anyway).

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