Article by Cllr Jenny Matterface, Thanet District Council

When Kent County Council launched its public consultation on what became known to us as The Big Switch-off it was almost as though the public wasn’t to know so quietly was the process launched on a waiting world. Most of us missed it. Did we blink and it had been and gone? Wasn’t it just a scheme to switch off some lights on the Thanet Way?

Well, no, it was a great deal more than that and the first we knew about it was when we realised the streets had gone dark overnight and we were hearing of people going to/from work by torchlight. Taxis couldn’t find their pick-up in darkened streets. Carers visiting the sick and elderly told of how they were struggling to find front doors in the gloom of unlit streets. One man going to work was stopped by the police due a report of a burglar roaming Gravesend by torchlight. He was going to work with his toolbox and a torch at 5a.m.

The South Thanet Labour office was contacted by a Broadstairs resident, June Cole, who said she had failed to get any other political party interested in taking action. She was approaching us to see what we could do to draw attention to the fact that in the 21st century supermarket staff were setting out for work at 5a.m. through blacked-out streets. Tina Brooker in Gravesham had got involved because her neighbour who was burgled two days after the lights went out was so terrified she hid in a wardrobe for several hours until it was daylight. In Broadstairs a young man had tools taken from his van that was parked under a streetlight that now went out at 00.30, the first time he had ever had a problem.

Obviously we needed to take action so we drew up a petition and starting hitting the streets to persuade residents it was worth fighting the might of KCC. Along the way we heard many stories of elderly and some younger residents investing in security lighting especially where their back gardens had rear alleyways; nurses going on shift through unlit streets; hospitality workers who finished late using taxis rather than take a late bus that would mean walking along darkened alleyways. The only residents happy about the darkened skies were amateur astronomers.

An online petition begun by Broadstairs member, Margaret Symonds, gathered many thousands of signatures across Kent and in total with other petitions from various areas of Kent enough names were collected to trigger a county hall debate that demonstrated that Tory county councillors have no understanding of those whom they represent. One even said that ‘anyone out on foot after midnight got what they deserved’! Initially it had looked promising that KCC would go for an LED roll-out programme but that stalled for some reasons we never really discovered as we had been told the funds were sought and now available. The cabinet member for streetlighting lost his portfolio, apparently because an internal investigation showed the consultation was flawed (well, we could have told them that for free) and the whole process started again with a smidgeon more publicity.

On Friday February 12th the whole subject was reviewed and the outcome was that the roll-out of LED across Kent would start next month. The crazy thing is that the Big Switch-off cost £4m to save £1m. How ridiculous was that?

The story as reported in Kent News here.

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