#CowickPNSL – 6 months (or so) on

The recent #CometLanding of the robot probe Philae on the icy 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on the back of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta satellite programme has got me looking skywards again.

And I quite often check the spot the station website  and then stand outside my front door to watch the International Space Station pass overhead and wonder what it might look like without the night blight of the street lights.

Those living West of the Exe can experience this. They are subject to a Devon County Council policy known as Part-Night Street Lighting whereby the street lights are switched off between 00:30 and 05:30 to reduce their carbon footprint and save money.

When I first heard of the plans, I was interested – what would Dark Skies over Exeter look like?

Just up the road, in November 2011 the night sky above Exmoor National Park was granted International Dark-Sky Reserve (IDR) status by the International Dark-Sky Association. The status means the night-sky is protected and lighting controls are in place to prevent light pollution.

It reminds me of my youth, camping under stars on Dartmoor – the dark skies were wonderful.

Delivering dark skies above Exeter, that’s a different  thing, isn’t it?. Well, according to Devon County Council, NO it isn’t!

They told me and my fellow councillors over and over again, it would be easy because they’ve converted villages and towns across Devon.

We begged to differ, and begged to exclude more streets from the nightly switch-off. For some areas, we were successful; in others, not.

In Cowick, we managed to add Cowick Lane, Buddle Lane and the walkway (“The Slip”) between Buddle Lane/Merrivale Road to DCC’s list  – that wasn’t very extensive, as it was only the B3121 Dunsford Road (probably the best candidate for switch-off, as for most of its length it’s a country road!).

Throughout the scant consultation process, I was keen to help DCC deliver PNSL in Cowick but only if they could prove it would be safe.

Since Cowick was converted to PNSL on 01 April 2014, we have been in regular contact with the Cowick & St THomas Neighbourhood Beat team from Devon & Cornwall Police – they send me monthly updates of crime statistics across the area, and these are showing NO increase in reported crime during the times of PNSL operation.

But my dealings with DCC have been more fraught. I’m highlighting them here as they will form a basis for my eagerly anticipated meeting to review how the introduction of PNSL has worked in Cowick and across West Exe.

1. Consultation

It took a lot of effort for local city and councillors to get DCC to agree to any form of meaningful engagement with the general public…they organised public consultation events across the city. However, despite our best efforts, DCC didn’t work too hard to advertise the meetings and as a consequence few members of the public turned up.

But DCC did agree to publish the results of these consultations (in February 2014)…and the page on their Street Lighting webpages is there waiting for the report.

“We have received over 85 comments, the majority of which have been in favour of the proposals.

The responses are being analysed and a summary of the responses will be posted on the website at the end of February 2014”

Elsewhere, DCC promise “A report on the Exeter Street Lighting consultation will be available in May 2014″

It’s now mid November 2014, and I haven’t seen this report. Where is it?

The formal public consultation meetings have now finished, however you are still able make your views known by using the comments form 

2. Safety

I’ve loudly and often that my main concern is that PNSL is delivered safely. DCC has several website pages dedicated to PNSL in Exeter, including a link to a Equality Impact and Needs Assessment for the Street Lighting policy – the trouble is that this assessment ran out in January 2013.

There is a new one in place (I’ve seen it, it’s hidden elsewhere on DCC site), so why isn’t it published on the dedicated website pages?

Indeed, this page promises “a final Impact Assessment will be available in May 2014″  so why hasn’t it there?

3. Map

Which streets will have their street lights switched off between 00:30 and 05:30? And which street lights will be left on?

There is a link to a map on the dedicated website.

The trouble is that it is the draft used in the consultation that ended in November 2013.

This shows that the only road to remain lit would be the B3121 Dunsford Road – the consultations managed to add Cowick Lane, Buddle lane and the cut-through to Merrivale Road to the list.

Leading up to the introduction of Cowick PNSl I asked for a new map to be published showing these alterations. I was told that this was on its way. Seven months on, why am I still waiting?

I also asked for a better form of mapping – zooming in on the pdf isn’t really suitable as the image is extremely blurred on a ward level, let alone on a street view. I was told that this was on its way. Seven months on, why am I still waiting?

4. Publicity

Having been concerned about how DCC publicised the public engagement and consultation events, my co-councillor for Cowick, Heather Morris, specifically asked DCC how they would advertise the introduction of PNSL to Cowick on All-Fools Day 2014.

She was keen for them to do a leaflet drop to every household in the ward – she was informed that DCC would use the traditional mainstream media.

In practice this meant issuing a press release on 31/03/14.

But not everyone reads the (weekly!) Express & Echo, watches Spotlight SW on BBC1 or listen to  BBC Radio Devon’s Good Morning, Devon. In my view not the best way to inform the 2,500 households and 5,500 residents of Cowick.

We tried our best with newsletter, tweets and Facebook postings, but again not the best way to contact a whole ward.

I hope that DCC will have learned their lesson..and will rethink their strategy on this when the roll-out across Exeter starts up again in the New Year.

5. Pilot

Since Cowick PNSL started, many residents have referred to this stage as a pilot  or trial.

Let me be clear about this – it is neither

Devon County Council WILL be implementing this policy across the city of Exeter – the roll-out for now has been stalled (whether by accident or design).

There have been delays to installing the equipment on the lamp housings across the rest of the city.

There been operational problems that have arising West of Exe.

Have DCC learned from these problems? I hope so!

6. Equipment

I know that DCC Cabinet approved a budget of £1.7m to be spent on a computer control management system but I’ve neve been told how the equipment (both the computer hardware and associated software) would work.

it seems that the main computer (at County Hall?) communicates with area controllers situated around the city, and it is these that actually control the switching on and off of individual street lights.

However, sometimes communication between the area controllers and the street lights fails – and as a safety default the street lights come on.

This is happening too often to be a minor problem.

Could it be that DCC (or their supplier) haven’t put in too few area controllers to cope with the terrain West of the Exe as a cost-saving measures?

7. Emergency situations

We were constantly told that in emergency situations, street lights could be switched on if requested by the police and other Blue Light Services.

At first, it was intimated at this could be achieved with a smartphone app…but the reality was that actually they would phone DCC’s Highway Operations Control Centre (hi @HughHOCC!) who would switch the relevant lights on).

It was revealed to Cllr Heather Morris earlier tnis week, that 7 months in, the software has been written but HAS NOT BEEN TRIALLED.

And when Heather asked if the lights could be switched on in Bowhay Lane and Kerswill Road as she had safety concerns over the Wales + West Utilities work, it took 4 days for this to happen.

DCC need to arrange a way that when such works are happening in future, there is a protocol in place for arrangements for the street lights to be left on.

8. Special Occasions

DCC have suggested that at New Year (and other such special events), they will arrange for the street lights be left on.

I’m now wondering if they can deliver this!

Too many questions are still unanswered 7 months after the street lights started being switched off.

We were promised a catch-up meeting 6 months into the policy…we’re still waiting.

he cynic in me is thinking that the DCC street lighting team are aware of our serious concerns and do not have the answers to satisfy us.

Meanwhile, where’s my Pietlzl head-torch?

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