By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 14 July
Surrey County Council has resisted calls to urgently turn street lights back on through the night to make women feel safer.
Back in 2017 the council started to switch off street lights in some areas between 1-5am to save money.
Residents Association councillor Eber Kington argued at the county council meeting on Tuesday 13 July that it would cost around £113,870 to reverse this and could be funded by the £2 million a year saving expected from an ongoing conversion to LED.
Cllr Kington, who represents Ewell Court, Auriol and Cuddington, said: “I feel ashamed that as women and men call for action on the safe streets agenda, and politicians of all persuasions in power in national and local government hear those voices and take action, Surrey County Council remains inactive and wedded to the outdated policy that does not address the fears of so many.”
Conservative Woking South West councillor Ayesha Azad accused him of politicising a woman’s death and said a “wholesale switch-on is not the right way”.
Cllr Kington responded that Sarah Everard’s death in south London in March this year had “emboldened women to speak out” on the issue of personal safety. He said: “The right to feel safe walking our streets at night has become a major requirement for political action across the country.”
Cllr Matt Furniss, cabinet member for transport and infrastructure, did not agree, striking out these words in his amendment.
He said he recognised the need to improve safety but it had to be done in partnership with the police and they would raise concerns with them.
Liberal Democrats Guildford East Cllr George Potter referred to him as the “cabinet member for passing the buck”, adding: “It is a county responsibility, not a police matter. It’s perfectly in our power to alter the lighting.”
Forty-nine against 12 in the council voted for Cllr Furniss’s amendment, which leaves it in the hands of Surrey Police to ask Surrey council if they think particular lights need to be turned back on.
Since the switch-off police have made eight requests, all of which the council said had been granted.
“If Surrey Police formally ask this council to turn lights back on, either permanently or for a defined period of time, we do so,” said Cllr Furniss.
“There is no issue on crime or safety grounds for us keeping lights on.
“We do keep a number of routes on, in town centres, around hospitals, key transport routes around stations.”
Cllr Kington responded: “Why might those police request it? A spike in burglaries in Ewell Court, a temporary surge in night-time drinking based crime in Cuddington.
“What about Surrey County Council responding because the data shows that 87 per cent of women have said at some point in their lives they’ve not felt safe at night, and they want those in power to hear that message?”
He said the Conservatives had “completely misread the mood in Surrey and the country in regard to feeling safe on our streets”.
The council pledged to review the situation once its LED rollout is complete.
Jan Mason, Residents Association councillor for West Ewell, said: “This council has more reviews than the Windmill Theatre. We don’t actually do anything for years.”
“We’re very good at putting things off, why don’t we take some action?” said Ashtead Independent councillor Chris Townsend.
When lighting began to be switched off four years ago the council had 377 related enquiries, but this fell to 45 last year and 18 so far this year.
Residents’ Association and Independent group leader Nick Darby said: “The reality might of course be that they’re not happy, they’re just resigned to the situation, in the belief that nothing is going to happen whatever they say.
“And that is a concern to me because it is reflective of women who don’t report crime because they don’t think anything will happen.
“I accept it may well be right there’s no correlation between lights being on and crime or accidents. But it is a question of perception and people’s feelings; if they feel unsafe there is a problem, we need to deal with it.”
Farnham Residents councillor Catherine Powell quoted a UN Women UK investigation that found 97 per cent of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed, but 96 per cent had not reported it because they believed nothing would change.
She said it saddened her that she had to teach her daughters to have their keys at the ready in self-defence.
Crime data did not necessarily reflect residents’ feelings of safety, said Catherine Baart, Green Party councillor for Earlswood and Reigate.
But she said light pollution affected people’s sleep and therefore health and also harmed nocturnal wildlife.
However the council voted against her suggestion to end the switch-off while making use of the street lights’ range of brightness settings.
A third round of the Government’s Safer Streets funding focuses on reducing violence against women and girls and increasing their feelings of safety in public spaces. Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner announced last month she was preparing a bid.