The man who's making Britain's councils look twice at their LED streetlighting specs

Simon Nicholas insists he’s not ‘anti-LED’.

It’s a point worth making, as he has become famous in lighting circles for his one-man campaign against bad LED streetlighting.

‘I believe LED is the future of lighting,’ he says. ‘But it’s a sophisticated technology being used crudely because of a lack of expertise. There’s a lack of understanding of the wider issues and a lack of skills within many local authorities.’

‘In many cases it’s cheap and cheerful. It’s not even cheerful, it’s cheap and nasty. In fact it’s not even cheap, it’s expensive and nasty. And if residents complain, all they get back from their local authorities are cut-and-paste platitudes.’

Nicholas thinks taxpayers deserve better, so he has made it his business to get councils to look more carefully at how they procure and specify LED streetlighting - and he's getting results.

Looking for answers
In a world of confusion and misinformation about LEDs, many lighting professionals dream of customers who are as well informed about lighting as Nicholas. It’s not often you hear members of the general public throwing around terms like spectral composition and luminaire lumens per circuit watt. But be careful what you wish for: Nicholas has been giving manufacturers and local authorities a pretty hard time about their products and practices.

Nicholas is not a lighting man by background. He’s a mechanical engineer who runs a couple of transport and property businesses, and until recently had no more than a passing interest in LED lighting.

But when his local council in Trafford, Greater Manchester tried to replace the streetlights in the conservation area where he lives with brighter lights on higher masts, he complained, and succeeded in getting changes made.

Then he got wind of Trafford’s plans to roll out LEDs, and began to examine their plans.

Since then, his campaign against what he sees as bad LED lighting – either because it’s poorly designed, bad value for money, foisted on people without consultation or potentially damaging to health – has become, in his words, ‘a hobby’.

He hit the headlines in 2013 when the Manchester Evening News quoted (or rather paraphrased) him as saying that LED lights might ‘damage brains’, and last year he appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics to speak out against bad lighting.

In his spare time Nicholas devours academic papers and policy documents, attends technical seminars on lighting, fires off regular Freedom of Information requests to councils and gets into lengthy arguments on the Lighting Talk discussion group on LinkedIn.

He even came to LuxLive last year, and debated LED streetlighting alongside representatives of Westminster City Council, Balfour Beatty and manufacturer CU Phosco. Whatever you think about his views, he’s determined, engaged with the issues and very well informed.

It's not all about energy
So what’s at the heart of Nicholas’ problem with LED streetlighting? Surely the benefits of this new technology – energy efficiency, light control, colour quality – are compelling?

‘The only criteria anyone cares about is energy efficiency,' Nicholas told Lux. 'When you’re introducing LED lighting, the whole process needs to be managed in a very measured and controlled way, and aspects other than energy efficiency need to be considered.'

One of his biggest concerns is the health risks of glare and blue-rich light from LEDs. It’s certainly true that blue light – in certain intensities and under certain circumstances – can damage the eye or disrupt sleep. Many experts insist that fear about the blue in LED streetlights is misplaced, but Nicholas is not satisfied that the risks have been properly researched or addressed.

Not only is there a ‘technical guidance void’ on how best to use LED technology for streetlighting, he says, there’s also a ‘policy void’. ‘Someone needs to put out some guidance. In my view it’s the responsibility of central government, but they don’t seem to have any appetite for it.’

‘Clients are just believing what people are telling them and taking a leap of faith. They’re being promised fit-and-forget for 20 years. In 11 years when the arrays have deteriorated, the driver has blown and the technology has moved on, what are you going to do then?’

He also objects to what he sees as an undemocratic approach to the introduction of LEDs. ‘This new technology is being imposed on people,’ he says. ‘Any negative feedback is being ignored.’

It's not just Trafford Council that Nicholas has been complaining to -  he has also targeted other local authorities, particularly those who have ‘made a big PR deal of what they’re doing’, such as Wigan.

‘They said they had done a trial and were going to extend their trial across the borough,’ Nicholas said. ‘So I ask them a number of questions and they’re struggling to answer them. So I send them some information and ask them to consider it, and as a result they’ve decreased the colour temperature by 40 per cent. I don’t know on what basis they’re thinking 4000K is OK and 5700K is not, but it’s a step in the right direction.’

Nicholas believes local authorities should explore the option of dimming existing streetlighting, which still has years of life left in it, rather than spending millions on brand new LEDs. ‘Manchester and Cardiff have both invested heavily in high-intensity discharge lighting over the last 15 years,’ he says. ‘Cardiff are spending £1.7 million to dim 22,365 lights and saving £312,000 a year. In Manchester they could save £570,000 [if they did the same]. Instead they’re planning to save £750,000 a year on an LED rollout that’s going to cost £33 million, and all the kit they’ve installed in the last 10 years goes in the skip. The lighting level will be less, the glare will be greater and generations of taxpayers will be paying for the debt.’

Follow the money
The way LED rollouts are funded doesn't always help, Nicholas says. Initiatives like the Green Investment Bank’s loans for lighting upgrades worry him, because he feels they have not paid sufficient attention to quality, including health and environmental issues.

‘They seem happy to subsidise bad as well as good lights,’ he said. ‘The risk is that a local authority who got Green Investment Bank funding go and squander it on poor quality equipment and it won’t work and the company goes bust and the taxpayer is left holding the baby.’

He’s equally unimpressed by private finance initiatives. ‘PFI and LED are not happy bedfellows,’ Nicholas says. ‘The objectives of the PFI supplier and the client are, in my view, mutually exclusive. The contractor wants to do as much as possible and the client just wants to save money. And the contractor doesn’t necessarily give the client the best solution. Manchester is a clear example of this.’

Does he have much faith that the lighting industry will address his quality concerns? ‘No. I’m not sure self-regulation will work. We’ve got a perfect storm of new technology, huge financial pressures on local authorities and a lack of guidance from central government. That’s where the buck has to stop.’

But he has seen positive changes in attitudes from councils with whom he has raised his concerns. ‘I’ve been locked in a battle with Trafford for over 18 months and now we are starting to see some positive results, with a change of emphasis from purely energy savings to consideration of those wider environmental and health impacts which can result from the specification of the wrong spectral composition of outdoor lighting.’

Meanwhile, Cardiff Council has invited him to discuss LED specifications with its highways team, and he’s helping the ILP (the Institution of Lighting Professionals) update its guidance on LEDs.

A couple of years on from getting involved with LED lighting, Nicholas still hasn’t lost momentum. And if central and local government want to come up with effective lighting policies, and win the public round to them, they would do well to pay attention to determined, knowledgeable critics like this.

After all, Nicholas says: ‘If there were any serious counter-argument I’d have heard it by now. And I probably would have gone away.’

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