Fear of change can hold back progress

All change is bad from its very nature. It is full of evil; it unsettles and disturbs; it is full of the world; it is the very spirit of the world; and nothing worse can be said of it. Whenever we are tempted to change any thing, we must not only be quite sure that the old system contained evils, but also that those evils were more numerous and more important than the ones we must inevitably bring in by change.’

So begins a long pamphlet by the 19th century Catholic philosopher Father FW Faber. Let me save you the trouble of reading it: change – he’s against it.

Of course local authorities should consult residents – that is their obligation. But they must show leadership too”

We all have a little bit of the FW Faber in us. Research shows that humans believe that longevity equals goodness. In a study, people shown a painting described as having been painted in 1905 found it far more pleasing than those who saw the same painting described as created in 2005. They preferred a tree described as being 4,500 years old to the same tree described as 500 years old. And they thought chocolate tasted better when told the manufacturer started making it 73 years ago rather than three years ago.

And so it goes. On the whole, we like the old stuff.

Ask any streetlighting engineer and he’ll agree: People like the old stuff, even if it’s not the good stuff. Bizarrely, people will moan if you replace the low-pressure sodium lamps in the lanterns outside their house with expensive, best-in-class Cosmopolis. Sure, the colour rendering is better and light quality is better; that’s not the point.

Often anti-change residents can win concessions, such as cowlings on the lanterns.

But none has been as successful as one Simon Nicholas of Altrincham in Cheshire. Last month, Mr Nicholas managed to spectacularly derail an £8 million installation of some 26,000 LED streetlights – after he claimed it would ‘damage the brains’ of local residents and that solid-state lighting was an ‘untried and untested’ technology, reported the Manchester Evening News.

Scientific research on LEDs has linked them to disrupted sleep patterns, said Nicholas (now seriously channelling his inner FW Faber). The new luminaires also present a glare danger to motorists, are not in keeping with conservation areas and incorporate light engines that are unsuitable for the heritage lampposts.

After hearing all this, Trafford Council kicked the project into touch until ‘more research is conducted on the proposals to ensure their safety’.

It’s as if the council agreed to stop the clock on its streetlighting technology at 1931, the year the high-pressure sodium lamp was invented.

Trafford isn’t the only local authority to have its LED rollout scuppered. Birmingham and Bath councils have been forced to ditch or delay the installation of LED streetlights because residents said they ‘looked like UFOs’, and in Salford residents complained that LEDs were not bright enough.

To be fair to Simon Nicholas, he told the Lighting Talk discussion board on LinkedIn last week that the Manchester Evening News had sensationalised his story by focusing on the health angle (and using the word ‘brain’) while Nicholas’s main point was that by not allowing proper public scrutiny, Trafford Council was restricting local democracy. But the story does point to a wider problem: a Daily Mail-ified public discourse on science and technology, where all things are divided into two groups: those that cause cancer and those that cure it. Of course local authorities should consult residents – that is their obligation. But they must show leadership too.

LED lighting offers so many benefits in terms of quality of light, maintenance and longevity. It would be a crying shame if their installation were delayed or derailed because of bad science, ignorance and hysteria whipped up by a minority.

So, reject your inner FW Faber – and embrace progress, continual improvement and the future.


Follow Ray on twitter @raymolony