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Turn on the Lights?

Should the small council budget stretch to illuminate the streets in the midst of a cost-of-living and energy crisis?

It is often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel during a Scottish winter, but at least until Christmas, the tunnel has twinkly lights. Last week, St Andrews’ Christmas lights were switched on alongside villages, towns, and cities across the country. As beautiful or underwhelming as you may find them, town Christmas lights have been the subject of controversy over the last few years as the cost of living has skyrocketed.

2023 forced British Councils to pick which services to cut when faced with a £3.2 billion budget shortfall at the start of the year. According to the 2022 Annual Poverty Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as reported in The Guardian, a third of private tenants (4.2 million people) live below the poverty line and cannot afford to heat their homes. Approximately 710,000 households struggle to pay for warm clothing, heating, and food. Statistics like this have put pressure on councils to make the right decision on service cuts. As a result, in 2022, Guilford Council was one of the first to announce that it could not “afford or justify'' funding its annual Christmas light switch-on. Ely in Cambridgeshire made a similar decision, and even London’s Oxford Street cut their lights after 11 o’clock at night. On the other hand, Newburgh, Fife, continued to have beautifully creative Christmas lights, designed by local school children, illuminating their town.

The cost of these lights is absolutely staggering. The Watford Observer reported Welwyn Hatfield’s spending surpassing £57,000. This year, Rhyl, Wales, has spent at least £31,573. Glasgow surpasses many with an average yearly spend of £419,685.

The cost of living crisis is not as hard felt for most as it was this time last year. As such, many councils who dimmed their lights or reduced spending are upping the festive fun this year. This year two Fife towns, Kinghorn and Burntisland, have organised Christmas light appeals, including local collections and online donation pages, to keep their towns lit up this season.

While it is great that seasonal festivities are slightly more convivial this year than last (though some may still say we are not economically strong enough to splash out on twinkly lights) there are other hard-felt effects of town Christmas lights. According to Uswitch research, Christmas lights adorning lampposts, trees, and shop windows add £79 million to the nation's energy bill. Expensive? Yes.

The problem with such increased electricity use is that in order to generate electricity, fossil fuels are still being burned, releasing greenhouse gases, warming the environment, and causing climate change. Given how concerning the potential effects of climate change are, do we really need to speed up the process by decorating lamp posts with blue stars or the Market Street fountain with a projection of a thistle? This question is more significant as countless British families don't celebrate Christmas, or can't even afford to switch lights on in their own homes.

I certainly don't know the answer. Perhaps if councils splash out thousands on Christmas lights then they should spend even more on helping their people stay warm. Similarly, maybe they should spend more on environmental initiatives to counter the additional energy they are spending.

For me, it is a special childhood memory. Being dragged out into the Scottish wind, some random November evening dressed in a literal ski suit, carried on my father’s shoulders, and probably throwing a tantrum or two at not being allowed the tackiest light-up wand I could find. But the feeling of pure magic as the real Santa Claus appeared on my town’s hurriedly hoisted stage and illuminated the town square with the most magical sparkly lights I’d ever seen.

It is a shared memory for much of the country, the symbolic start of Christmas for many, and it would probably be a shame for the next generation not to share it. Maybe there are alternative cuts, both economic and electrical, to save the magical feeling of Christmas across British towns.

Illustration by Mya Shah

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