Mark Sinclair's Blog: 23 December 2009 - Principality of darkness
23 December 2009
Mark Sinclair is boss of leasing firm Alphabet
Carmarthenshire is not the sort of place you might expect to visit when searching for signs and portents for 2010.
But if you were to go there and drive down the county's highways and byways in the wee small hours, you might see what I mean.
Or rather, not see. Because Carmarthenshire will soon be in darkness every night, having decided to turn off a third of its 18,000 street lights between half past midnight and 5.30am.
In a sign of the way UK public finances are going, the county council is doing it to save money.
Switching off 6000 street lamps will put £67,000 back into the county's coffers next year. Neighbouring Powys has already gone over to the dark side; dousing two thirds of its lights after it discovered that rising electricity prices would increase its £500,000 million street lighting bill by £175,000 next year.
You can bet that other councils are keeping a watching brief on the public's reaction in Wales - henceforth to be known as the Principality of Darkness. Local authorities know they will have to cut deeply into their budgets over the next few years, so any relatively painless cost-saving opportunities will be embraced with a welcoming smile and a sharp scalpel.
Even so, Carmarthenshire's partial blackout will only trim the county's £30 million roads and transport budget by 0.2%. It's clear that something more will have to give. Parties at all levels of Government are pledged to safeguard health, social services, emergency services and education so "non-sensitive" spending, on things like road repairs, will definitely be in line for deeper cutbacks.
Roadworks, like street lighting, are fairly carbon-intensive: turning out 6000 lights will apparently save over 350 tonnes of CO2 a year. This allows councils to present their cuts as a way to meet the UK's climate change targets and protect ratepayers from future levies on emissions.
But that's of little consolation to fleet and business drivers, who are likely to find themselves making bumpier journeys on darker roads over the next few years. Moreover, they won't have the option of letting the train take the strain, since public transport subsidies come out of the same endangered pot of money as roads.
So, despite all those 'green' images featuring buses and trains, in reality Britain's businesses will become more rather than less reliant on their vehicle fleets.
Fortunately, fleets are far better-placed to respond to sudden changes than are local authorities. Councils measure the lives of their capital assets in decades, with costly maintenance requirements to fund along the way. Fleets, of course, turn their assets over comparatively quickly and get to benefit from rapid advances in vehicle technology.
Moreover, public financing is extremely inflexible whereas a veritable smorgasbord of funding options is available to fleets. Assuming that a fleet has a sufficiently capable funding supplier, it can position itself to respond quickly and flexibly to whatever delights or challenges 2010 throws into its path.
And, on that note, may I wish the staff and readers of BusinessCar a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year - one in which you never have to get up at 3am to see whether lights in your street are still burning!