The Victorian Society urges Westminster Council not to remove historic gaslights

The Victorian Society has responded to a consultation on the proposed removal of gaslights in Westminster

Photo: An original Gas Lamp in Westminster Photo Copyright: The Victorian Society.

Photo: An original Gas Lamp in Westminster Photo Copyright: The Victorian Society.

The Victorian Society has written to Westminster Council expressing its concerns with the plans and the justifications for the removal of gas lamps. You can read our response below.

Dear Sir/Madam,

RE: Upgrading Westminster’s gas street lighting

Thank you for inviting the The Victorian Society to take part in this review of the future of Westminster’s historic gas lights. The Victorian Society attended the site visit on Wednesday 2nd November to discuss the Council’s concerns and proposals. Our further comments are below.

The City of Westminster is of international significance in the history of street lighting with the world’s first gas streetlights installed on Pall Mall in 1807. From historic oil lamps constructed over the entrances to 18th century houses, to the most technologically advanced electric streetlights, every stage in the development of public lighting can be seen. Westminster’s historic gas lights play a significant role in this history, whilst also contributing to the special character of the area, and the appeal the city has to tourists and those interested in heritage.

The replacement of a substantial number of historic gas lights with new, electric lanterns would harm the historical character of the city, and harm the significance of Conservation Areas within it. Where existing gas lights are included on the statutory list as designated heritage assets any change to new electric lanterns would cause substantial harm to their significance. The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that great weight should be given to the conservation of heritage assets (para 199), and that development within Conservation Areas should enhance or better reveal significance (para 206).

Where a proposal would result in harm this must be backed by ‘clear and convincing’ justification. The review document and discussion during the site visit raised several justifications for the proposed replacement of the historic gas lights. However, none require the removal of the existing lanterns and their replacement with new electric lanterns.

Justification 1: Safety

There are concerns that the historic gas lights do not produce enough light to meet current safety requirements and that altering the existing gas lights or installing additional electric lighting is not possible. However, almost every street in Westminster which has gas lights also has electric lights and high levels of ambient lighting from shop windows and other buildings. We accept that the gas pressure to the existing lights may not be able to be increased further and so increase light levels. However, recent refurbishments of gas lights at Great Malvern and some European cities show that required levels of lighting can be achieved by different means, whilst still using gas power. In the review document the Council maintain that installing new electric lighting in some locations was impossible due to problems securing Listed Building Consent. However, at the site visit it was admitted that this statement was false and no such applications had ever been submitted. While there may be issues with lighting levels produced by the gas lights, the existing lights could be retained with the issue solved in different ways. We urge that options for improving the existing gas technology and installing additional lighting are explored fully.

Justification 2: Maintenance

As with any infrastructure over 100 years old, the maintenance of the gas lights requires greater resources than their modern equivalent. However, the issues raised by the Council do not pose an insurmountable problem. Issues with gas supply to the lamps and failure of below ground infrastructure is mainly caused by the historic lack of cooperation between Cadent and British Gas (bodies responsible for maintaining gas infrastructure and gas lights respectively) in the City of Westminster, rather than the lights themselves. Representatives from the British Gas maintenance team present at the site visit stated that this was not a problem in the Royal Parks and could be solved. Furthermore, the maintenance team also made it clear that there is no shortage of replacement parts or expertise to ensure the lamps can continue working indefinitely. While maintenance of the gas lights may be more expensive than electric lighting this must be balanced against their high heritage value (which has its own economic value in terms of tourism) and the projected cost of replacing the lights at £4,000 per new lantern. Westminster City Council claims in the review document that ‘We are proud of our city’s heritage and as its cultural custodians,’ if this is true then they must be prepared to meet the cost of maintaining heritage.

Justification 3: Environment

The Victorian Society recognises the issues around the carbon footprint of gas lighting and that in its current form it cannot be a carbon neutral from of lighting. However, the amount of carbon produced by the gas lights represents an estimated 0.44% of Westminster City Council’s carbon emissions. It should be the Council’s priority to address larger contributors to their carbon footprint before any works to the existing gas lights. Any promised improvement in carbon emissions by replacing the existing gas lights must be weighed against the carbon footprint created by the production of new lanterns and works to provide electrical infrastructure. Improvements made to gas lights at Great Malvern has resulted in improved energy efficiency, and this example should be explored. Furthermore, we would remind the Council that the National Grid has not yet reached carbon net zero, therefore electricity continues to have a carbon footprint for the foreseeable future.

In addition to these unconvincing justifications for such harmful proposals, the Council’s strategy to sustain the authenticity and significance of the lamps whilst replacing them is inadequate. Introducing electric light, however much the fitting and quality of light may mimic gas lighting, it will remove a major component of a gas light’s significance which is that these lights continue to use a historic technology. Furthermore, the design of the new lanterns will only mimic the historic designs rather than be like-for-like replacements. For lamps included on the statutory list especially this is not an acceptable proposal, and we are concerned where it appears this has taken place without appropriate permissions. It is unclear to the The Victorian Society why, if the Council maintains that electric light is a necessity, the existing lanterns cannot be retained and altered. Surely this would be cheaper than the estimated cost of £4,000 per new electric lantern, resulting in better outcomes for heritage and the taxpayer?

Finally, we express our dismay that it has taken Westminster City Council so long to engage with the The Victorian Society, other stakeholders, and the public on these proposals. The Victorian Society contacted Westminster City Council in January this year in response to a proposed consultation and it has taken 10 months for this to materialise, despite considerable public interest and concern. With the proposed replacement lamps so far developed, and even installed in some places, it seems unlikely that this consultation will result in any significant changes to the proposals. The Victorian Society opposes the planned replacement of the existing gas lights due to the harm they will cause to the character of the City of Westminster and the significance of Conservation Areas and designated heritage assets.

Yours sincerely,

Connor McNeill Conservation Adviser



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