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Sentenced to light imprisonment by council

I have a light disability – many forms of lighting including CFLs and LEDs trigger my debilitating migraines.  The introduction of new lighting meant I had to leave the job I loved and spend much of my time at home as I cannot enter most shops or places of leisure without becoming ill.  

My local council changed street lights in my area seven years ago, which has left me unable to go out in the evenings when these are on.  But there was a time, not so long ago, when, during the day, I could leave my home in my car or to take a walk (I am fortunate in living on the coast and close to paths that run through farmers’ fields).  However since the Covid lockdowns there has been a different kind of epidemic – that of businesses whose exteriors are decorated with a plethora of unnecessary LED lights. 

One of these businesses is at one end of my street – whose proprietor had the exterior adorned with LEDs at Easter 2021.  I informed my local council that these lights posed a problem for me and asked for lights on one side of the business’s premises to be removed, which would allow me to leave my street in safety.  Nothing happened so since Easter 2021 I have been unable to leave my street in that direction after 8 am when the business opens.

I started to take my daily cycle ride early – to arrive home before 8 am.  But one day in September 2021 on the home run I was accosted by some bright flashing lights that made me very ill.  It turned out that a business at the other end of my street had installed in its window an LED backlit advertising board that was overwhelming in its brightness, glare and flicker.  The shop was open from 7 am until 11 pm so I then became unable to leave my home, or even put my own rubbish bin out, as it was not possible to avoid seeing the light from the board.  I contacted the company owning  the business about the board but never heard back.  I also informed my local council, asking for the board to be removed so that I could leave my home during the day without becoming ill.  It is a terrible irony that one of the flashing images from the board that was imprisoning me was one urging its viewers to “be kind”.  

A council officer wrote to me to say that, although necessary planning permission had  not been applied for, the shop was being allowed to keep the board switched on and displaying. I was told that this was because the proprietor claimed not to know who the board belonged to.  Again I wrote to the council, pointing out that the proprietors had no incentive to apply for planning permission while they continued to be allowed to keep the board displaying.  It took until December 2021 (three months after the board’s appearance) before I was informed by the planning department that, as no planning permission application had been submitted, council officers had ensured that the advertising board was turned off.  I was therefore denied freedom of movement for three months because of the initial decision made by the planning department in favour of a commercial enterprise that had not even applied for planning permission, and against the basic rights of a disabled person.

During my attempts to get the advertising board turned off or removed, I was put in touch with Adfree Cities.  AdfreeCities is an organisation working to get rid of digital advertising boards.  They are concerned about their lack of “amenity” and the fact that they can be a dangerous distraction including to drivers.  They were most helpful and provided information and links to media articles of cases where there has been success in getting digital advertising boards removed.  Through our collaboration I found out how helpful it is to work with other organisations aiming for similar outcomes and in the near future I hope to be involved in the production of a video that is to be made by Adfree Cities.

Since the digital advertising board was removed in December 2021 I have been able to leave my home during the day in one direction only.  But in June I was upset to see on the council’s planning portal an application for the premises that had housed the digital advertising board.  It’s a new business at the same site and is to be open from 9 am until 11 pm every day.  This planning application includes exterior building LED lighting. I have objected to the application and written personally to the council’s chief executive twice but I have been informed that permission has been granted for LED signage.  This means I will have to put up with either staying in my home permanently or have 3-day long migraines.  There is no hint of any negotiating or compromise suggestions – for example allowing the business to only have external LEDs turned on during the evening (as I can’t leave my home when street lights are on) – which would allow me to leave my home in daylight and would also reduce energy use.   

In the words of the last letter I received from the council, “in considering the impact of the signs on those with protected characteristics, it was considered that to reject consent for the illuminated signage would have been a disproportionate response to the extent of the impact.”  I have a disability as defined by the Equality Act, but council officers have decided that imprisoning me in my home on a permanent basis or inducing 3 day long debilitating migraines is a reasonable price for me to pay to allow the business to have LED lit signage on in daylight.    

My previous experience of three months being confined to my home led to my mental health deteriorating significantly, which is highly likely to happen again when I am similarly prevented from having freedom of movement by the presence of unnecessary, purely decorative lighting that is on during daylight.  My life will have to be lived under permanent lockdown.       

By Jo, North of England

Blogs are written by LightAware supporters in a personal capacity

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