The cost of electricity to power festive lighting in local communities will continue to be covered by Aberdeenshire Council, after a new approach was agreed by councillors.
Members of the Infrastructure Services Committee (ISC) gave the go ahead to a new policy aimed at ensuring a reasonable, consistent and safe approach to requests from community groups.
Hanging baskets, banners and bunting are also covered by the new rules, as well as attachments to street lighting columns, such as signs.
Councillors heard the use of festive lighting, bunting, banners and hanging baskets can help encourage commercial activity in towns, add seasonal colour and help promote community events.
Unregulated installations can however cause damage to street furniture, endanger the public and be an offence under the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984.
ISC previously considered proposals which would have seen community groups covering electricity costs for festive lights, hearing there was strong opposition to this from local councillors and groups.
Members asked officers to revisit the plans, setting up a working group to further investigate the potential impacts of the proposals.
An engagement meeting was held with community groups in April where a number of concerns were raised and consideration of these led to a number of changes to the proposed policy.
Electricity supplied through the public street lighting network will not be charged for and the council will now perform technical assessments on the suitability of lighting columns and advise community groups – it had been proposed that applicants would have to perform these safety tests themselves.
A proposed deadline for applications for festive lighting installations of 1 September has been extended and they will now have to be submitted by 1 October each year.
There will be restrictions on installations outwith main footfall areas but an arrangement to allow the use of festive lights featuring the branding of commercial organisations will be extended by a year.
ISC chair, Peter Argyle, proposed going against officers’ recommendations, which had been to charge community groups for the electricity used in line with the council’s policy to achieve full cost recovery.
“There has been a high level of interest in these proposals and we have listened to the concerns of communities while also trying to develop a consistent and fair approach right across the area, with a significant emphasis on safety,” he said.
“Previously different approaches were taken in different areas and the new policy ensures all applications across the area will be dealt with in the same way, to the same safety standards.
“The cost of electricity for festive lighting in Aberdeenshire is around £11,000 and that seems a small price to pay for the goodwill of communities making the effort to brighten themselves up and appear welcoming at Christmas – we recognise a lot of organisation and effort goes into this already.
“The excellent work communities do is clearly of benefit to the whole of Aberdeenshire and the cost is one we can bear.”
Vice chair, Jon Cox, said: “The committee listened to what communities had to say about the proposed policy and has made changes to ensure the council’s approach is acceptable.
“A lot of work goes into this in and by communities – groups do bear significant costs already and we should not add to that.
“New guidance manuals produced as part of this process cover the technical details and should help any groups considering festive lights, bunting or other attachments to street lighting.
“Transitional measures have also been put in place to minimise the impact on community groups of any changes, to allow them time to adjust to the new set-up.”
A proposal by Cllr Cox to allow Local Area Committees to resolve any issues encountered by community groups looking to install lighting features or similar will be referred to the council’s Procedures Committee. He said he hopes this would give groups reassurance of being treated fairly.
The committee heard the highest cost to power festive lights in any community is £1,000 and that electricity costs could be reduced by encouraging the introduction of more efficient LEDs.
The new policy will apply from October 1 this year and the cost of electricity for festive lighting will be funded from the roads maintenance budget.
Mearns councilor Leigh Wilson has been campaigning against the charges since they were first proposed and has welcomed the recent decision.
Mr Wilson said: “These proposals came to the Area Committee quite recently and there was a unanimous view in Kincardine and Mearns that the council should continue funding the electricity. We are asking more of local community groups but, at the same time, we have to support them in their endeavours too and there are few things more worthwhile than this.”
The cost of the structural assessments of lighting columns – up to £10,000 a year – will be taken from the street lighting maintenance budget.