The polluters of Acacia Avenue

Observations on christmas lights

In the New Year, Danny Meikle, a 57-year-old retired builder, will get an electricity bill £4,000 steeper than normal. His Christmas decorations - 1.2 million light bulbs, a 45ft glowing Santa and singalong nativity scene - are visible and audible two miles away. Because Meikle's immediate neighbours happen to be his children, and he started the whole thing a decade ago as an entertainment for his grandchildren, he gets away with it.

But when Robbie Raggio decked his East Sussex house in 1,000 bulbs and Ho Ho Ho lights above the garage, he got a letter chastising him for "disgraceful", "distasteful" and "wasteful use of power". A man in the US was asked to remove two motorised copulating reindeer because they were visible on the local school bus route.

At least there are some signs that people are becoming more sensitive to the energy-guzzling implications of Christmas lights. Leicester council put on an electrifying display last year - but reused its Divali lights for Christmas and then handed out free low-wattage light bulbs to local residents.

What can you do if your neighbourhood is over-illuminated this Christmas? The Environmental Protection Act 1990 covered nuisances such as smoke, smells and noise, but although parliament did consider extending its scope to floodlights and security lights, it ultimately decided against it. In Scotland, the neighbours of a man who filled his garden with 8,000 Christmas lights and a talking tree got a court injunction against him because, in previous years, hundreds of people had turned up to view it. But it was the past evidence that was crucial: the courts are reluctant to anticipate nuisance.

Christmas lighting, however, is now part of the government's anti-antisocial behaviour agenda. As of last year, people have been ordered to switch off light displays before a locally designated curfew: 11:30pm in one area of Southall, Middlesex. And last month's Queen Speech included proposals for town councils to dish out on-the-spot fines of roughly £50 for residents guilty of light pollution.

Ministers, however, will be alert to the dangers of political death by a thousand fairy lights. Defending the right to Christmas lights could yet become the liber- tarian struggle of the suburbs, just as the right to hunt foxes is the struggle of the countryside. Unlike the tally-ho crew, the polluters of Acacia Avenue are the kind of floating voters that new Labour can't afford to lose.