Time For A Change

28th October 2016

As we prepare to re-set our clocks, Jennifer Lipman examines the wider issues around the practice...

Spring forward, fall back. Every October we lose an hour of daylight in the afternoon; every March we regain it. We’ve been doing it this way for a century – Britain first changed the clocks during the First World War – and yet have you ever stopped to wonder why?

The concept of standardised time is relatively modern. Until the 19th century, most places operated on local time, guided by sundials. “As communications developed it became a real issue that there was no time standard – an obvious one was for timetabling trains,” says Rory McEvoy, the Royal Observatory’s Curator of Horology. “And suddenly people were talking through telegraphs over long distances, and trading through them. Time became very important.”

In 1884, delegates from more than 20 nations assembled in Washington for the International Meridian Conference, settling on Greenwich as the world’s meridian – the set north-south line from which time would be calculated. Greenwich was the obvious choice; not only was Britain a major empire, but the majority of shipping already used its coordinates. “There were other meridians, for example the Parisian one,” explains McEvoy, “but they thought it sensible to adopt a meridian that was already used. It was said then that 72% of global shipping used Greenwich – although I think there was some spin there!”

Britain settled on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), but it took decades for other countries to fall in line and adopt a system of hour or half hour offsets; Liberia only changed its local time in the 1970s. “It was a gradual process of countries saying we want to communicate with the outside world,” McEvoy observes. The royals were slow to conform, and for years operated 30 minutes ahead of the UK on ‘Sandringham Time,’ to maximise hunting time in winter.

In the UK, the first moves to shift the clocks to ‘daylight saving time’ – GMT+1, what we now call British Summer Time (BST) – emerged towards the end of the 19th century. The proposal was led by William Willett, a builder. “Willett’s primary argument was humanitarian – he thought people’s leisure time in summer would be in the evening and noted the health benefits of, for example, playing golf after you put your tools down,” says McEvoy. “In contrast, he felt the darker mornings would be of little bother.”

Willett’s plan was to move the clocks back 20 minutes a week every April, reversing this every September. “If some of the hours of wasted sunlight could be withdrawn from the beginning and added to the end of the day, how many advantages would be gained,” he wrote in 1907. But it wasn’t until 1916, with war raging in Europe and a need for Britain to save on gas for lighting (and synchronise with the country’s allies and enemies), that the Summer Time Act passed.

Despite opposition to darker mornings from farmers, the change stuck, altered only during the Second World War, when the UK moved to ‘British Double Summer Time’ (GMT+2) – with the Government highlighting ‘the advantages to transport and the production of munitions’. In the 1990s BST was consolidated into EU law. Across the world, around 70 countries adopt a daylight saving timezone.

Willett’s ambition, then, was realised. But today campaigners want to go a step further and move to Single/Double Summer Time, arguing that the darker mornings caused by winding the clocks another hour forward (and two in spring) would be offset by the daylight gained.

“Each year we sleep through hundreds of hours of morning daylight, and use energy-hungry electric lighting through the evening,’ stated 10:10, a coalition of 90 organisations that backed a Private Members’ Bill in 2012 aimed at achieving this.

Advocates argue that there are many benefits: from reducing energy use to increasing our Vitamin D intake, and giving us extra time to play sports or go out in our communities. They also point to the potential trade advantages of being in sync with Europe.

The road safety argument, put forward by organisations including the AA, is perhaps the most compelling case for SDST, with claims that it would save about 50 lives annually – although, as Lucy Amos, a spokesperson for road safety charity Brake, explains, opponents fear that it would increase casualties in the morning, due to darker driving conditions. But she cites studies suggesting that casualties spike during the early evening, when children are returning from school. “The extent of this rise would be far outweighed by the fall in the evening rush-hour.”

Changing the clocks, says Amos, “would make road use safer for pedestrians and cyclists, encouraging more people to walk and cycle to work or school, or simply for health and enjoyment”. This ‘common sense change’, she adds, would “prevent needless deaths and injuries on roads and make communities more safe, active and sociable places”.

A 2010 review for the Mayor of London flagged British Crime Survey data suggesting that ‘over half of criminal offences take place when it is dark in the late afternoon or evening’, with some crimes, like assault, ‘facilitated by darkness’ and significantly more common in the evening. And even if lighter evenings won’t stop crime, they might make people feel safer, with a positive effect on communities. ‘Fear of street crime has made some people reluctant to go out after dark,’ said the report.

Those who want us to move to SDST also emphasise that if we are kept indoors by darkness, we are broadly prevented from engaging in physical activities; children are less likely to run around after school, while adults are less disposed to go for a run after work.

Our timezone, they claim, is bad for our health – and for the economy. The tourism industry wants the UK to synchronise with Europe, saying this would create up to 80,000 jobs. “When it gets dark, if you are out on a day trip with your family, you tend to head home,” says George McGregor of the British Hospitality Association. “If it stays lighter you’ll stay out longer and spend more money. It’s the case in summer but even more so in winter. The lighter it is the more customers are out and about, engaging with tourism experiences.”

Despite this, the Government has shown little inclination to act, or carry out the comprehensive cost benefit analysis recommended in an official review in 2012. One reason for their reluctance might be that Britain has already experimented with extending winter daylight. A trial started in 1968 kept the clocks at GMT+1 year-round; but was abandoned after MPs voted against it, swayed partly by opposition from the Scots and from farmers.

Ultimately, says McEvoy, it depends on where you live. “You’re not really going to notice if you live in the south but in the northerly parts you would, because it will be dark much later in the morning. It’s more exaggerated the further north you get.”

As Malcolm Roughead, Chief Executive of VisitScotland , points out, “It could mean some parts of northern Scotland not getting light until around 10am, which might be a disadvantage to businesses.”

Opposition from the Scottish National Party – now an even bigger force in British politics – was key to the Bill failing in 2012. “The Government didn’t want to risk it in the run up to the Scottish referendum,” says McGregor. But he thinks that views may change, pointing out that many traditional objections no longer apply; farmers now use artificial light, while children are mostly ferried to school by parents on dark mornings.

Still, with tension between Scotland and Westminster running high, and Brexit meaning that coordinating with Europe is less of a concern, a change seems unlikely. “There is a general absence of will,” sighs Amos.

Nevertheless, there is no question that Willett’s argument is as thought-provoking now as it was a century ago. “That so many as 210 hours of daylight are to all intents and purposes wasted every year, is a defect in our civilisation,” he argued. In time, maybe we’ll agree.

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