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Saving the planet? Incandescent (left) and fluorescent lightbulbs (Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil CC BY 3.0 BR)

How many bureaucrats does it take to change a light bulb? Does the answer depend on whether the bureaucrats work in Brussels or Westminster? And has the productivity of bureaucrats in this activity declined, stagnated or increased in the last 20 years?

These may seem to be cheap, snide and irrelevant questions to start a column in Standpoint. My excuse is that the answers are not entirely cheap, snide and irrelevant to a part of our culture that matters to Standpoint readers, namely, drama production in live theatre. The European Union is pushing through new regulations on lighting, with the traditional tungsten sources to be replaced from 2020 with light-emitting diode (or “LED”) successors. LED lighting has the advantage, according to the EU, that it uses less energy and helps to “save the planet” from global warming.

Unfortunately, it has the disadvantage that the bulbs and other equipment are far more expensive than the existing tungsten systems. Moreover, a range of lighting effects that are possible with tungsten fixtures would break the laws of physics if attempted with LED alternatives. The Association of Lighting Designers is so angry that it has prepared a protest letter for well-wishers to fire off to MPs and MEPs. The Stage, the UK theatre industry's trade magazine, has recently reported that nationally the increase in cost from switching to LED will be £1 billion. Some theatres, facing extra bills running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, may be forced to close.

These sums of money — and indeed the costs of numerous other EU regulations — were overlooked in the notoriously bad and wrong Project Fear calculations made by the Treasury before the June 2016 referendum. A loud complaint in the UK economic policy debate is that in the last decade, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, productivity growth has stopped. Does it have to be pointed out that the imposition of LED lighting on the theatre industry is an obvious example of an EU regulation that adds to costs and reduces productivity? If the European Commission has concocted, say, 50 such regulations in the last decade, the total loss to the UK would be £50 billion, or 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

One of the many scandals about Project Fear is that it failed to quantify the damage from the burden of EU regulation. The theatre industry ought to be effective in lobbying and is likely to secure an exemption from the EU regulation. Since the UK is to leave the EU next March anyhow, the fuss may appear unnecessary. But the present British government has shown itself supine and gutless in its dealings with the EU. There has to be a risk that EU regulations will be replicated here even after Brexit, so that sensible, low-cost arrangements of UK origin cannot emerge.
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