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Dark Skies

Volume 686: debated on Monday 14 December 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)

It is good to see Members from across the country here this evening, representing their own dark sky places and reserves. It is an immense privilege to represent in this House Arundel and South Downs, with its rivers, castles, downlands, woods, vineyards and, yes, its dark skies at night. Much of the constituency lies within the South Downs national park, which, among its many virtues, shares something with only a handful of places on earth: since 2016, it has officially been an international dark sky reserve, as recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association. On a clear night, the Milky Way can clearly be seen from locations such as Bignor hill, which is one of the darkest spots in the park. For literally millions of people in the overdeveloped south-east, this is their last window out to the galaxy, as the cataracts of light pollution gradually obscures their vision.

I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group for dark skies with my noble Friend Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal. A contemporary of Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, he has spent over 50 years contributing to our understanding of the cosmos, but what if Lord Rees had never been inspired to pursue this career path? Would he ever have dreamed of contributing to our understanding of the universe had an orange skyglow in rural Shropshire obscured his vision as he looked upward to the sky? Together, he and I founded the group in the hope that future generations may still be able to see the stars and the Milky Way—features that generations of our ancestors have looked up to—which is already impossible in many parts of the country. It is an experience that gives a unique sense of perspective about our place in the universe.

Sadly, light pollution is growing exponentially in its geographic coverage and population reach. CPRE’s recent annual star count found that 61% of UK citizens live in areas with severe light pollution, meaning that they could count fewer than 10 stars in the Orion constellation. That was a 4% increase in light pollution on the previous year. The case for controlling light pollution is not just for the benefit of astronomers, just as it is not only ornithologists who would miss songbirds if they disappeared from our gardens. It also has health, educational, environmental and economic benefits.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate forward. He might not be aware that I represent a mixed rural and urban constituency. I am very blessed to live in the countryside, with fresh air in every breath, wildlife aplenty and lovely dark nights to sleep through. I am very supportive of his drive to ensure that the Government take this issue seriously. Does he agree that the mental health benefits of a good night’s sleep are well documented, and that dark skies can therefore play a very beneficial role?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise intervention. Indeed, mental health, like so many aspects of health, is affected by sleep deprivation caused by light exposure at the wrong time.

In 2018, Nature magazine reported that

“light at night is exerting pervasive, long-term stress on ecosystems, from coasts to farmland to urban waterways, many of which are already suffering from other, more well-known forms of pollution.”

It stated that a UK study sequentially over 13 years found that

“artificial lighting was linked with trees bursting their buds more than a week earlier—a magnitude similar to that predicted for 2 °C of global warming.”

Light pollution is a huge waste of energy too. Lighting accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions—that is more than aviation and shipping combined. Within that category, street lighting is the single biggest contributor.

Finally, our dark skies are increasingly an economic activity on which many livelihoods depend. Like many of our national parks, the South Downs runs an annual festival attracting thousands of visitors, led by the excellent dark skies officer, Dan Oakley, who helped me research for today’s debate. Dark skies tourism is one of the fastest growing parts of the outdoor tourism sector, with memorable opportunities to sleep and dine under the stars offered by businesses such as Woodfire Camping in Graffham in my constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentions tourism, which is of course a big part of the Brecon Beacons. We are very proud to be the only dark sky reserve in Wales and the fifth international dark sky reserve in the world. I think he is going to come on to some of the recommendations made in a report by the all-party parliamentary group for dark skies. Does he agree that the Welsh Government and other devolved Administrations need to work well with the UK Government to ensure that there is a cross-UK approach?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for her constituency and its virtues. I am encouraged to hear that they include dark skies. I agree with her that it is imperative that the devolved Administrations, which are responsible for so many facets of life for our citizens and constituents, fully embrace the report’s recommendations. It is a very inclusive report, as I shall go on to say.

This is a growing area of economic returns.

On that point, my hon. Friend has extolled the wonderful virtues of Arundel and the South Downs, but Lowestoft has a unique selling point: it is the most easterly point in the UK and the place where the sun rises first. We are trying to make a tourism attraction of this, with the first light festival. Does he agree that unnatural light takes away that special appeal and special offer that we have in Lowestoft?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. Although he did not invite me, I would be very willing to come and see the charms of first light, as it rises in the east off Lowestoft.

For  health, for nature, for the environment and for the economy, there are excellent reasons to protect a dark sky at night. I think all of us in this House can agree on that. If the problem is so clear, what is to be done? Well, the good news is that it really is as simple as flicking off a switch. Unlike acid rain, lead pollution or even carbon emissions, there is no long and complex supply chain or difficult trade-offs to be made. The even better news for the Minister is that the all-party group for dark skies has already done the hard work and brought it together in a simple 10-point plan that I believe he has already seen. We do not even have to go first as a country. There are several models around the world of countries that have legislated for the improved protection of dark skies, such as South Korea and, although I hesitate to say it just at this moment in time, France. Our 10-point plan was produced following a consultation in which over 170 academics, legal professionals, national park associations, astronomers, lighting professionals, engineers and businesses participated.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for his generosity in giving way but for his success in bringing this debate, which is massively important, to the Floor of the House. He is the Member of Parliament for Britain’s newest national park, whereas I speak as one who represents two rather old ones: the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. I am sure he would agree with me that part of the attraction of places like ours is not just the landscape itself, but the landscape that is silhouetted by the canopy of stars above. In his report and recommendation to Government, will he call on them to toughen up planning powers, in national parks and in other planning authorities as well, to prevent developers encroaching on our areas and adding to light pollution, which removes the appeal and the beauty that we both share in our beautiful parts of the world?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point and anticipates one of the points I hope to get on to.

The first of our recommendations concerns the Minister himself. As has been widely reported, we would like to see a designated Minister for the dark skies with cross-cutting responsibility for this issue. Last week, I and others met the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). As a DEFRA Minister, she told us about the contributions her Department has made towards assessing the impact of artificial light on wider biodiversity. She also shared with us a fascinating story of her visit to Skomer a few years ago to witness the Manx shearwaters flying at night to find their chicks, making her aware of just how sensitive such creatures are to light pollution, which impacts their flight paths. However, so many of the issues involved lie with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that if we had to pick one Department, and I believe we do, it is there that we think the designated Minister should sit.

Secondly, the language in the national planning policy framework on avoiding light pollution should be significantly expanded, allowing local planning authorities to impose specific planning conditions related to external lighting, including curfew hours, standards for brightness, colour temperature, as well as the direction and the density of lighting. The most recent NPPF from 2019 makes very little reference to lighting, with paragraph 180(c) being the only reference, which states:

“limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation.”

Although a number of local authorities have adopted policies that seek to do that, in practice most development proposals are simply not assessed against such policies. CPRE’s “Shedding Light” survey found that almost two-thirds of local authorities do not have a lighting policy in their local plan and only a third had proactively adopted one to comply with the NPPF.

This need not be the case. The South Downs national park contains approximately 2,800 local authority streetlights, all of which point downwards and minimise the colour temperature. National planning policy on light pollution should require all proposed developments to conduct a dark sky impact assessment and ensure there is no net impact of a scheme on a dark sky location. Much of this could be overseen and enforced by a new statutory commission for the dark skies to develop standards and regulations, and work with local authorities to enforce them. We should also create a national programme of best practice, dark sky hours, in which categories of lighting can be dimmed or turned off completely in consultation with the community, lighting professionals and the police.

My hon. Friend and I share much the same views on dark skies: I am a huge fan. While we need to be careful of safety at night, people walking, pavements and safe passage home, does my good friend agree that turning out the lights could save councils an absolute fortune in money and cost?

As ever, my hon. Friend, with his varied experience that he brings to the House, makes an excellent point. Not only can hard-pressed local councils save money that they can redirect to supporting their residents elsewhere, but there is also, surprisingly, no evidence at all that street lighting contributes to greater safety and it has impacts on the environment, as well as some of the other impacts that we talk about. He makes a very good point.

Before we leave the planning process, we cannot ignore the elephant—or perhaps I should say the Ursa Major—in the room: over-development in the south-east. I pick up a point that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has already made. I have spoken on these matters many times in this House in my short year here, and I make no apology for doing so again tonight. Right now, my constituents face a veritable clone army of developments, with proposals in Adversane, Barnham, Ford, Kirdford, West Grinstead, Mayfield and every compass point in between.

Consideration of light pollution in the planning system can only be palliative relief while the Minister’s Department consults on taking an algorithm that already lists heavily towards the overcrowded south-east and tilting it still further, rather than levelling up. We are building the wrong types of dwellings in the wrong place. Before the second world war, roughly a fifth of the population lived in the south of England outside London, while twice as many lived in the north and Scotland taken together. Now, equal numbers live in both. We should be building far more in our great urban centres of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and many others—building environmentally friendly supertalls that reach up to the stars, instead of concreting over our last remaining natural places. We should be pursuing commercial to residential conversion on a galactic scale in places where the infrastructure already exists.

Where rural areas such as West Sussex have their own housing needs to fulfil, that should be through a brownfield-first policy, utilising brownfield land registers that are able nationally to accommodate more than 1 million potential homes. How can we teach our children to recycle plastic bags from a supermarket to save the environment, and yet bulldoze by numbers through the ancient fields, hedgerows and woodlands of West Sussex?

Elsewhere, I am proud that this Government are the greenest in our country’s history. We have one of the most ambitious plans for our environment of any leading nation. At the climate ambition summit this weekend, the Prime Minister confirmed that the UK will cut its emissions by 68% by 2030 versus 1990 levels, while our neighbours and friends in the European Union could only manage 55%. I contend that is because conservation has always been at the very heart of conservatism. Our manifesto last December pledged to protect and restore our natural environment by setting up a new independent office for environmental protection. Perhaps protecting our dark skies could be an early and easy win for that organisation.

Finally, we need to give local authorities a more effective method of acting on light nuisance. The current Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires light nuisance be prejudicial to health, which sets an incredibly high threshold for action, and the provision is only focused on the impact of light emission on humans, rather than the environment. It is subjective and difficult to prove. Further to that, relevant sections should be added to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to prohibit accidental or deliberate disturbance by inappropriate artificial light.

I want to conclude and allow my right hon. Friend the Minister to respond, but first I thank all those who have made this document possible. They are too numerous to mention, but one whose involvement was quite singular was my researcher, and secretary of the all-party group, Chris Cook.

Next week on the winter solstice, the two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, will align in the night sky to appear to form a single superstar. This rare event is called a conjunction, and it will be the closest to earth since 1623 and the most observable since 1226, a time when English kings still ruled most of western France. If the night is clear, I shall be lucky enough to observe it from the South Downs. I am told that this particular combination will not be seen again until the spring of the year 2080, which is a humbling reminder of our small place and transient tenure in the universe. I would like to think that we might witness a similar conjunction down here, with a Government who are serious about tackling the damage we are doing to our environment, a White Paper leading to a new national planning policy framework and a growing recognition of the importance of protecting the dark sky.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) on securing this debate and on making such eloquent and passionate arguments, as he ever does, in support of dark skies. I am also impressed by his ability to weave into his speech historical references such as “The Lion in Winter”, about King Henry II and his powerful reign. I suspect that although we might see dark skies again, we shall never see the like of Henry II again. I congratulate Chris Cook, my hon. Friend’s researcher, on all the efforts that he has undertaken on my hon. Friend’s behalf.

I am also grateful to the other hon. and right hon. Members who have taken the time and, so to speak, seen the light in coming to this debate to speak on behalf of their constituents, and to the all-party group for the important work it is doing to preserve our dark skies. We share a common goal in wanting to limit the effect of light pollution from artificial light on our dark landscape. I therefore welcome the initiative taken by my hon. Friend and his noble Friend Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, in working to reconnect people with the wonder of the dark skies, as well as with a wide range of other benefits to society and the environment that flow from his endeavours.

Of course, when used wisely, artificial light can extend opportunities for sport and recreation, and it can enhance security and safety in and around our homes and on our roads. However, as Members have rightly pointed out, when it is used unwisely, artificial light can be a real nuisance, becoming pollution that undermines our enjoyment of the countryside and especially of our night skies. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has rightly pointed out that we cannot overlook how much energy is wasted by unnecessary lighting, as we work together on achieving our climate change net zero goals. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), and I hope that the highways authorities around our country will take note.

I am aware of the effect that poorly located artificial light can have, not just on residents but on wildlife, not least in its capacity to interrupt their nocturnal habits. Any of us who has tried to get a good night’s sleep with a bright street light shining through their bedroom window will understand what I am talking about. In fact, if I may deviate slightly, one of my proudest achievements in my 10 years as the Member of Parliament for Tamworth is not having tried to fix the NHS or improve the schools or the road system of my town; it has been to get a street lamp moved so that a little old lady living next to the Belgrave Lakes could get a decent night’s sleep. She knows what I am talking about, and I think that we in this House also know what I am talking about. The same applies to ecosystems and protected species. There is increasing evidence that lighting can also have far-reaching effects on biodiversity and nature. The Government recognise these issues and are taking action.

I know that my hon. Friend appreciates, as we all do, that there are complexities surrounding the policy and legislation that govern artificial light. Responsibility for its monitoring and regulation crosses several Departments and also falls to local authorities. Our intention has been to utilise the planning system to get the lighting right from the outset. Local planning authorities can require applicants to submit a lighting strategy with their planning application, and they can consider on a case-by-case basis what conditions are appropriate.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s all-party group will make an important and valuable contribution to the current work on our planning reforms, and I am grateful to the group for so ably and clearly setting out its 10 dark sky policies for Government. I believe that planning control can and should be a key determinant in this, with support from organisations such as the all-party group. That is why we have taken action to ensure that light pollution is addressed through the planning system.

The Minister is making a good case, and it is important that we hear what the Government intend to do when it comes to working with the planning guidance. Does he agree that planning authorities—particularly cash-strapped national parks—will always worry about the potential of losing an appeal, at great cost to them and the local community, and that they will need real confidence and support from the Government to allow them to say a flat no to developers who seek to bring about developments that threaten our dark skies?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He will know that five of our parks have committed to conserving dark skies. We said in the “Planning for the future” White Paper that we would undertake a comprehensive review of the skills and resources that local planning authorities require to do the work. The consideration of the White Paper is under way, as he will know, and I will say a little more about that in a moment. I am sure such considerations will be given very careful thought as we work through the review process.

The national planning policy framework, which was updated last year and now includes the paragraph to which my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs referred, makes it clear that planning policies and decisions should limit the effect of light pollution on local amenity, dark landscapes and nature conservation, including where there may be effects on wildlife and ecosystems. It is supported by guidance; it emphasises the importance of getting the right light in the right place at the right time; and it helps local planners and developers to design in ways of avoiding glare and intrusion.

My department has worked closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), to revise and reinforce the planning practice guidance on light pollution that we published last year. That guidance encourages local planning authorities to engage with all relevant bodies and interested parties, whether statutory or not, who may feel that they are affected by a particular development proposal. It should not just be a case of rounding up the usual suspects, so to speak.

Our guidance emphasises the importance of getting it right from the outset, because lighting schemes can be costly and difficult to change. Fitting things is expensive, but retrofitting them is even more expensive. That approach will help to ensure that lighting design is carefully considered at the outset, to avoid harsh glare and obtrusive effects and to help to safeguard our environment. Our policy remains that organisations that wish to be more engaged in the planning process should liaise directly with local planning authorities on the types of planning application on which they want to comment.

Conversely, we encourage local planning authorities to produce and publish locally specific lists of non-statutory consultees, thereby helping applicants to refine their proposals in a way that can balance the needs of the built environment with wider considerations. I suspect that there will be a role for Members of Parliament, including members of the APPG, in that regard. It is important to remember that being a statutory consultee does not give any organisation a right of veto over a planning proposal or decision. This ultimately rests with the local planning authority as the decision maker in the first instance. As we move to our new upfront planning system that places much greater emphasis on holistic and strategic design, I suspect that there will be opportunities for such stakeholders to have and to play an important role.

One of the key proposals in our “Planning for the future” White Paper is bringing forward a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental effects—one that does not compromise environmental standards and, indeed, encourages opportunities for environmental enhancements to be identified and pursued early in the development process. We have received a significant number of responses in consulting on our proposals, and we will respond in due course once we have processed them all. We have had over 44,000 consultation responses, so I am sure that the House, and particularly the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, will understand if it takes us a little time to get through them all.

I should briefly describe some of the other approaches being taken to tackle light pollution, given its potential significant effect not just on rural areas but on our towns and cities too. Street lighting is an important issue and it needs to be considered carefully when balancing the competing priorities of maintaining road safety and avoiding light pollution. The Department for Transport is therefore encouraging all local authorities to replace their street lighting, wherever feasible, with more modern technology such as LED lighting units, as such alternatives can greatly reduce the amount of glare emitted. I am aware that action is being taken by Highways England on replacing poorly performing lighting—I have seen quite a lot of that as I drive up and down the M40—and that these initiatives are supported by those with interest in preserving our dark skies, such as the CPRE and the British Astronomical Society.

We also recognise that wildlife species can have heightened sensitivity to light, being affected by even very low levels in a number of different ways. This is especially important where habitats support nocturnal animals, insects and protected species such as bats. My colleagues at DEFRA have recently published and contributed to assessments of the effect of artificial light on insects, and wider biodiversity work, to ensure that the Government continue to address the key drivers of biodiversity loss. Indeed, an objective of the Environment Bill, which is before the House, is a biodiversity net gain.

I am all too aware that common causes of complaints to local authorities include domestic shop or office exterior security lights, illuminated advertising and floodlighting, so these installations may require particular attention. Similarly, insensitively positioned decorative lighting, particularly in rural areas, can be a cause for concern. It is therefore essential that such situations are prevented from occurring right from the outset, as pursuing remedies through the statutory nuisance regime or other legal avenues can add further stress to individuals and incur heavy costs. Planning committees should look closely at that when considering the strategic design of their town centres and their built environment.

On behalf of the Government, I should like to add my congratulations to those received by both the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors on being named international dark sky reserves just last week.

In conclusion, I again thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs on all his work and diligence in this area, and I also congratulate fellow Members across the House on speaking with such passion and on the strong arguments that they advanced in support of this new all-party group’s objectives. I look forward to working with the group and with Members of all stripes, from all parts of the House, on this important issue as we advance planning proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.