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Protection of Dark Skies

Volume 738: debated on Monday 16 October 2023

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

I rise to speak as the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk, a constituency blessed with huge skies and one of the few places in England where one can see, on occasion, the northern lights. Such is the significance of my constituency that we have two internationally recognised dark sky discovery sites: Kelling Heath holiday park and Wiveton downs. The North Norfolk coast is classified as having one of the darkest skies in the UK, with some areas as dark as those in the forest of Galloway or Exmoor national park, which are two internationally recognised dark skies that we all know well.

We celebrate our dark skies in Norfolk, and I wish to take a moment to highlight the fantastic work of the Norfolk Coast Partnership. Its dark skies festival opens up the secrets of our night-time wildlife and raises awareness of the impacts of light pollution. I should also pay tribute to the former co-chair of the all-party group on dark skies, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who is a passionate campaigner. I also want to welcome David Smith and Shreoshi Das from Buglife, who are in the Gallery; I am proudly wearing the emblem pin badge this evening and they have helped me prepare for this debate. They have travelled a huge way, from Somerset and Scotland, to be here to champion the importance of invertebrates, nature and our dark skies.

I rise to speak also as the glow-worm species champion—that is one of the lesser-known facts. Despite its name—here is a slight lesson—it is actually a beetle belonging to the firefly family. Not just the glow-worm, but many creatures, along with our dark skies, are under threat from light pollution, which has so far received very little action to curb its ever-increasing expansion into our nocturnal world.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject forward. He has talked about light intrusion. I am blessed to live in a coastal area and also on a family farm, so I know perhaps more than most what true darkness is like. However, I, like many MPs, have recently had to instal security lighting, which certainly had an impact on the animals and birds, putting them on alert and disturbing their sleep. Does he agree that although we need protection from the darkness to address security concerns, there is a still a need to protect our ecosystems and that this must be more widely known and circulated? Tonight, he is ensuring just that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening on me; it would not be an Adjournment debate without that intervention. Of course, he is absolutely right in what he says, and this debate is all about highlighting some of the impact on and damage to our nocturnal creatures, be they mammals or insects. Later in the debate, Members will hear about some practical steps we want to take to try to achieve an improvement, through something so simple; light pollution can literally be healed with the turning off of a light, and there are not many pollutions for which we can do that.

A large number of Northern Ireland Members are present tonight; I ask Members please not to let anyone make a joke about us being unenlightened!

For many years there was a stunning murmuration of starlings in south Belfast. It was quite something to be seen from Albert Bridge, which I used to cross every evening as I walked home to Woodstock Road. They used to come from across the city and beyond, but after some planning changes we noticed that they had all but disappeared, apparently because of a change in lighting. Along with others, I have worked with the authorities, and we were able to make a few relatively minor changes involving blinkers on some lights and filters on street lights. Since then, we have seen the return of some of the starlings. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that understanding the issue and, perhaps, minor planning changes will constitute a big part of protecting nature?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Later in my speech, I will come to some of the practical measures that are being taken by planning authorities. Many are leading the way in being able to put together sensitive ways of dealing with light pollution, and in 15 or 20 minutes Members will be able to hear about some of those things that are being done by authorities around the country.

Darkness is not only essential to the health and wellbeing of people; it is equally important to wildlife. A huge variety of animals need darkness for feeding, for migration, or even simply to rest. I shall say more about that shortly. As humans, we need sleep to recharge and maintain good physical and mental health, and so do animals. We are probably all aware of the effects of a bad night’s sleep on the rest of our day, and after several days without sleep the symptoms worsen. The same effects are seen in our wildlife, and they are exacerbated by the increase in light pollution.

Earlier this year, a group of international scientists estimated that light pollution is increasing globally by approximately 10% every year, and has been doing so for at least the past 12 years. That is an incredible rise in a pollutant that has gone pretty much unchecked, despite concerns being raised since the 1970s by astronomers whose ability to glimpse the outer reaches of our solar system has become obscured. More recently, environmentalists trying to protect nocturnal species such as invertebrates and bats have been pointing to light as a major issue in the pressures on ecology.

Light pollution, as defined by the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals, refers to artificial light that alters the natural patterns of light and dark in ecosystems. Artificial light is of course very useful, allowing us to recreate some semblance of daylight during the hours of darkness. It creates a sense of safety as we travel, and allows work to continue long after sunset. As with everything, however, too much light, and in particular too much poor use of light, is becoming a block to our ability to meeting commitments to save energy, reduce costs and rescue biodiversity. The solutions are relatively simple, unlike those involving other pollutants. Once we remove light, the pollutant is gone; there is no lengthy clean-up operation, the results are immediate, and positive changes can happen literally overnight.

Our dark skies are under threat. We long ago lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye from where the majority of us live in the UK. This marvel of the edge of our galaxy greeted stargazers on every clear night for generations, stretching across the sky, but unfortunately sky glow, caused by light pointing and reflecting into the atmosphere, has restricted that vision to a handful of places in the country. We have become so accustomed to not seeing the Milky Way that many assume it is restricted to professional astronomers, which I think everyone would agree is a real shame.

The Commission for Dark Skies, set up by the British Astronomical Association in 1989, has been warning of this loss of stars and campaigning to raise awareness and secure better lighting to bring back the views that are still out there. CPRE, the countryside charity, runs an annual star count, asking citizen scientists to count the stars in the constellation Orion. This year it discovered that only one in 20 participants had a clear view of our starry skies. However, it is not just amateur astronomers who are suffering; earlier this year, the Royal Astronomical Society published research showing that three quarters of major global observatories are affected by light pollution. This impact is limiting scientific productivity, and reducing the useful lifetime of those incredibly advanced observatories.

Astronomers are not the only ones who are hampered by light pollution. There is now a substantial body of evidence that shows that artificial light impacts on living things. It is altering behaviour, it is changing the physical development of species and, in some cases, it is causing death. When we consider how the natural world has evolved on a series of dark and light cycles, it is not surprising that nature suffers when we alter those cycles by extending daylight and removing darkness. Whereas humans are quick to adapt and use technology to great effect, animals and plants are not so quick to respond to rapid rises in artificial light. They simply cannot keep pace. The majority of animals are active either entirely or partially at night, yet our focus is almost always directed to the daytime species. It is important not to forget the things we do not often see.

Invertebrates, for instance, appear to be disproport-ionately affected by light pollution. As we all know, our smallest creatures are vital to a balanced ecosystem, carrying out important services such as pollination, pest control, creating soils and filtering water. Unfortunately, they are suffering significant decline from a range of sources, and we must now do what we can to relieve the burden we are placing on them.

A seminal paper from researchers in the UK found that local populations of moth caterpillars are reduced by 52% due to exposure to streetlights. German researchers have estimated that a third of all insects attracted to lights die as a consequence, either through collision, increased predation or simply exhaustion. We see insects out of sync with their natural cycle, emerging too early from their hibernation or larval stage and missing the flowering of food plants. We see evidence that pollination rates are reduced in areas exposed to artificial light. Nocturnal pollinators are vital for pollinating crops, fruit and flowers. A study by researchers at the University of Sussex suggests that nocturnal pollinators are, in fact, more efficient than their daytime counterparts. Those are concerning statistics.

My own species, the common glow-worm, requires darkness to carry out its actions. The flightless female glows a magnificent yellowy green, which attracts the smaller male to mate. They live for only a short window of time as an adult, and they must lay their eggs quickly. Without the dark canvas on which to perform, the males cannot find the females, and thus the chance of a future generation passes by. Glow-worm larvae are ferocious predators and feast on snails and slugs, helping to keep populations under control. Unfortunately, we are losing these charismatic creatures from our countryside in the same way that we are losing the stars.

MPs get to do some pretty fun things from time to time, and the most memorable occasion for me was back in the summer, at the beginning of July, when I was fortunate to visit Sheringham Park in my constituency —I ran around the track on the park run, and 12 hours later I was scuttling through the undergrowth on the same track to find glow-worms. I was joined by representatives from Buglife, who are here this evening, by the UK glow-worm survey and by the National Trust to see these creatures in action. Genuinely, the glow caused by a chemical reaction in the glow-worm’s body was one of the most fascinating things I have ever witnessed. It was almost other-worldly, and I would encourage everyone to go and see it next summer if they are fortunate enough to have glow-worms in their constituency. It was fascinating. The first time I saw it, it looked like an LED glowing in the dark. I do not think I will ever forget it. When the male was attracted to the female’s glow, we turned on a red torch and, almost immediately, the male turned away from its female and went over to the new light. It was shocking to see just how pronounced the change was in that whole set of behaviours. It is no wonder that glow-worm populations close to light-polluted areas are dwindling, if that is what light pollution will do to their mating habits.

Glow-worms are members of the firefly family, as I said. Global red list assessments of that group by the International Union for Conservation of Nature shows populations under threat. While habitat loss, chemical use and climate change are all contributing factors, light pollution is a threat that we can quickly do something about to start to reverse that downward trend.

It is not just fireflies that are threatened by light pollution. The IUCN has listed light pollution as a threat to 160 assessed species, including birds, amphibians and even primates. The more that we discover about the impacts of light pollution, the more we realise its role in nature’s decline.

Hon. Members are no doubt familiar with a blackbird calling in the dead of night. I shall not sing it now, but that was an experience that the Beatles shared in the opening lyrics of their 1968 song, “Blackbird”. Where did it come from? That unusual phenomenon, which was coined by the Beatles, was a bird singing through the night due to light pollution. Birds are being tricked into thinking that it is dawn or dusk under artificial lights, which makes them sing out of turn with the normal day and night cycle. What does that do? It can act to deplete their energy levels; it stops their calls at optimum times; and it prevents them from attracting a mate.

Light pollution, as we are already finding out, is contributing to the death of millions of birds. Attracted by artificial lights, migrating species such as shearwaters, petrels and other sea-wading birds become disoriented. They may end up circling in illuminated areas. It depletes their energy reserves and puts them at risk of exhaustion, predation and potentially even fatal collisions with buildings.

Turtle hatchlings are oriented by the natural light of the moon reflecting on the sea’s surface. Artificial lights are confusing them and pulling them into a fatal direction away from the safety of the sea. Closer to home, bats, hedgehogs and other mammals avoid lights, confining them to smaller and smaller habitats.

The effects of light pollution impact not only on animals, but on people, and we are beginning to understand that better. The 2017 report from the chief medical officer warned that

“pollutants such as light…may…be adversely affecting our health”.

Exposure to too much artificial light is altering our circadian rhythms and is thought to be contributing to melatonin suppression, leading to diabetes, heart disease, possibly cancers and a range of mental ill health issues. I will not speak on those matters in any great depth, but members of the Science and Technology Committee in the other place recently published a report on that, and it is well worth looking at.

We have talked about issues relating to humans, what has happened to our star-gazing and the impact on nature, but what is the solution? How do we solve this problem with so many impacts on the natural world? The answers, which often in this place are so difficult to come by, are actually relatively simple, but they require leadership and understanding. While we can solve light pollution with a flick of the switch, campaigners are not calling for us to be plunged back into darkness. Instead, this is all about using light better. We must promote better quality, community-friendly lighting and we must not artificially light environmentally sensitive locations. We can reduce our levels of light pollution by lowering the brightness of our lights, directing lights only to places that we need them and ensuring that unnecessary lights are not on when we are not using them. Every simple measure, such as shutting curtains and blinds when we turn on internal lights, will keep the light where it needs to be and prevent it from spilling into our gardens and wild places.

Local councils are responsible for planning, and I believe that they should have good planning guidelines to be mindful of light pollution. I know that many parish councils—for instance, Weybourne, Blakeney and Cley in my area of North Norfolk—really care about this. They have campaigned for it to be taken seriously, even providing their own dark skies policies. The person who hit that home for me was Lyndon Swift, the former dynamo of Weybourne, where he was chair of the parish council. He was passionate about protecting dark skies, and I remember him talking to me about it a couple of years ago. He was probably one of the inspirations for me to be standing here this evening.

Nationally, there is lots of good news. The “Good Lighting Technical Advice Note for Cumbria”, stemming from the Dark Skies Cumbria project, led by the Friends of the Lake District and produced by Dark Source, and the “South Downs National Park Dark Skies Technical Advice Note” are guidance documents that are leading the way. They should be utilised more widely across the country. There is evidence of more localised actions for change, but I believe that action should be spread across the whole UK to ensure the results are as far reaching as possible. I hope that this debate, in one way or another, will help my own local council, North Norfolk District Council, consider closely how it can implement policies to help with light pollution.

We must treat light in the same way as we treat other pollutants. We need to monitor and set targets to reduce light pollution levels to ones that satisfy our needs and those of the planet. Guidance and encouragement are clearly not enough. We need to look at how we can create positive action. There are so many gains to be made from doing this, not least the release of the pressure on nature. Switching off unnecessary lights will save money and energy. Better-quality lighting can improve safety by reducing the contrast and shadows created by poor-quality lighting. We can restore our views of the night sky and inspire new generations about the science and wonders of space beyond our planet, and we can restore the natural canvas for glow-worms to perform that magical summer show.

Finally, I thank the staff at Buglife who have helped illuminate me to the issue and to the wonderful world of glow-worms, in particular Karim Vahed and Matt Shardlow, who arranged for my encounter with the species on that fateful July evening, and David Smith for helping me to prepare my speech.

It is once again a real pleasure to speak about such an important topic and to follow such an enlightened speech, supported by David Smith from Buglife.

In preparing for the debate, I was reminded of my little brother, who is now 40. Many years ago he had a Glo Friend, which I am sure many of us in this House remember, and he was obsessed with glow-worms. He would go down the lane to the river and see many glow-worms—not worms, but part of the firefly family. In preparing my speech, I reminded him of his glow-worm friend and he said sadly, “You don’t see them anymore.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) states on his website, we have seen a 75% reduction in glow-worms, such is the urgency of the challenge that he eloquently, powerfully and interestingly set out. I join him in thanking David Smith and Shreoshi Das for travelling down to be part of the debate. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend and the House of the steps that we are taking to protect nocturnal and crepuscular life, and the work that my Department is doing, working with other Government Departments, to reduce artificial light.

I draw the House’s attention to the environmental improvement plan. Across its 10 goals, it explains the apex target of how we will reduce the decline of nature by 2030 and increase nature’s abundance after 2030. We will do that through the fundamentals of better-quality soil, better air quality, better water quality and increased habitat.

It is also important to stress the importance of reducing unnecessary artificial light. In the United Kingdom, we are fortunate that we are able to enjoy the marvel of the night sky. My hon. Friend referenced the Lake district, where I live, and I am very fortunate to be able to experience a luminosity level of nigh on zero. While we do have some spectacular displays of the northern lights, seen as far south as Herefordshire, we also have some of the best, earliest and largest numbers of designated dark sky areas in Europe, with Exmoor national park designated the first sky reserve in Europe.

However, in our modern society, artificial light plays a valuable role in providing security. As the previous Minister responsible for the violence against women and girls strategy, I know just how important well lit areas are to design out crime. However, an excess of artificial light can, as we have heard this evening, be very detrimental to both the public and the environment. It can also be a tremendous waste of energy, an extra cost and a real source of disturbance and barrier to enjoying the night sky.

I pay regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), one of the co-founders of the all-party parliamentary group, which is working so diligently. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contributions to the debate. The evidence base on the impacts of artificial light is less advanced than that for other environmental pollutants. The technological capabilities available to us for measuring the scope of artificial light remain in development. It is an area of concern to the Government, but we are taking significant steps.

As I have said, we have committed to the halting of the decline of nature by 2030 and set out in law the Environment Act 2021. We have also introduced a strengthened biodiversity duty on public authorities, which requires them to periodically consider the actions that they can take to conserve and enhance biodiversity and then take action. Furthermore, from 1 November, Ministers will need to have regard to the environmental principles set out in the Environment Act when bringing forward any policy development.

The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) referred to the importance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and all other Departments working with each other. We are taking action to work in particular with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We have supported internationally agreed guidelines on light pollution that cover seabirds, migratory shorebirds and marine turtles. These have been endorsed by the UK and parties to the convention on migratory species. In 2020, the parties adopted a resolution on light pollution guidelines for migratory wildlife. The resolution endorsed national light pollution guidelines for wildlife, including marine turtles, seabirds and migratory shorebirds, as developed by Australia.

In the marine environment, research is ongoing to measure the impact of artificial light and the threshold at which light exposure causes an impact. Those thresholds will allow for the determination of an indicator for light pollution for the UK marine strategy, the EU marine strategy framework directive and at OSPAR, but experts are currently unable to determine what level of light causes an impact. This is what we are working hard to achieve.

I pay particular tribute to National Highways. Clearly, our roads have a considerable impact in terms of artificial light, but National Highways is working to reduce light pollution, investing in technology that allows road lighting levels to be adapted in response to lower traffic flows. That will help us to better understand where night-time accidents occur and the impact that road lighting has as a contributory factor.

On a more local level, light pollution is managed by a number of regimes in the UK, through planning, transport and statutory nuisance policies. Local authorities are encouraged by the Department for Transport to upgrade to sensitive LED lighting where feasible. Local authorities are also required under the Environment Act 1995 to work with national park authorities to conserve and enhance the parks’ natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. Through the collaboration between authorities and parks, we are proud that seven of our protected landscapes in England have achieved international dark sky status.

Finally, statutory nuisance legislation was amended in 2005 to include artificial light as a potential nuisance. This sets out the duties of local authorities with regard to artificial light. I really hope that in the short time I have had, I have given my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk reassurance that this Government take light pollution seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.