Dark Sky Status (Cornwall)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall 4:29 pm, 29th November 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Cornwall’s dark skies status.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.

As many hon. Members know, Cornwall is a beautiful place. Just saying “Cornwall” brings up pictures of a fantastic rugged coastline, the beauty of the moors, and of course our mining history, which made Cornwall a world heritage site—but also beautiful are Cornwall’s skies at night. I was just six years old when President Kennedy said, in an inspiring speech:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

When I was about seven, my cousin Dawn used to take me out into the garden and point out the different stars to me. She pointed out the great bear, the little bear and the plough, and I found it fascinating. I was just a teenager when mankind landed on the moon, and I remember Neil Armstrong taking his first steps when I was at school. I remember the roads being blocked in Cornwall as it hosted viewers of a solar eclipse in 1999—my young son became very excited about it. People looked skywards, with the correct eye protection of course, to see our skies go dark in the morning.

Those memories were brought back to me when I met with Ken and Muriel Bennett from the fantastic Caradon observatory on Bodmin moor. Their enthusiasm about the sky at night is fantastic and infectious. I would like to read a quick endorsement from space pilot Rick Hauck, who just happens to be the uncle of one of my local councillors in South East Cornwall. He said:

“Congratulations to those who have successfully obtained certification of International Dark Sky status for Bodmin Moor. Having observed the night sky from the space shuttle, well above sky pollution suffered by a large percentage of inhabited earth, I can assure the stargazers in the Moor and particularly those fortunate enough to have access to the Caradon Observatory that they will have a unique view of the night sky, breathtaking in its grandeur.”

Caradon observatory is an amateur-run facility near Upton Cross in my constituency. The observatory has been used as a venue for a number of presentations and open days for students and local groups. The facility inspires the next generation to reach for the stars. That is why I was thrilled when Bodmin moor was formally recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association as the first dark sky park in an area of outstanding natural beauty. In total, it covers an area of 80 square miles, with a buffer zone of about two miles. The bid was made by the Caradon observatory, with the assistance of Cornwall Council. I would like to put on record my thanks to the council for all the work that it carried out to achieve that status.

The exceptional quality of the night sky, commitments to avoid light pollution and the provision of educational outreach were the reasons the award was given. Local residents and businesses are also playing their part. Guidance is being offered in the designated area to help them to choose any lighting, so that the skies can be even better in future. They are also being asked to consider whether they need lighting, and to think twice before putting lighting up.

It is not just people in the area who will enjoy the dark skies. For millions of years, plant and animal life has relied on the daily rhythm of light and dark—it is literally written into our DNA—but humans have recently disrupted that, and it can cause problems with reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators. From sea birds that are navigating to amphibians that produce their mating calls only when it is dark, many parts of the ecosystem are being affected by light. One study estimated that millions of baby sea turtles die in Florida alone as they make their way towards the city lights at night instead of the bright horizon over the ocean. It is therefore hoped that the abundant wildlife on Bodmin moor will also benefit from the darker skies.

Ken and Muriel Bennett recently wrote to me saying:

“We at the Observatory have always believed that the younger the children that can be educated to look upwards the more impact it can have, even in some cases pointing them towards the sciences and suchlike. Children generally are infatuated with subjects such as dinosaurs and space travel (Star Wars for instance) and this interest starts at extremely early ages. To be able to promote astronomy as a community, or indeed as a county, would act as a further inspiration to them and hopefully steer them towards academia. We are going to need more and more scientists, engineers etc to fill increasingly technical and development positions and perhaps the earliest and best way forward is to inspire the young.”

They continued:

“Together with Cornwall council we have provided the tools to use at no costs to businesses to initially rack up the tourism in Cornwall all the year around. This will create wealth for spin off businesses, and as we become more and more known as a centre for astronomy and science, we would hope to encourage technical and engineering companies to look at starting up or relocating in our wonderful part of the country. We could produce a young labour force second to none.”

I want to see much more made of the dark sky status. I want to help Ken and Muriel with their inspirational project.

I thank the Campaign to Protect Rural England for the interest it has shown in dark skies. In its mapping, it found that around only a fifth of England is free of light pollution. It recommends that the Government ensure that local authorities are implementing Government policy to control light pollution, as set out in the national planning policy framework and associated guidance. In the absence of resources for the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Communities and Local Government to pursue rigorous monitoring, it calls on Ministers to issue a clear statement on how local authorities should proactively take action to control light pollution and protect dark skies in their areas.

I back Ken and Muriel in their call. In particular, I ask the Government what additional information they can make available for businesses and people to help with their lighting. I also ask what grants are available if dark sky lighting is more expensive than other alternatives —especially for people who live in designated dark sky areas, such as Bodmin moor in my constituency.

I would also be grateful if the Minister outlined what help the Government could offer Ken and Muriel to help them with their project. The equipment they need to look up into space is not cheap. I would like to think that we could help with that, and with the facilities at the site, so that children can make the very best of their visit, inspiring them to go further and take up science.

Just last week in the Budget, the Chancellor made much of his welcome boost and long-term support for science and innovation. He mentioned skills and jobs for the new economy. It is hoped that Cornwall will deliver the UK’s first space port in 2020. Its website boasts that Cornwall Airport Newquay and Goonhilly Earth Station are well placed to play a critical role in developing the UK’s space industry with the creation of a space port. Together, they provide a complete end-to-end UK launch capability to support all aspects of launch, including sub-orbital vehicles and systems and the ability to put satellites into Earth orbit. We need observatories such as the one at Caradon to inspire youngsters into our space industry. This is clearly a new economy, and we need to expand the facilities to ensure we have the workforce we need to make the UK a world leader in this field.

What Government help is available to encourage people to visit dark sky status areas? Cornwall is reliant on tourism, and our skies are our greatest asset. What assistance is there to promote our wonderful night sky to people as another reason to come to Cornwall and enjoy our wonderful hospitality?

Like many other people in London, when I am here I look up but see very little. I encourage everyone to visit my beautiful constituency and to look up at night. I promise that the view is very different. Let us make a real push to inspire people into the new economy. Let us take Bodmin moor’s dark skies—a real asset—and make people look up and think, “Where next?”