Dark Sky Status (Cornwall)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:48 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 4:48 pm, 29th November 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate Mrs Murray on securing it. It is a debate in which we can enjoy each other’s company for an hour. We are probably all going to say broadly similar things.

The hon. Lady talked about going out stargazing in her childhood, and the wonder and awe that that produced in her. It is something I thoroughly enjoy doing with my two girls. When I take them only a few miles outwith the city of Glasgow—I will say a bit more about Glasgow in a minute or two—vistas suddenly appear in front of us that are not visible in the city. It is great for them to start picking out the different constellations and to see familiar things. For example, Orion is visible in the city, but there is far more detail when we go out of the city.

The hon. Lady talked about the 1999 eclipse in Cornwall. I travelled to Cornwall especially for it. My son was just a toddler at the time, and we camped in a muddy field somewhere in Cornwall. We could not get near the beaches the next morning—it was too busy—so we stayed in rural Cornwall and, because of cloud cover, saw nothing. We enjoyed our experience very much.

In 2015, there was an eclipse in the UK; I am not talking about the SNP’s general election victory, but a partial eclipse that was visible. Shortly before I was elected, I was a physics teacher. We took the students outside and they were able to watch the eclipse. There is something about space and the universe—when we can see things working other than just the normal that we are used to—that really inspires our young people. During my time as a teacher, I often had young people out doing Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, not in Cornwall but usually in the highlands of Scotland, and usually in the rain and the mud, but very occasionally in beautifully spectacular countryside, where the sun would set and the stars appear.

Many of those Glaswegian school children had never been outside the city. It was quite incredible for them suddenly to see the stars appearing. We said to them, “There’s Orion. We’re used to seeing Orion, but have you ever seen the redness of Betelgeuse that you can now see? Have you ever counted the number of stars on Orion’s sword?” Things like that made it far more alive for them.

We must not underestimate the impact that these experiences have on young people, so it is wonderful to hear that Bodmin moor has been designated an international dark sky landscape. I really hope that the wider community in Cornwall and the community of Bodmin moor can take full advantage of the educational experiences that that offers the young people there.

In Scotland, we have three designated dark sky areas—Moffat, Galloway and Coll—but one could argue that most of Scotland is a dark sky area, because just a short distance from the major cities the stars really are spectacular. I believe that the designation is to do with how many stars can be seen and light levels; I have not fully read up on how somewhere can be designated a dark sky area, I must admit. I know when I am somewhere dark when I can see the Milky Way, which is often invisible to us. The problem in Scotland can be the cloud cover, which might be a problem in Cornwall—I think they suffer a bit from clouds, too. We do not always get the beautifully clear skies that we need to see things.

There are lots of advantages to being designated as having dark sky status, one of which is tourism, which has been mentioned. Cornwall already has a fairly vibrant tourist industry, but there are other things that we can do not just in Cornwall but across the UK to help to generate the tourist economy. One relates to VAT on tourism. I am glad that the Minister is in her place and I hope that she is listening. Reducing VAT would be a shot in the arm to many small businesses across tourist areas: bed and breakfasts, restaurants, guesthouses, visitor centres, shops and more. What a difference it would make if that could be considered.

Derek Thomas talked about biodiversity, the improvement in wildlife that he has seen in his area and the different schemes that have been used. Protection for the environment is important. Jim Shannon talked about the wild Atlantic way, which I had not heard about but I have just googled, so I know the details, and I will be sure to read up on it for my next visit to Ireland.

Light pollution is something that we need to think about seriously, both in rural areas where it affects the natural environment and in cities. I said that I would talk a little more about cities. Recently, Glasgow underwent a programme of changing from orange sodium lights, which pretty much sent out light in all directions, to far more directed LED lights, which shine down but not up. That irradiance is quite important—not so much in the city, although I have certainly noticed a difference in the number of stars that are visible now. The difference can be seen out of the city or town areas, because there is not the same light pollution a few miles out of town as we are used to in it. As a child, I knew that I was approaching Glasgow when I was 30 or 40 miles away when I saw the infamous sodium glow of the city. The LEDs do not produce quite as much glow, so they are quite important. In the city, we can now see far more constellations. It is great that my two daughters, who are only eight and 10, can now point out far more detail in constellations they see from the back garden and pick out constellations that they could identify previously only when they were in rural areas.

I want to come back to something that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall said: the importance of inspiring and encouraging young people to study these subjects. I am a physicist by profession, although my background is in photonics, not astronomy. The space industry is at a point where interest in it is ready to explode, and we need to make sure that we have the young people there to take advantage of that.

The hon. Lady mentioned the space industry and I know that she is a great advocate for it, but Glasgow is now the satellite centre of Europe. Only San Francisco produces more satellites worldwide. We have three big companies: Clyde Space, Alba Orbital and Spire Global all in the centre of Glasgow. We also have Prestwick airport—not in a dark sky area, but there are some fairly dark areas between there and Glasgow. Prestwick airport is in partnership with Houston—for those who know Scotland, that is not Houston, Renfrewshire, but Houston, Texas—and it is set to become a space port. There are companies ready to take full advantage, but they need these young people to be inspired and to study physics, engineering and astronomy. The young people also need to have some sort of catalyst to make them do that. Dark sky areas can only help.

I thank the hon. Member for South East Cornwall once again for bringing this debate to the House and congratulate Bodmin moor on its dark sky status, which is not as easy to say as it seems. I wish Cornwall all the very best of success in inspiring the young people of that area and hopefully areas further afield. All the best of success in the future, and perhaps the next time I visit Cornwall it will not be so cloudy.