Dark Sky Status (Cornwall)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:08 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:08 pm, 29th November 2017

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Murray on securing this important debate, which has been well attended by people who want to put forward the benefits of the dark sky.

I am sure we all agree that a truly clear, star-filled night sky is one of the greatest spectacles of nature. In an area of low light pollution, it is possible to see as many as 2,000 stars on a clear night, but in our brightly lit modern world many people seldom get the opportunity to experience that. Only last week, a new study was published showing that between 2012 and 2016, the planet’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by more than 2% per year.

Carol Monaghan talked about her children and her experiences growing up. I have to admit, growing up in Liverpool, pink skies were a huge feature of the urban glow as the light was partially reflected. Dark nights seemed to be a rarity, and we used to find out about the stars by going to the planetarium. Therefore, when I moved to a village with no street lights at all—I now live in a market town where the council turns off street lights at midnight—it was a joy to behold. Ken and Muriel Bennett, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, are right to point out that just looking upwards can spark such an interest in science; indeed, it can inspire a generation. I understand why my hon. Friend wants to support them.

I welcome the initiative undertaken in Cornwall in seeking the designation of Bodmin moor as an international dark sky site. I am delighted that Cornwall is leading by example in this regard, and I recognise the efforts of my hon. Friend Derek Thomas in trying to secure further designations in the county. As to this particular reserve, I warmly welcome the work that Cornwall Council, Caradon observatory and the Cornwall Nature Partnership have carried out in partnership with Natural England to develop their environmental growth strategy. This is a positive example of long-term thinking, setting out a vision of a sustainable future for the county right through to 2065.

Following the launch last year, I understand that a wide range of businesses, individuals and organisations have pledged specific contributions towards achieving environmental-based growth in Cornwall. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall described, that will reconnect people with the wonder of dark skies, as well as offering a range of benefits to local communities.

The Government have been active for some time in promoting dark skies within national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. For example, we supported the successful application for dark sky status by Exmoor national park, which, in 2011, became the first international dark sky reserve to be designated in Europe. The Government also supported the South Downs national park, which was designated last year. Indeed, Natural England gave its support to Cornwall Council’s successful application to designate Bodmin moor as an international dark sky landscape, the benefits of which we have heard so much about.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to an example from the other end of the country, where the Northumberland international dark sky park has become the largest in Europe. That has had a hugely positive impact on the local economy, with about 20,000 visitors making the journey to Kielder observatory each year. That in turn has helped the park to become a year-round destination, enabling businesses to remain open and viable throughout the winter months. It has also helped to enhance local residents’ quality of life and to inspire and educate people about astronomy and the natural world. That clearly demonstrates the range of benefits—social, environmental and economic—that can flow from such an initiative. I am also aware that, just last month, Exmoor had a week of celebration that boosted its season and is in line with the Government’s strategy on productivity in parks and AONBs.

In answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, VAT is a matter for the Treasury. She will recognise that in terms of tourism, but I know that those representations are made regularly. My hon. Friend Bill Grant praised the Scottish dark sky observatory. He is right to do so; it is something of which he should be proud.

Light pollution is an issue that can challenge rural areas and blight urban areas. While I fully accept that artificial light brings valuable benefits to society in safety and in facilitating a thriving night time economy—we think of the spectacular Blackpool illuminations—if used incorrectly or carelessly it can contribute to a range of problems. It can be a source of annoyance to people, be harmful to wildlife and waste energy, as well as prevent enjoyment of the night sky.

That is why we have taken action to ensure that light pollution is addressed through the planning system. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that planning policies and decisions should limit the impact of light pollution on local amenity, dark landscapes and nature conservation. It is supported by guidance that emphasises the importance of getting the right light in the right place at the right time and helps local planners and developers to design in ways of avoiding glare and intrusion.

As Dr Drew said, artificial light can be classified as a potential statutory nuisance. That means that local authorities have a duty to investigate complaints about light emitted from premises that could constitute a nuisance or be harmful to health, and they have powers to take action when there is a problem. I have an anecdote: I admit that this did not affect me directly, but at a golf club in one of my constituencies, what the lighting was doing was so poor that I genuinely thought the place was on fire. This is a challenge in which working with businesses matters, and I want to encourage councils to do that. There are grants available to help people get LED lighting, and the Energy Saving Trust is probably is the best gateway for that.

I have to alert the House that the jury is still slightly out on the benefits of LED versus sodium, specifically in regard to light pollution. Undoubtedly, LED lights are better in terms of saving energy, but they must be directed downwards in a particular way. Otherwise, there is an issue about the photobiological effects of LED lighting with high blue light components: there is an increase in light pollution, the greater the blue light content of the light source. That has been investigated, and that is why the Government have worked with Highways England and, I think, the CPRE, the Commission for Dark Skies and others to produce guidance on how best to place this in the future.

As we all know, street lighting is an important issue and needs to be managed carefully to strike the right balance between preserving road safety and avoiding light pollution. The Department for Transport is therefore encouraging local authorities to replace their street lighting with modern lighting that reduces the amount of glare emitted. Highways England, which manages our motorways and major roads, is also working actively to minimise light pollution. As I say, it is working with the Commission for Dark Skies and the CPRE to develop improved road lighting standards. It is also investing in technology that allows lighting to be dimmed or switched off in response to lower traffic flows.

Finally, it is important to remember, as has been pointed out, that light pollution can affect wildlife as well as people, and that nocturnal or migratory species in particular can be disturbed by it. We have legislative controls in place to prevent the disturbance of protected species, and Natural England is always available to provide advice in such cases, including by helping to think through the possible unintended consequences of artificial lighting for habitats and wildlife.

It is not only central and local government that are taking action in this area. Last year, for example, the Campaign to Protect Rural England launched interactive maps that allow users anywhere in the country to look at the artificial lighting situation in their postcode compared with other parts of the country. That is a useful tool that can inform local decision making on where action may be needed to control light pollution.

It is important that dark skies and the management of artificial light are part of our future thinking on the environment, given how important we know they are for wellbeing, quality of life and so much else besides. We need to ensure that policy in this area evolves to take account of the challenges and opportunities of the next 25 years, and that we balance the needs of a growing, vibrant society with the ability to access tranquil spaces and clear night skies, now and in future generations.

I will try to answer some of the questions. On funding, I have already tried to guide my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall towards the Energy Saving Trust. I think in particular of the funding she requested for Ken and Muriel Bennett. Off the top of my head, I do not have a particular sense of where that would be at the moment, but I wonder if the Royal Astronomical Society would be a useful avenue to explore. I also think, if they are trying to widen the educational opportunity, lottery funding from the big society may be something to consider.

On some of the other questions that the hon. Member for Stroud raised, the Government are not setting out a plan deliberately to try to grow the number of applications. There are now sufficient parks for us to share how people can best do this, but I must emphasise that the Government do not have a formal role in the designation process. It is non-governmental and non-statutory; in fact, it is undertaken by the International Dark-Sky Association. It looks at five sorts of different designations that people can apply for and be considered for. The applications are reviewed by a standing committee composed of dark sky experts and previous successful programme applicants. Given the growing number of these areas, not only in England but in Wales and Scotland, there is sufficient expertise out there that interested councils could go to. I must admit that I am considering encouraging my council in Suffolk Coastal to consider this.

I conclude by once again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. She really has highlighted how wonderful this has been for her constituency, and I look forward to hearing more about how the designation of Bodmin moor as an international dark sky landscape helps to benefit her local community, both directly and through tourism and research over the years ahead. I am happy to explore how my Department might want to assist future applications, but I am conscious that, as I say, there is expertise out there already. As always, I encourage people to look to those who have already had success.