HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc487-514WH

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 747-I, and the Government's response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2003–04, HC 127.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]

3.32 pm
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)(Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue, but first let me thank everyone who gave oral and written evidence to our inquiry and particularly the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which allowed us to see the night sky through a telescope for ourselves, or at least what is left of the night sky in the London area. I particularly thank the Clerk, Nerys Welfoot, who helped to run the inquiry with the dedication and discipline that got us back from Greenwich very late at night, imbued with the night sky. That helped us to produce such an eye-catching report. Indeed, if ever a Select Committee report deserved an arts award, this is it. It is brilliant, and was produced in exactly the spirit that the Liaison Committee wanted.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), who persisted in trying to make us take up this issue. He suffered several defeats in the ballot, but he came back for more and will be pleased that we have produced a report that has been acknowledged by many of the professionals in the field.

The report shows what Select Committees can achieve. I never thought that there would be queues outside Committee Room 6—that does not happen often—or headlines in The Times, but I was completely wrong. The inquiry was fascinating and useful. We touched a nerve, and many people took up the issue. I particularly remember a dark night in Suffolk. We do not get many dark nights in Suffolk the nearer we get to Ipswich, but the sky was lit up with stars, which I very much enjoyed. I do not look up much; we have to watch our backs in this place and look at what is in front of us, but never up. However, it really mattered to many people that we could see the night sky.

We had 120 submissions of evidence to the inquiry. Indeed, people in general were alarmed at the rate at which the night sky is being ruined by the increase in light pollution. We saw the extent of the problem, and we shared all of the concerns of amateur astronomers and others. I am grateful to them for the work that they have done. We have raised the profile of the issue and are making some progress in tackling it. I look forward to the Minister's response, and my colleagues will outline many of the issues as we proceed through the debate.

Professor Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal said: Van Gogh painted his 'Starry Night' in the same spirit as his portrayals of sunflowers and cornfields—the night sky is part of everyone's shared environment…it is a uniquely universal feature: it has been viewed and wondered at, essentially unchanged, by all cultures throughout human history. But unless we live in exceedingly isolated parts of the UK, we are now deprived of this experience. He also said: The case for controlling light pollution is a multi-faceted one: it has scientific, educational, environmental, aesthetic, and economic dimensions. We believe that: Modest changes in the planning and regulatory system could stem—and indeed reverse— the current trend. We would "earn the gratitude" not only of this generation, but of the next generation and many to come. It would garner much support today.

We were very proud, a few minutes ago, to receive an award; probably the first time that a Select Committee has ever had one. I shall treasure it alongside cup-winners' medals and other things. The Campaign for Dark Skies presented the Science and Technology Committee with the prize for efforts directed towards ensuring a darker and more accessible night sky, free of wasted artificial light for our descendents. What could be better than that? People who have spent their lives looking at the skies recognise the work that that Committee has done. I thank them very much.

Does it really matter if we see the night sky or not? Who cares? Well, for years, amateur astronomers have made important contributions to professional astronomy, spotting comets and supernovae, and monitoring exploding stars in distant galaxies. They alert the professionals to what is going on and they help gather information. The Government, in a kind of mean-spirited way, said that it is a "small but significant" contribution. If amateur astronomers are not able to see the sky, the science of astronomy suffers.

If children studying astronomy cannot see what they are studying, are they expected to get enthusiastic about it? The Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), in another mean-spirited moment, told us that they could look online at views from telescopes in Australia. Fine. Great. Really? However, there is nothing to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old more than looking through a telescope and seeing for himself the stunning beauty of Mars. If he were to find Beagle 2, who knows what would happen to British astronomy? If we could hear and see Mars, it would be marvellous for young people's minds—which ask questions—and for their enthusiasm; they will want to study astronomy at further levels. The Minister admitted that he had done rather badly in science, but was rather good at economics. That is fine, but who knows what would have happened if he could have looked through a telescope at the right moment in his career.

Light pollution is a cross-cutting issue. [Interruption.] I will not be dragged on to the subject of top-up fees. It has been fascinating for the Select Committee to see how Departments cope with the issue. I congratulate the Minister on winning the raffle today to come and address this debate. We heard that it was being passed back and forward between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and that only at the last moment did she win the argument to come to this debate. We know how seriously she takes the issue. We have experienced the delights of the previous Minister in some of our other inquiries.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Given the appalling response of the Ministers who have responsibility for this area when they appeared in front of our Select Committee, is it not a double bonus that we have the Minister with us today?

Dr. Gibson

I am sure that the Minister has heard that, and that she will explode like a star from the firmament when she rises to speak, responding immediately to our request to examine the issues of light pollution, the regulations involved, transport lighting, education, environmental protection and crime. Whether the argument that lights prevent crime has been won is still a debate worth having.

Do Ministers ever sit down together and discuss this issue? Have they ever seen a star? I am prepared to bet that our evidence session was the first time that that happened, at least with Ministers. They took it as a bit of a joke; as if astronomy was something for eccentric stargazers who look to the stars to get stimulation and was of little concern to them. They gave quite a bad impression. No doubt we will hear today that they regret that.

Colleagues will discuss the Government reply to the recommendations in our report. That reply has been described to me as limp, which is interesting. It has not impressed all astronomers. A Dr. Clark from Melbourne has written to us that he found the Government's reply to be cynical, evasive and foolish. He remarked that it was like a "Yes, Minister" script but without the jokes. I am sure that the Minister will right that today. Dr. Clark has obviously not read as many Government replies as I have, because I would describe 90 per cent. of them in that way.

That response shows that people think that the Government should take our report and this issue more seriously. Select Committees distinguish themselves by pursuing issues such as this that might be treated in a light-hearted way, but penetrate to the interests of the nation. We received thanks from many people. I look forward to the Minister giving an inspirational reply on how we will progress.

3.41 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee. This is one of the more remarkable reports that we or any other Select Committee has produced because it touched a raw nerve, and a lot of people throughout the country find this matter very attractive. I sent the report to my planning authorities—Salisbury district council and Wiltshire county council—and they read it with interest. I think that they will seek to live up to the request that we make of planning authorities.

The great message of our report is that the attitude of each one of us to light can make a difference. Whether we switch off the light or turn down the reflectors so that they do not shine in people's eyes makes a real difference.

I want briefly to concentrate on paragraphs 43 and 44 of our report, which address sky glow. Since we published our report, I have discovered even more disturbing evidence on that. Last August, I was lying in a swimming pool in south-west France, contemplating great things and making waves, when I looked up at an otherwise perfect sky and saw to my disgust that it was blemished by 40 vapour trails; I counted them. Last month, on a perfect January afternoon, I was walking past Horseguards when I looked up and—sure enough—counted over 40 vapour trails. Last Monday morning, I looked out of my bedroom window in Salisbury; an otherwise perfect dawn was blemished by over 20 vapour trails.

I then thought, "Well, hang on," because sky glow is a factor in astronomy. It is one of the reasons why very distinguished people say that students should use radio telescopes in Australia and elsewhere rather than look up at the sky from our country. A contributory factor is the clarity of the atmosphere. Particles in the atmosphere can cause disturbance, particularly if optical telescopes are being used. That is a problem at night as well as during the day. Where light is reflected from the ground upwards into the atmosphere, telescopes cannot even be used at night.

I was astonished and rather alarmed to discover how serious the problem of vapour trails is becoming. An increase in air travel will have a dramatic effect on that, and will continue to make life worse for astronomers. Emissions from aircraft contribute far more to the atmosphere than the same level of emissions from surface-based sources. That is known as radiative forcing. It is caused because aircraft emit not only carbon dioxide, but water vapour and nitrogen oxides, both of which can lead to global warming when they are emitted in the stratosphere at the altitude at which passenger aircraft fly.

On the basis of scientific evidence, the intergovernmental panel on climate change reported in 1999 that aviation emissions might have 2.7 times the effect of global warming when compared with a similar weight of carbon dioxide emitted on the ground. That is just a best estimate.

At the beginning of this month—in a document sexily entitled, "TRADEOFF (Aircraft emissions: Contributions of various climate compounds to changes in composition and radiative forcing—tradeoff to reduce atmospheric impact)" —the European Union reported that the potential cirrus cloud impact directly related to aviation emissions in the atmosphere raised the radiative forcing multiplier significantly to a best estimate of 4.4 in 2000 and 4.7 in 2050. That compares with the Treasury figure of 2.5. The contribution of aviation is massive whether we are talking about climate change and global warming or the quality of the atmosphere above the earth. We should consider the problem seriously because it will continue to get worse if we do nothing about it.

What can we do about the problem? I shall finish with the conclusions that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have reached. We should consider carefully the tax on aviation fuel. There is no doubt that we should develop an aviation policy that accords with national air pollution sustainability and climate change targets and pays for external costs. Early-day motion 1688, which was tabled on 15 September 2003, appealed to the Government to work at a national, European and international level to reduce and eliminate the tax concessions received by the aviation industry in the form of tax-free fuel and VAT-exempt products". It was signed by 120 Members, including me. We should consider such proposals, unpopular though they may be in the short term.

Sky glow remains a problem, even for people who use a pair of binoculars just to look at the moon or stars at night. It is caused not only by pollution from industrial centres. In even the dark-skies regions of our country and planet, if the atmosphere is polluted by aircraft vapour trails, sky glow is an impediment to our proper viewing of the heavens.

3.48 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I want to focus on the Government's attitude to the Select Committee report and to consider whether we could change their underlying sense of whether the issue is important.

The Science and Technology Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), has already mentioned the submission by Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, and his remark that while most people are not ornithologists, they would miss birdsong of a morning. Similarly, those who are not astronomers would still have a real sense of loss if they never had the opportunity to experience a really dark sky.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab)

My hon. Friend's analogy might be more apposite than he thinks. Does he agree that light pollution not only contributes to an obscure view of the sky, but interferes with the life cycle of insects and, therefore, the food supply of many birds?

Mr. McWalter

That is right, and on page 21 of the report, we emphasise that the changes will have particular consequences on nocturnal animals, which may be detrimentally affected if the pollution is allowed to continue.

The rate of pollution has been extraordinarily fast, but one would not know that from the Government's response, which implies that everyone understands it very well. They believe that local authorities, for instance, have a good understanding of the causes of light pollution, as do the lighting industry and the lighting profession. Moreover, they all understand the solutions, according to page 9 of the Government's response.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

The Government's sustainable communities plan, under the direct responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, will result in the construction of another 70.000 houses in Milton Keynes. Does the ODPM understand the issues of light pollution in relation to the sustainable communities programme?

Mr. McWalter

I do not believe that the ODPM understands those issues. When the subject was first mooted, it was treated with something approaching humour by those who were giving evidence. It was perhaps thought of as a bit of a nerd's charter. However, since my Christmas present was a telescope, I confess to being a nerd. One of the great pleasures that my children get when we go on holiday to Portugal is that there is a decent night sky, and I am able to point out some of the features of that wonderful sight.

We are faced with a Government who do not yet properly understand light pollution. I hope that after today's debate we may make a fresh start in terms of constructing a sensible relationship, particularly since the Minister is coming to the matter afresh.

In the Rijksmuseum there is a painting called "The Night Watch." Fairly recently, a vandal attacked the painting and ripped the canvas in several places, causing one of the most precious items in the cultural history of the west to be damaged to such an extent that it was thought to be irreparable. However, it was repaired. In my view, it is infinitely worse to deprive people not of the sight of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", but of what Emmanuel Kant described as the most wondrous sight it is possible for human beings to behold.

The night sky is not simply the most beautiful object in the universe, but has been, for the whole of human history, the most inspiring object in the universe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich. North has already indicated, it has been inspiring in the development of the arts. I also have a rather older reference to a description by someone in Anglo-Saxon times of a chalice like gold, which he said was flashing with gems, as the heavens glow with blazing stars.

Those concerns date back to the dawn of human history and have become part of what it is to be human, not just from the perspective of aesthetics but because, in beholding the night sky, human beings throughout history have had their curiosity about the nature of the universe excited. They have asked questions and the answers to those questions—whether they have taken the form of theories of the formation of the universe, or of mathematical theories about the motion of the planets—have themselves had an intrinsic beauty that has proved not only to be immensely satisfying to people who want to develop their intellectual faculties, but immensely rewarding to those who seek to understand the universe, and through that understanding to change the world for the better through science and technology.

We want to see our younger people being given access to the night sky. "The Night Watch" was attacked by someone who was thought of as a lunatic. However, it was also attacked by the Dutch authorities. When they got the painting to the museum, they found that it did not fit the wall so they hacked a chunk off. Authorities, as well as vandals, are capable of vandalism. A Government who do not pay attention to the most spectacularly beautiful and intellectually satisfying object in the universe—the universe itself—are not only failing at the margins, but denying culture in its deepest and most satisfying form.

Whatever comes from the debate, I hope that Ministers will not just smile when people ask them questions about the issue but will come up with a response that recognises the gravity and importance of the matter.

3.56 pm
Dr. Brian lddon (Bolton, South-East)(Lab)

It is a privilege to take part in the debate. I confess that when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) suggested that the Committee carry out an inquiry into light pollution and astronomy, I was not among the most enthusiastic Members to accept the suggestion. However, hon. Members, including me, can be wrong. It turned out to be one of the most interesting investigations that the Committee has carried out, at least in my time. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that and on the award that he received today from the Campaign for Dark Skies for his part in suggesting the inquiry.

The worst polluters are security lights, floodlights on buildings, car parks and sports grounds, and street lighting. A Committee visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was an eye opener for me. I had not previously seen the effect of the lighting on the buildings of Canary Wharf on the night sky next to the Royal Observatory; it was incredible.

I congratulate B&Q, which now sells 140 W security lights that cannot be tilted at an angle that causes spillage of light on to adjacent properties—light trespass―or causes dazzle to oncoming traffic. Most retailers still offer the more powerful 500 W security lights that can be a nuisance to neighbours and waste a lot of energy.

Lighting our streets, including motorways, saves lives. I prefer to use the M 1 rather than the M40 on the way to and from London because it is lit until the M6 junction. I feel a lot safer, as I am sure most motorists do. Although the Government are responsible when erecting street lights on motorways and other main roads, many local authorities still erect street lights that spill light into the night sky and are no better in that respect than those they replace.

Better lighting is believed to prevent crime; it certainly leaves us with that perception. However, as the Committee heard, that is now a controversial matter. We received more than one piece of evidence suggesting the contrary. For example, a badly fitted security light could prevent a neighbour from seeing a burglar breaking into an adjacent property. The extra light also allows the burglar to see what he is doing and gain faster entry to the property.

The worst polluter in Greater Manchester, where I live, is the Trafford centre and the adjacent golf driving range. As you will know, Sir Nicholas, the sky glow is visible every time one goes north from London, joins the M62 and travels towards Manchester.

I found the following headline in theBolton Evening Newson 4 February: Hotel lights inquiry is told of sleepless nights. The opening paragraph of the article reads: Residents in Horwich who suffer sleepless nights because of hotel car park floodlights are to await a Government inspector's decision on whether they should be removed". The 12 lights causing the problem were erected before planning permission was granted for the development at the Travel Inn on the Beehive roundabout in Horwich, which is in the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly). This is a real problem affecting real people. In this example it affects elderly people living adjacent to the site in sheltered accommodation.

One of the recommendations of our report is that light pollution, or light trespass, should be made a statutory nuisance that all planning authorities must take into consideration. Local planning authorities can include policies on lighting in their development plans. They can refuse an application based on those policies and a condition may be attached to a planning permission under section 70(1) of the Planning Act 1990. But few local authorities take light pollution seriously.

Three planning policy guidance notes briefly mention light pollution, yet they do not carry sufficient weight to have a large impact in controlling that nuisance. There is no mention of light pollution in the overarching PPG1, "General Policy and Principles" or in PPG7, "The Countryside—Environmental Quality and Economic and Social Development".

A survey carried out in 1993 by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health revealed that 80 per cent. of local authorities had received complaints about light pollution. By 1996 that number of complaints had increased by a total of 44 per cent.

Mr. McWalter

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Government's response that PPGs could not be simple if they gave specific recognition to this feature?

Dr. Iddon

I am sure that that is probably the case.

In a written answer to a recent parliamentary question on light pollution from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), the Minister for Housing and Planning said: The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's policy on planning control and light pollution has long been that such issues are most appropriately dealt with by: raising awareness by those who buy and procure external lighting of the consequences of badly installed lighting; providing guidance on how those problems might be mitigated; and encouraging more effective use of existing planning powers.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister also intends to provide an annex to Planning Policy Statement 23, Planning and Pollution Control, specifically on light pollution. This will send a clear signal to local planning authorities that they should take the issue of light pollution as seriously as they do other types of pollution when considering planning applications."—[Official Report, 5 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 1050W.]

That is an important statement, but clearly the OPDM is not considering making light pollution a statutory nuisance, despite the advice of our Committee. I have a letter about a planning application that was to be determined this Tuesday about the erection of a theme park right next to the Isle of Wight observatory. It is has been rejected once and I hope that it was rejected again on Tuesday. The letter states: There appears to have been considerable concern about hedging and noise factors but not about the huge Isle of Wight asset that we [the public] have funded, built and equipped over the years on the dedicated work of a band of volunteers. A representative of the Vectis Astronomical Society was given just three minutes to state its case to the planning authority. Some local authorities do not get it

Fortunately, the planning control section of the Environment Department at Bolton metro does appear to care. However, despite all its efforts to restrict light pollution, an appeal to the Government against a refused planning application for a golf driving range at Blackrod, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West, was successful. It was granted by the Government despite the fact that the planning application was turned down by the local authority.

After I sent the report to my local authority, the group planning officer in the planning control section of Bolton metropolitan borough council, Peter Ashby, told me in a letter that light pollution is an area which is very much on the fringe of environmental health work, and Bolton may be unusual in its approach". Environmental health officers are afraid that there will be a dramatic increase in their work if light pollution became a statutory nuisance, but that is surely a measure of how serious the problem has now become.

The assistant director of the highways and engineering section of Bolton MBC, Mr. J.T. Layer, told me that he enjoyed reading the report. He said that that section has moved away from using low-pressure sodium street lights—that is one of our recommendations—and towards using full cut-off lanterns, except where crime rates are considered to be high; there, lanterns that do not provide full cut-off lighting may be used.

The effect of light pollution on nature has already been referred to. We are in danger of losing many species whose biological clocks are now so confused by light pollution at night.

I, too, got the impression that the Ministers who appeared in front of us were bemused that we had invited them to discuss what we thought was a serious problem, but which they obviously did not. My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, for example, was enthusiastic about science practical work, but seemed content for children to use an internet link to an Australian telescope in the southern hemisphere to view the night sky. Why should they not be able to see the sky in the northern hemisphere?

I hope that the Ministers who appeared before our Committee are now convinced that light pollution is important and that its consequences are increasingly serious. I hope that they will now take action to reduce the problems.

Anyone who picks up the report will see a beautiful starry sky on the cover; the milky way. Children who are reading the only available GCSE astronomy syllabus are expected to view the milky way using a small telescope, binoculars and the naked eye. In Bolton—indeed, in any urban area—we cannot manage that. The sad thing is that the milky way can now only be observed in 30 per cent. of Britain. I was born in a small village of 3,000 people, and when I was a lad, every time I walked or cycled to or from home, I could view the starry, starry sky and the milky way. Today, that is not possible in that—now much larger—small village.

4.8 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. This is a swan song for me as far as my membership of the Committee is concerned, as my duties elsewhere, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office, mean that I have to resign my membership. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the Committee for their friendliness, support and help over many investigations and not just this one, which is particularly dear to my heart.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) will forgive me if I suggest that, as has already been mentioned, the initial suggestion that we conduct an inquiry into pollution was not embraced wholeheartedly by all Members. However, we hit a nerve, and we all ended the inquiry far more enthused, informed and concerned about the issue that we were when we embarked upon it.

I echo the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) to Nerys Welfoot, the former second Clerk to the Committee, for the elegance and readability of the report. It stands out as one of the more accessible reports produced by a Select Committee in recent years, and that is largely down to her research and writing skills.

Most of all, I want to pay tribute to a group of constituents who were very helpful to me in the launching of the report. A number of us took part in regional launches of the report, and I launched it from the Glasgow science centre at the beginning of October. I took with me a group of constituents who are all members of primary 5 at Holmlea primary school, along with their teachers, Geraldine Smith and Caroline Deans. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the pupils.

I had visited Holmlea primary school before the launch date to explain why I wanted the children and their teachers to visit the centre and what the report was about. I asked the children whether they had any questions. Their questions soon left the subject of light pollution and I was asked about planets, stars, comets, meteors, constellations and black holes. I was asked—oddly, and on more than one occasion—how many times Pluto has gone round the sun. I still cannot answer that question, but the pupils seemed keen on receiving an answer to it. At some point, I must undertake research into it.

I was also asked whether humans would still be on the planet if a meteor or comet had not wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That is one of the most intelligent questions that I have ever been asked as a Member of Parliament. I had been allocated 15 minutes for questions, but the children would not let the subject—or me—go for at least 45 minutes. I accept that that may have been because a test was looming as soon as I was out of the room. However, seeing how enthusiastic they were to learn about such a subject was incredibly encouraging, although at the same time discouraging for reasons of which we are all too aware.

I want to paraphrase Bob Mizon of the Campaign for Dark Skies, who spoke to us when we visited the Greenwich observatory. What he said really struck home. He said that children were inspired by only two scientific subjects; dinosaurs and space. Whatever Steven Spielberg might say, the dinosaurs are gone, but space is still with us. However, if we continue in the direction that we are going. that may not be so for the purpose of practical observing.

The debate has given us all an opportunity to hark back to our youth. When I was 10 years old, I was taken on holiday to Cornwall by my parents. One night, I went outside the caravan and was astonished to see so many stars. I did not know that so many were visible to the naked eye. It was the first time in my life that I had a clear view of the milky way. Sadly, it was also the last time. Even the fairly rural part of Scotland in north Ayrshire where I was brought up is not the best place in the country to observe the stars. Now that I live in Glasgow, it is impossible in every sense, including the weather, to view the night sky. It is a matter of deep sadness to me that neither of my two sons will be able to walk out of the back door of our house, look up and see the milky way.

We all know that we are facing a shortage of science teachers, particularly physics teachers. There is also a shortage of students attending university to study science, especially physics. Surely an obvious way in which to hook children at an early age into an interest in science is to show them a star at first hand. What can be more exciting than showing a child a star and saying, "The light from that star left on its journey so long ago that, for all we know, that star might not even exist any more". That is a mind-blowing concept, but it is inspiring. If there is any way of getting children interested in science as a career, it is to inspire them at a young age. That is difficult, when they do not have the practical experience of looking at the night sky.

When the children in primary 5 from Holmlea came with me to the Scottish Power planetarium at the science centre for the launch of the report, they were fascinated by the simulated night sky. I wonder how much more of a thrill it would have been for them if, anywhere within 10 miles of Glasgow's outer limits, they could have seen a similar spectacular scene for real.

Since colleagues at the House of Commons found out about my interest in the matter, I have been the subject of some friendly teasing. After I asked about light pollution at Prime Minister's Question Time last October, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) approached me with a bar of Galaxy chocolate and assured me that at least I would be able to see that clearly. Some of the ribbing has not been so friendly. One colleague said to me in the Tea Room shortly afterwards, "You are one of those nutters who wants to turn all the street lights out." That is the sort of ill-informed attitude that accompanies the subject every time it is raised. I see no need at all to turn out any street or security light that is essential to safety. That is not the point. However, I do ask that local authorities stop wasting council tax payers' money on lighting that barely illuminates what it is meant to. I understand and accept the argument that street lighting can help combat crime, but unless we have a sudden proliferation of flying burglars, the majority of street lighting is pretty ineffective.

I want to say a few serious words about the Home Office's own research into this area. I have been contacted by Dr. Paul Marchant of Leeds Metropolitan university, who has brought a situation concerning a Home Office research paper to my attention. He raises serious concerns about research study 251, entitled "Effects of improved street lighting on crime: a systematic review". Dr. Marchant told me this week that the claim that lighting reduces crime is unfounded. It worries me that the Government response"— that is, the response to our report— still refers to the flawed research. He added: I was very disappointed by the outcome of my alerting the Home Office to the errors in its research. I was originally told that at least a serious health warning would be placed on it. However, it seems that this was overruled and an addendum added (which included my name, as though I agree with it) saying that although the original HORS 251 was in error, the 'new calculations' still show a statistically significant effect for lighting benefit. The new calculations are wrong as well. They do not address important aspects of my original criticism. I do not seek to address that issue in any detail, but I do argue that the Government should consider that research paper again. If its methodology and conclusions can be shown to be flawed, the Government should not base future policy on it, and they certainly should not use it to justify a response to a Select Committee report, as they seem to have done on this occasion.

On the question of statutory nuisance legislation, the Government will undoubtedly disappoint the Committee, the astronomy community and me. In response to the Committee's recommendation to produce such legislation, the Government said We are considering producing an advisory leaflet on the design, installation and maintenance of security lighting. That means that they might not produce the leaflet; they are considering producing a leaflet but they might not, and if they do, it will only be advisory. We can all rest easy then. It looks as if light pollution is in retreat and we will have perfectly black, clear skies a year from now. In their response, the Government add that in October 2002, DEFRA issued a broad consultation entitled "Living Places—Powers, Rights, Responsibilities". A majority of respondents to the relevant section of the consultation felt that the solution to nuisance lighting was not to regulate.

Let us watch our use of language here. Ministers and I have been arguing for some time that consultation is not a referendum. A majority of responses to a particular point does not mean that the Government are obliged to follow that advice. A referendum is about numbers; a consultation is about the quality, not the quantity, of the response. We have to be very careful about using that kind of justification as an excuse not to take action. Sadly, that seems to be what has happened in that consultation, although I accept that that was DEFRA and not my hon. Friend the Minister who is with us today.

I have some sympathy with the Government's reluctance to legislate every time a group expresses unhappiness with a situation. Yet given that the Government repeatedly agree with our findings in the report, it is incredibly frustrating that they cannot bring themselves to agree with our recommendations. They agree with what we found during the inquiry, but not with most of our recommendations. I find that very discouraging.

The report has contributed to an important debate, but if that is all it achieves, it and the Committee will have failed. We do not want just to contribute to a debate, but to a practical improvement in the situation. I do not believe that anything short of legislation will stop the irresponsible and unnecessary vandalism that is ruining the most outstanding area of natural beauty that anyone has ever seen.

Page 4 of the Government's response says: It is recognised, however, that observing in the UK is hampered by weather and light pollution. We cannot do anything about the weather—at least, not yet—but we can do something about light pollution. Each year, a handful of stars disappears from our night sky. That is a tragedy; not just for astronomers, but for every person who believes that it is important to inspire young minds to wonder what is out there.

4.21 pm
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) for persuading the rest of us to undertake this investigation, one of the most pleasurable investigations in which I have ever been involved. It brought us in to contact with the astronomical community, both amateurs and professionals, of the United Kingdom. It was impossible not to be caught up with their infectious enthusiasm for their subject, and quite a lot of that star glitter, or star dust, rubbed off on us all.

Being able to view the skies—or not, as the case may be—is not just an astronomical pleasure, but a matter of basic quality of life. The skies are that important. Light pollution diminishes the quality of life, not just for astronomical observers, but for all of us living in urban environments who have to endure light pollution in our homes and our environment, much of which can be avoided.

The impact of light pollution goes much wider than its effect on astronomers and our environment; it also has an enormous educational effect. The ability to study the skies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart indicated, is one of the most vital and effective ways of switching on the interests of young children in science. We have an enormous problem in this country; we are not alone, but we are particularly concerned with it here. The supply of young people wishing to go on to study science, engineering or physical science-based subjects in our universities is steadily declining. That will give us desperate problems for our economy in years to come. An interest in astronomy is one of the most effective ways of getting young people hooked on science, and of getting them to stay hooked on it and study it at university. The more we blank out our skies, the more we lose prospective scientists and engineers.

Amateur astronomers make a much bigger contribution than their own simple pleasure. The Government were condescending in their response to our first conclusion and recommendation when they mentioned the small but significant impact of amateur astronomers. Their contribution goes far beyond their observance of astronomical events and phenomena.

There are two aspects on which I would like to focus. The first is the sheer waste of energy. When we visited Greenwich, it was ironic that we could stand at the Royal Observatory and not see a single star. That was incredibly sad. However, we could see the hideous orange glow from Canary Wharf. Huge quantities of energy were being used to illuminate the sky. In the UK, we use approximately a gigawatt at any one time to illuminate the sky. That is all wasted light, and a lot of wasted energy.

The Government have an energy policy, part of which concerns energy conservation. If we saved a gigawatt by stopping light pollution, we would save a lot of energy. I have not calculated the amount of CO2emissions that we would remit, but it would be in the order of 1 million tonnes per year, making a valuable contribution to reducing our CO2emissions. We cannot afford not to do something about any opportunity to reduce significantly energy waste and CO2emissions.

Dr. Iddon

Is my hon. Friend as embarrassed as I am that, after the Netherlands, the UK is the most polluted country in Europe? That underlines the point that he has just made.

Dr. Turner

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He emphasises a point that I would make. We are one of the world's worst light polluters. The UK stands out above all other countries as an intense blob of light on satellite images of the globe, with little differentiation between places. It is far worse than France, Germany or anywhere else. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the only country that gives us any competition is Holland.

Light is a great nuisance. We have referred to security lighting, which is one of the worst nuisances. It can dazzle motorists, making driving unsafe. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart can save me from going on at length about Home Office research on the effectiveness of lighting. We saw clear evidence that excessively bright security lighting creates such intense dark shadows next to it that it is more helpful to a burglar than not having security light at all. The burglar can flit through the shadows totally unseen by anybody.

In my constituency there is a large estate that had a bad reputation for crime. Some years ago, before I entered the House, I led a bid in a Home Office competition to fit up the estate with CCTV cameras. I was successful. But the estate is lit with the usual hideous municipal orange low-pressure sodium lighting, and at night, sadly, cameras are extremely ineffective with that type of street lighting. We wasted nearly £200,000 of Home Office money on a system hat works very well in the daytime. At night, instead of enabling people to see properly, those lights blind the cameras.

In small areas where we have been able to replace the low-pressure sodium with full cut-off high-pressure sodium lights, it works like a charm. The issue of lighting and security is not simple. Light-polluting security lighting is less secure than no lighting at all.

How can we ameliorate the effects of light pollution? Technically, we know how to do it; it is relatively straightforward and, without any prompting, the Highways Agency has admirably shown the way forward. All the major new road developments have been lit with full cut-off, high-pressure sodium lighting, which eliminates the upward light that comes directly from the luminaires. Driving along roads with high-pressure sodium lighting is much easier on the eye and one can see better than with low-pressure sodium lighting. The agency also has a programme of steadily replacing other lighting as it reaches the end of its useful life.

The Highways Agency has shown how it can be done; I want the Government to follow suit and to do something about it. The Institution of Lighting Engineers has set out clear guidance on how to design and install lighting appliances that will not cause light pollution, will save energy and will provide more effective illumination of the ground that one wants to light.

How will we put that guidance into practice and get it adopted? There are clear precedents; first, there is planning guidance. It is not unduly complicated to issue planning guidance to local authorities specifying that local authorities should be able to insist on the use of appropriately designed and approved lighting appliances that are installed in the proper manner. That is not difficult; the knowledge is all there.

Dr. Iddon

What my hon. Friend says is greatly endorsed by the evidence from Mr. Peter Lummis, the lighting engineer at Huntingdonshire district council. He says, on page 38 of the report, that joined-up local government is necessary and points out that he works closely with the other departments, especially the planning department.

Dr. Turner

Again, I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. Joined-up thinking should start with the Government; if they issue clear guidance we can reasonably expect local authorities to follow through and apply it. The really good thing about it—I hope the Minister will take note—is that it does not need to cost the Government, or local authorities, anything. It does not even need to cost developers anything. It is simply about choosing the right appliances and installing them sensibly. That is what it involves; it is not at all a significantly costly exercise. However, the benefits to be derived from it will be enormous. That is what the Government can do and we hope that local authorities will follow.

Another thing we can do, without significant cost, is to treat light intrusion—light trespass—in the same way as we treat noise trespass. There is clear legislation on excessive noise and mechanisms for enforcing it through local authority environmental health officers. There is nothing to stop us constructing a similar mechanism for light trespass. It is easily demonstrated; it does not require sophisticated instruments to measure it and the legislation could be enforced in the same way as noise abatement notices.

There are two simple legislative ways of approaching the matter. If the Government really accept our conclusions in our light pollution report, it is encumbent on them not to flap around in their response and worry about the details and how we measure this or that. That is not a serious problem. We know enough about it to simply get on and do it.

4.35 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

I arise with some diffidence, as I am not a Select Committee member, but it is important that MPs who are not members of Select Committees participate in debates on their reports, which otherwise would end up as reruns of previous debates. Also, I confess that I am not much of a scientist. My qualifications amount to grade 5 O-level physics—that is about it—but I have an interest in this subject.

The Select Committee seems to be doing a lot of good in my constituency, which hosts a number of scientific institutions. This is the second time in recent months that it has helped me out—previously in relation to the National Institute for Medical Research and, more importantly, on this occasion in relation to the university of London observatory, which is based in Mill Hill in my constituency. To my shame, I did not know about the report until I saw this debate mentioned on today's Order Paper.

In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said that children of 10 or more could be inspired to look at the stars and become engaged with astronomy. I confess that I am a 40-something who came to the subject relatively late in the day, primarily as a result of being a guest of Professor Mike Dworetsky, the director of the university of London observatory, who invited me to visit him one evening. After watching the rings of Saturn through an optical telescope, I was hooked.

I am pleased to say that the university offers open days to the local community during which people can observe the night skies through telescopes. Last March, I attended an open day with a number of constituents and had a great evening looking at the moon. It is amazing how much detail can be seen on the moon if the telescope is pointed in the right direction. Much as I would like a telescope for a Christmas present, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), it would do me little good unless it was a big one, as the prospects of seeing anything at all from my constituency, certainly from where my flat is, are limited because of the problems of light pollution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said that he likes to come down the M1 because it is a well-lit road. That motorway goes through my constituency some 400 yd or so away from the university. Indirectly, he is contributing to the light pollution from which the observatory may suffer.

A lot of the key issues have been raised in this debate. I am struck by how little can be done when light pollution arrives or is threatened. I got involved with this subject at the instigation of Professor Dworetsky when he complained to me about the street lights on the A41, one of the major trunk roads going through my constituency. The observatory is on the A41, set back only 10 or 15 yd from that road. Although there was a lot of good will from the Highways Agency, the road was later taken over by Transport for London when the Greater London authority was set up and it took us four and a half years to get the authority to change the street lighting. It tried all sorts of gadgets to make the light pollution shine down instead of up, but in the end it had to change the light fittings. That happened eventually. through its good will, but it took me four and a half years of arguing to achieve it. I do not know how many years the university had tried to get something done before I was elected, without, I understand, the assistance of my predecessor. That is the problem—there is no obligation to act, so we rely on good faith.

Nothing can be done about security lights—again, we rely on good faith. There is a counter-intuitive argument that people are much more likely to want security lights in areas that are particularly dark. The big houses in the area surrounding the observatory are likely to have security lights in the back gardens. On one visit, I was shown security lights that were effectively negating much of the work that the university wanted to do. In the end, we were able to persuade to occupier, again through good will, to adjust the lights in their back garden so they did not simply illuminate the undersides of the passing aircraft, but instead might achieve their objective of catching or deterring burglars by shining down into the garden. The fact remains that the change was made only as a matter of good faith.

I contacted Professor Dworetsky yesterday, and he made several key points to me. He said that the abolition of light pollution is an issue not just of astronomy, but of energy conservation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) said earlier, as well as of privacy and security. I find it staggering that there is no legal recourse if light from another property, whether it is public or private, is disturbing someone else. I have been told that the United States has a law to deal with light trespass, but that we have no similar provision in the UK.

My hon. Friend was right to compare light pollution to noise pollution. We have taken strong steps to deal with noise pollution, ratcheting up the law as each measure failed to achieve a great deal. We now have pretty tough laws relating to noise, and if the local authority is prepared to make the effort to deal with a problem, a lot can be done to address the disturbance of people's sleep, privacy and way of life.

Mr. Key

Of course, there is a much simpler answer to the problem. People do not need to go to law. The simplest answer is to ask their neighbour to turn the light down. I have done that with the excellent pub opposite my house in Salisbury, whose staff discovered that one of their floodlights was redundant. Soon after Christmas, when they put up another that was elevated incorrectly, I simply popped over at dawn the following morning and turned it down.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and confirms what I said earlier—any change relies on good will. The same is true with noise. I am occasionally plagued by noise from neighbours, as we all are from time to time. If my current neighbours make too much noise, they are happy to turn it down when I ask them to, unlike their predecessors who liked to play the piano at 4 o'clock in the morning. My only option would have been to call out the council, but by the time that officers had arrived, there would not have been much chance of a night's sleep.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I gave the example of neighbours of the observatory who were prepared to act. However, this is a question of good will, so what happens when the neighbour is not prepared to help? The person involved is stuck, because the local authority has no power to act. Professor Dworetsky and the Select Committee are right to draw attention to the need for some planning guidance for such developments, whether they are small-scale security lights or large shopping or sports centres. Indeed, I saw that an amateur astronomer from Finchley commented in evidence to the Select Committee on the impact that one of the sports centres in my constituency had had. However, the university observatory seems to have come to terms with that and is putting up with it.

Provisions are needed to deal with the problem. Professor Dworetsky made the important point that we are now well into the second generation in Britain who have never seen the night sky without interference from light pollution and that the position is getting worse, not better. I can do little better than quote from the evidence. Believe it or not, Sir Nicholas, this lengthy submission comes from the Macclesfield Astronomical Society, which concluded its evidence with a short poem called "Starlight Lost": Open your eyes to the nascent glow,

Watch as it starts on the horizon low.

As twilight deepens, the lights they come,

Another ton of coal's job is done.

Deep in country the celestial show delights,

'Tis only a dream of longing suburbanites.

Youngsters wonder of Milky Way lost,

The old man knows how much the cost.

Cruel fixtures that light the night,

Stealing the stars from our sight.

Comets die, northern lights disappear,

We have lost what we once held so dear. Those lines are described thus: Thoughts from an anonymous starlight-starved astronomer. I presume that that is not you, Sir Nicholas, but I believe that that person is probably one of your constituents.

4.44 pm
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I am not a member of the Select Committee, but I congratulate it on the serious way in which it has tackled the subject and on the recommendations it has made.

I want to touch on a planning issue. About 10 years ago, when I was a councillor in Milton Keynes, the light pollution that the new city was causing was brought to our attention. One of the things that we tried to do was put caps on the lights to direct the lighting differently. Obviously, that has not worked, so the Select Committee has come up with other suggestions. I also get constituency casework on light pollution, which is a matter that other hon. Members have referred to.

The planning guidance that the Select Committee asked for is directed primarily at local authorities. However, guidance also needs to be directed at others, such as the planning inspectorate. Guidance must be given to public inquiries. If any of those involved does not take the issue of planning policy guidance seriously, planning authorities will not achieve their objectives.

Even more importantly, the Government have agencies that could do a lot to tackle the problem. I have in mind two agencies in particular. The first is the Highways Agency, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) referred. The other is English Partnerships, which is the direct responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That agency is involved in regeneration work and in the sustainable communities plans, introduced by the Government. As those plans develop, English Partnerships, as a driver, could introduce requirements to tackle light pollution. That requires the involvement of the planning guidance of local authorities, and English Partnerships could do the work if the Government were to raise the priority of light pollution for the agency.

I ask the Minister to take on board the issues that have been raised today and to instruct English Partnerships to take light pollution seriously as it builds new communities. That could make a major difference in many areas, such as the Thames gateway and Stansted, as new housing is built. We do not have to repeat the mistakes that we have made in building other housing.

4.47 pm
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

I congratulate the Committee on producing a learned and relevant report—it is, one might say, of cosmic significance. I am pleased to be speaking surrounded, as I am, by such scientific luminaries—although I am not sure that "luminaries" is quite the right word for this debate. My contribution will be brief but methodical, as we do not want to let the Minister off the hook.

As I grasp the issue, light pollution is the brightening of the night sky due to the scattering of artificial light by particles—chiefly dust and water—in the atmosphere. The main culprit is badly designed and misdirected lighting, and the argument against that is powerful. There is the strong economic argument that we are wasting 50 per cent. of electricity as well as the emotive argument that everybody should have the right to see the night sky in its natural form. As a philosopher, I do not know how I would defend the latter argument, but I am sure that it is true for most people. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) quoted Kant; I could quote back Pascal, who found that immensity of the heavens rather frightening and disturbing. He might be pleased about the phenomenon of light pollution.

There are other considerations, which have been alluded to by Members. First, security lighting is not always security lighting, as it provides little dips where people can hide and skulk because the lighting is simply too bright. It also creates a haze behind it.

A strong argument that I warm to relates to the effect on education in inspiring future generations of scientists. Space inspires the imagination. Astronomy is taught in the national curriculum at GCSE and as a module at A2 level. As the Minister for School Standards says, we have marvellous modern facilities, such as the capacity via the internet to relate through the Liverpool telescope to Hawaii, but any teacher worth their salt will want their pupils to experiment for themselves. A pair of binoculars trained to the night sky can be as valid a teaching aid as anything seen over the internet.

The Select Committee were right to point out the fact that if nothing is done the situation will get worse. That is an unquestionable thesis. Guidelines and advice are simply not enough to change affairs, and clear and definite strategies are available. Many of those have been mentioned—for example, emphasis on energy-efficient, low-intensity illumination; planning applications that take into account lighting design; design standards, such as Kite marking, that avoid unnecessary high wattage lighting; and some attack on or other approach to unnecessary all-night shop advertising and displays, such as the illumination of Canary wharf. How local authorities perform must be looked at. Where they have been effective and there has been negligible spill above the horizontal, there has been a sharp diminution in light pollution.

The Select Committee wants the Government to go further by making obtrusive light a statutory nuisance. I can understand there being some reservations on that score, but I cannot understand there being many reservations about new and effective planning and guidance. Indeed, perhaps there should be more than that; perhaps there should be regulation. After all, for many other forms of pollution—water pollution, air pollution—we would not be content with guidance. We would want regulation.

Mr. McWalter

Does the hon. Gentleman share the Government's aspiration to have so-called simple guidelines? I presume that simple guidelines are ones that exclude a lot of things that are currently included. It appears that there is a view that any real reference to light pollution could be a casualty of that process of simplification.

Dr. Pugh

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I think we both agree that what the Select Committee is asking for can, in part, be done—and has been done. The example of the Czech Republic, mentioned in the report, shows what can be achieved by a Government who do not have anything like the resources and capacity of our Government.

The Government's responses fall into the limp-wristed category. The Committee concluded that the Government failed to take seriously the energy waste and "disquiet and annoyance" caused by light pollution. The Government do not respond directly to that. They simply say that they are already committed to various energy-saving programmes and to raising awareness. The Committee concluded that significant energy savings could be made in the area of security lighting. The Government response does not address that directly, but hints at future research by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Committee concludes that curfews should be imposed on lighting sports facilities, car parks and so forth. The Government say that they intend to rely on guidelines. I ask again whether they would rely on guidelines in the case of other pollution. I suspect not.

The Committee concluded that a new policy guidance document on light pollution is needed. The Government simply say that they will update their advice on the desirability of minimising light pollution. The Committee also concluded that, locally and nationally, authorities should be moving towards better-controlled light sources. Again, the Government are willing to rely on published guidelines. Nothing much is said on the recommendation with regard to rural areas and national parks.

The Government say in many areas that they are considering the best way to tackle the issue, but the language is similar all the way through. Why do they find it impossible to consider seriously the more robust approach adopted by the Czech Republic?

The Government are very good at endorsing the Committee's observations, and perhaps at agreeing to some extent with its evidence, but they do not appear to recognise the fact that the Committee has identified a problem and that they have to devise the solution.

4.54 pm
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

Science is wonderful in itself. It is also necessary to society. It is not the source of our troubles; it is the solution to our problems—problems such as improving health care and defeating disease, driving up our quality of life, and tackling global issues such as poverty and climate change. In all those areas and many more, science will deliver the solutions. That is why I was pleased to be asked to speak from the Front Bench in this important debate on light pollution and astronomy.

I also wear another hat. I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, whose work is under scrutiny here. I am known as one of its more gentle, and less adversarial and controversial, members, particularly when it comes to examining witnesses on science matters. If occasionally I get a little excited, that is because science really does matter. Let me explore my theme of the importance of science. We must ensure that young people are fascinated and excited by science, their environment, their very genesis and therefore by their universe. Their imagination must be stirred, so that they choose the science and maths options, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) informed us, and so that the very best students are attracted to the sciences rather than those lesser, superficially more attractive professions. I shall not list them now in case there are any lawyers in the building.

We must go forward to tackle the arch problems of society and of the world. What better instrument do we have to kindle in youngsters the delicate flames of an interest in real science than our own night sky in all its glory, with all its magnificent mystery? When time and science fail to inspire, the world will be a lesser place. The very hub of the debate is the fact that light pollution at best blurs, and at worst destroys, our children's source of inspiration—this beauty, this night sky.

Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible, but light pollution removes an awareness of the universe and its potential to inspire. However, the Government pay more attention to leylandii nuisance than to the blighting of our night sky by light pollution. They do so simply out of blind ignorance: they could not see, so they did not understand. I sincerely congratulate the Science and Technology Committee on reminding us all—including the Government—of better things and of higher orders and callings, and on lifting our eyes above mundane horizons. I charge the Government with failing in their responsibility even to recognise the challenge, let alone seek solutions.

We have had an excellent debate—0one of the best of its kind that I have attended. Given the calibre of scientists and MPs on the Science and Technology Committee—and those not on the Committee who are here—that is no surprise. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) spoke wisely about how each individual can and should make a difference. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) chastised the Government, as most speakers did, for failing even to understand the rate of increase in light pollution. He spoke movingly of the most beautiful sight in the universe, our night sky, and with sadness about the institutional vandalism of it. His was an outstanding contribution in an outstanding debate. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) told us that the milky way is inaccessible for 70 per cent. of Britain. I shall refer to the milky way in a moment.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) referred with incredulity to the sheer waste of energy due to light pollution as well as the important contribution to reducing carbon emissions and saving our environment that a cut in pollution could make. He told us that he had stood at the Royal observatory at Greenwich at night but could not see a single star in the sky.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) also spoke wisely—I rarely say that about a Liberal spokesman—and I agree with much of what he said. I thank him for his contribution. I particularly agree with him that if nothing is done, light pollution will simply get worse. One after another, hon. Members explained more eloquently than I ever could the importance of light pollution and its impact on astronomy, particularly on amateur research, from which massively important and original knowledge is still derived by society for the benefit of us all. Indeed, the Government's comments on amateur astronomers were churlish. Those comments fell short of even common courtesy and demonstrated the Government's ignorance in this matter. I call on the Minister, who is a good cove, to correct that today. That is the first of five things that I shall ask her to do. In an excellent opening speech, the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), described her as a star.

Hon. Members have pointed out the lack of any cohesive rationale from the Government, as exemplified by their initial failure even to decide whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should field this debate. The result is, as it happens, fortuitous. It has delivered to us a most excellent Minister to take messages back into the bowels of government, not least the message that those Departments should work together to tackle the problem of light pollution. My second request is for her to confirm that working together will be the Government's paradigm for tackling light pollution.

On a more positive note, I feel it in my water—unlike some hon. Members who spoke—that the Government are now predisposed to include light pollution as a statutory nuisance. I understand the constraints on announcing that formally today, as DEFRA is still awaiting the findings of consultation. However, my third request is for the Minister, lovely lady that she indubitably is, to give us a steer on whether light pollution as a statutory nuisance will be a runner. Just a nod and a wink will do—that would light up our eyes like the warm evening sky.

I shall now deal with local government awareness of the problem of light pollution. Will this most excellent Minister, who looks more relaxed and generous by the word, ensure that the Government give local authorities clear and unequivocal guidance on light pollution and follow that up with an assessment of how well such guidance is being followed? My penultimate request is quite simple and small. It echoes the demands of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which launched the "Night Blight!" campaign with the aim of reducing light pollution. In the words of the CPRE, the campaign aims to raise awareness to the effects of light pollution and its damage to the character of the countryside by discussing the extent of light pollution, lighting laws, and the effects of poor lighting. It proposes ways for Government, local authorities and private parties to reduce light pollution. The CPRE calls on the Government to update their "Lighting in the Countryside" guidance. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond positively to that sensible and reasonable request, if not today, then in due course.

The picture from the Royal observatory at Greenwich on the front cover of the Committee's report shows two galaxies colliding. They are 420 million light years from earth and are seen against a backcloth of galaxies so distant that the light from them has taken nine tenths of the total age of the universe even to reach our eyes. Yet some invisible local authority or Highways Agency bureaucrat, with the inspiration of a marker pen and the impunity that only ignorance can bring, shines his light up into the sky, so that our children will never view the stars in awe and wonder, as is their birthright.

The milky way is still visible at the right time and from the right place. It has just gobbled up a tiny dwarf galaxy of a mere 1 billion stars and is now drawing in, under the unimaginable power of its gravitational field, the Canis Major galaxy. It is preparing to dismember and cannibalise it for generations to come and see, but our children cannot see the milky way, so they do not know, they do not wonder and therefore they do not care.

Mr. Key

Given the excellence of my hon. Friend's speech, the common sense that he is talking and the happy coincidence that he also made an excellent contribution to the report, can he now commit the Opposition, from his position on the Conservative Front Bench, to fulfil all the recommendations of the Committee's report?

Bob Spink

I can always rely on my hon. Friend to make an interesting and lively contribution. The answer is that the Opposition are reviewing their policy on the matter and will no doubt, in the fullness of time, make that policy clear in their manifesto prior to the next election.

UNESCO has declared 2005 the international year of physics to celebrate the centenary of Albert Einstein's work. My fifth and final request to the Minister is to mark that initiative by acknowledging the scope and importance of light pollution and by accepting the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's offer to advise Departments on the benefits of reducing light pollution. By those means we may inspire our children and raise our sights from the ground to the unspeakable poetry of our beautiful night skies.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

Reflecting the flamboyance of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and speaking on behalf of all hon. Members, I ask the light of our lives, the Minister, to respond to the debate.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I fear that I cannot possibly sparkle enough to live up to what has been said in the debate. I congratulate the Committee on producing such an interesting report, which has increased momentum on an issue that was already attracting public interest.

Today's debate has been surprisingly poetic and eloquent compared with many that I attend in Westminster Hall. I will not pretend to be an expert on astronomy, but I remember going to the planetarium at the age of about nine and being overwhelmed by the wonderful chance to see the stars, which cannot be seen when looking into the sky from central London. Hon. Members have made a series of important points, and I look forward to the determined negotiations over the next few months between the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and his Front Benchers on the nature of Conservative policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) set out the overview of the report. He quoted evidence suggesting that some of our responses were "Yes, Minister" replies without the jokes. I will not attempt to put the jokes back in, but I can say that, given the wide-ranging nature of the report, we have had to draw on help from officials from many Departments to respond today. In fact, there were not enough seats for them all and they have had to scurry to and fro to pass me notes. I do not think that so many officials have attended a Westminster Hall debate before. The Committee should take that as tribute to its work and proof of the Government's determination to respond to the points raised.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) raised issues about air travel. I will not attempt to go beyond light pollution to discuss the broader issues, which he rightly mentioned, of vapour trails and so on. I know that the aviation White Paper looks at aviation in the context of sustainable development. I will not attempt also to address some of his broader points here, but I will try to respond to some points that hon. Members have made, which covered some common themes.

We all recognise the fact that there is a series of tensions around light pollution. People in the cities will never have the same view of the night sky as one can get in the middle of Dartmoor, for example. There are considerable safety benefits to lighting much-used roads, even though the consequence may be a river of light threading through the countryside. Although the Committee questioned the link between light and crime, and the type of security lighting that can be installed, for many of us walking along darkened streets, the lack of light and shadows where we feel unsafe can contribute to our fear of crime.

There can be tensions too at neighbourhood level between the security-obsessed householder who has glaring white security lights stuck to every corner of the house, which flicker on every time a little bird flies past or the cat runs across the garden, and the neighbour who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), has a telescope and cannot see across the garden, let alone into the skies.

Dr. Pugh

I should preface my intervention by making a confession—I have one of those lights on my house. Cannot that tension be exaggerated? The issue is not whether to have light, but the direction in which the light shines and the wattage.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Gentleman is right. Like him, I confess to having one of those lights, although it never seems to come on at all and so I am not sure what purpose it serves. The Committee is right that just because we care about safety and economic growth, and about the rights of individuals and companies to have some control over their property, we should not simply accept all light pollution and every kind of lighting, wherever it shines. That is the important issue raised by the Select Committee's report.

The Committee raised particular concerns that I want to address in some detail. The first relates to the planning system, which can have a considerable impact on new developments. The second relates to statutory nuisance, where we are talking about lights in developments that are already in place. Many hon. Members expressed concern that local authorities are not taking the issue sufficiently seriously. The Campaign to Protect Rural England's "Night Blight!" report includes a survey showing that 39 per cent. of district and unitary councils contacted had a specific light pollution policy in their local plan. There are clearly examples of local authorities taking this seriously.

The policy of the London borough of Sutton says that development proposals involving the use of external lighting and floodlighting will only be permitted where there is no unduly adverse impact from increased levels of light pollution on the environment or on the amenities of neighbouring occupiers. The emerging unitary development plan for Westminster city council includes a policy to attach specific conditions to developments to reduce glare, reduce upward light spill and improve energy efficiency.

The attention that local authorities pay to the issue varies widely across the country. That is why we think that we need new planning guidance specifically on light pollution. The intention is to set out guidance as an annexe to planning policy statement 23 on planning and pollution control, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). We intend to send a clear signal to local planning authorities that they should take the issue of light pollution as seriously as other types of pollution when they consider planning applications and when they draw up development plan documents. To clarify, that means that the annexes have the same status as the rest of the planning policy statement, and they are material considerations in individual planning applications as well as in the development of plans in the first place.

Clearly, there will need to be consultation. We are not yet clear on the timetable for all the planning policy guidance revisions. We are reviewing that at the moment, because, given the number of planning policy guidance statements that the Department is examining, there are pressures on resources. We intend to consult stakeholders, but our current approach is that every local authority should have development plan policies on external lighting. We will also cover the issues involving planning conditions and their potential use to mitigate the adverse effect of lighting. Planning conditions can be an important mechanism for local authorities to influence the design of lighting installations. That provides considerable potential for addressing problems and concerns raised about new developments.

Brian White

There are regional planning guidance and public examinations going on at the moment. Will the inspectors carrying out those public examinations be made aware of what the Department is thinking of doing?

Yvette Cooper

I will discuss that issue within the Department. I was about to respond to my hon. Friend, because he specifically raised his concerns about the growth areas and ensuring that those considerations are taken into account. We intend to ensure that they are taken into account wherever there is new development; that seems to be a central part of the sustainability approach that we are taking across the board.

We must bear in mind the time scales that we are operating on, the parallel timetables that we are examining in terms of the revision of planning policy statement 23 and also the parallel process that my hon. Friend rightly says is going on at the regional level and in the growth areas. I will raise the concerns that he has mentioned within the Department and also with English Partnerships, because he has made an important point.

The planning system is less able to help where there are existing developments and existing lighting, whether we are talking about the public or the private sector.

Dr. Pugh

It has just crossed my mind that people have complained about the upward lighting of Canary wharf and its brightness. We could also talk about the fact that the lighting of the House of Commons is also extraordinarily bright. In terms of planning guidance, is there any thinking in the Department that there should be differentiation between the illumination of what one might call heritage buildings and commercial ones?

Yvette Cooper

That is a matter that we would want to consider and debate as part of the consultation. It is not something that I could talk about in any detail at this stage. We should not ignore the impact that beautiful lighting can have, not just on our historic buildings. If one walks between Lambeth bridge and Vauxhall bridge on the south side of the river, one can see some of those little up-lighters underneath the trees, which look very pretty. People will have different views on the impact that different lights can have on visual amenities; that needs to be taken into account. When people talk about recognising the beauty of the environment, the sky and so on, ultimately, many points that they make are about recognising the broader issues involving our physical environment and our quality of life. We must remember that people take different views on such issues.

I want to discuss some of what might be done on existing lighting. Hon. Members and the Select Committee report have commented on the work of the Highways Agency on addressing light pollution where the lights are already in place. Steady progress is being made in replacing low-pressure sodium lighting with better-controlled light sources. The Highways Agency has been working with local authorities to spread good practice in that respect.

We must be realistic, as there are constraints on resources for local authorities. Wherever it is possible to replace existing lighting, we should do more to ensure that light pollution issues are addressed and to make the most of new technology. We are doing more to ensure that more money is available for local authorities to replace their lighting, including that which is available through the private finance initiative process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and other hon. Members asked whether light pollution should be treated as a statutory nuisance. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consulted on this issue for "Living Places: Powers, Rights and Responsibilities", which included asking whether the Government should introduce new regulations on the positioning of external lighting other than street lighting and whether light pollution should be treated under statutory nuisance legislation as similar to noise. The Department also asked how light pollution might be measured as part of the process. The debate on the issue is continuing, but DEFRA has yet to respond to the detailed consultation.

The hon. Member for Castle Point asked me for a nod or a wink, but unfortunately it is not possible for me to offer a nod, a wink, a cheeky grin or even a discouraging frown on behalf of another Department. I shall refrain from doing so and he will have to wait for the response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) asked how we should respond to the consultation. He is clearly right that we must consider not simply the number of responses that the Department receives. However, it is also right for the Department to take account of a wide range of views that might be put forward and to recognise that many different opinions are being advanced.

Mr. Harris

Does my hon. Friend understand the anxiety of members and ex-members of the Committee, who fear what DEFRA will say when it finally announces its response to the consultation? The Government's response to our report states: The majority of respondents to this section of the consultation, felt that the solution to nuisance lighting was not to regulate". Also, does she understand why some of us think that that form of words shows that when DEFRA finally announces its response it will not be to our liking?

Yvette Cooper

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, but I ask him to wait for DEFRA's final response. Any discussion on new regulations needs to consider the balance of interests—as well as the benefits and costs, whether large or small—for those who own the lights, if the issue is treated as a statutory nuisance. Inevitably, those things have to be taken into account. Equally, when there is a consultation, it is open to hon. Members with strong views to make representations to Ministers at DEFRA. I will ensure that they are aware of the strong concerns that hon. Members have raised today.

Dr. Turner

Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to understand how anyone could be disadvantaged if the Government were to legislate to make light pollution a statutory nuisance?

Yvette Cooper

That would have to be considered as part of the consultation response. A regulatory impact assessment is needed whenever such new regulation is considered. For example, if someone's lights are causing huge nuisance to a neighbour but they could be swivelled in another direction, it is hard to understand how anyone would be harmed by that. However, if a set of lights needed to be replaced, that would obviously impose costs on people. Such matters would need to he taken into account.

Hon. Members have said that this matter needs to be treated as a nuisance. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said that, in fact, it took some time for noise nuisance to be dealt with effectively and that there was a process of raising awareness and of changing views on such nuisance. The Government have consulted on such matters and are considering the responses. DEFRA will respond in due course.

The Select Committee report has raised a wide range of issues. Several hon. Members have said that the Government have been too dismissive of their argument, but I assure them that that is not the case. I ask them, in return, not to be too dismissive of the Government's response and their considerations. Planning guidance has considerable potential to impact on developments. It takes time to revise planning guidance, but I hope that hon. Members contribute to the consultation process.

DEFRA is consulting on statutory nuisance issues and I will ensure that the views of hon. Members are fed into that process. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart needs to be congratulated on initiating much of the debate. He said that he wanted not only to raise awareness, but to deliver change. He is right, but we should not underestimate the impact that raising awareness can have.

I think back, Sir Nicholas, to the Select Committee report on child birth in which you were involved many years ago. It was a classic example of a report that had a considerable impact in its day. It was picked up with surprising enthusiasm by many people. It had a long-term impact not only on Government policy, but on practice throughout the national health service and on the changes that took place at the time. I do not underestimate the impact that Select Committee reports can have, not only in the short term during which Governments respond to them, but in raising awareness over the long term.

This issue causes tensions over what can be delivered over different time scales. People are becoming increasingly interested in it and want to talk about it, although perhaps not so eloquently as many hon. Members have done this afternoon. We have had an important debate and I commend the Select Committee for raising such an interesting issue in its report.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock.