Light fantastic that will snuff out the stars

Night life: The rush to floodlight public buildings and churches for the Millennium is worrying astronomers and romantics alike
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The Independent Online
The stars in the night sky are vanishing, thanks to National Lottery funding for a string of high-powered lighting schemes which are turning the Milky Way into a memory.

The Millennium Commission has received a series of bids for grandiose outdoor lighting schemes. It has approved some and many more are in the pipeline. The structures to be lit up include bridges, docks, historic buildings, parks and large but unremarkable office blocks.

Professional and amateur astronomers, environmental groups and romantics who like to see the stars come out are increasingly concerned about the number and scale of such projects. They point out that the light from cities already brightens night skies up to 50 miles away.

Dr John Mason of the British Astronomical Association described such schemes as "wasteful and obtrusive". And according to Dr Chris Baddiley of the UK Dark Skies Campaign which has written to the commission complaining about seven schemes, "light pollution is a serious problem". He cited a recent survey by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers which found that nearly 50 per cent of pollution complaints to officers concerned external lighting.

The Skyline lighting project in Croydon, south London, which has reached the final round for Millennium Commission funding, proposes to transform the environment after dark by lighting 39 buildings and running a massive projection show in the town centre. The plan, which awaits a final decision in October, will cost pounds 6.8m. Croydon Borough Council said "the lighting industry as a whole is enthusiastic about the venture". But the light will spill into the Surrey countryside.

The Millennium Commission has already awarded pounds 2.3m of lottery money for permanent floodlighting of more than 400 churches, many in rural areas. after a bid prepared with the assistance of the Lighting Industry Federation and administered by the Church Floodlighting Trust, a body with trustees from industry and church groups.

A further pounds 40m has been granted to the Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbour project, which includes a laser light show, promenade lighting and extensive floodlighting of buildings, ships and cranes.

Lighting apparatus can spoil daytime views. At night the stars and planets are obliterated by glare and "sky glow" caused by dust particles and water droplets in the atmosphere scattering rays as they rise from the ground. Sky glow extends up to 50 miles beyond London. Dr Baddiley said that the light from towns blocks out 90 per cent of the stars for tens of millions of people.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) says that "dark, unlit landscapes and skies are one of the countryside's most precious resources", echoing the Government's 1995 Rural White Paper. But light is not officially recognised as a pollutant and there is no proper regulatory framework for it in Britain, and no recourse for those suffering from it. Often, no planning permission is required for lighting sports facilities and amenities.

Supporters of the newschemes hope to bring life to city centres at night, draw attention to impressive or historical buildings and reduce fear of crime. But the CPRE says lighting does not necessarily increase security, and cites Home Office Crime Prevention Unit studies which show it is not a significant deterrent to burglars. In fact, it says, in rural areas "introducing lighting can result in increased crime rates, enabling would- be burglars to find easy access points and creating dark shadowed areas for concealment".

The Institute of Lighting Engineers admits that "gratuitous" floodlighting often "swamps important architectural and historical installations" and wastes "not just electricity and thereby large sums of money, but more importantly, finite energy resources".