Time to put the stars back in the sky

Ministers study ways to cleanse the night of pollution from lighting
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The Independent Online
Light from a million suns in the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way, takes 100,000 years to reach us. But in the last few millionths of a second before it hits the earth's surface, it runs into some very heavy competition.

Across much of Britain and the developed world, light pollution is putting out the stars with a bright but somehow murky orange night-time glow which spreads far beyond our towns and cities.

Less than a century ago most Britons had a completely different impression of what night meant and looked like. Whenever it wasn't cloudy they could gaze at a sky teeming with stars and planets; only the full moon could obliterate the crowded heavens.

Today, from suburban streets and gardens, you may hope to see only a couple of dozen of the most garish stars and planets penetrating the man- made glow. This is caused by light beaming upwards, then being scattered as it hits microscopic particles which are solid or made of water. Mostly these specks are natural but some are caused by pollution.

The Milky Way is a rare sight for today's urban children - something to be seen only on holidays deep in the countryside. And robins are often seen singing under streetlights in winter, defending their territories beneath a false sun.

Yesterday the Government held a conference on light pollution. John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, admitted there was a real environmental problem at issue, and promised a review of laws and policies to see if the harm could be reduced.

``The presumption is in favour of lighting,'' he said. ``In many aspects this is entirely justifiable for a number of priority reasons, safety and security being top of the list.''

But, he said, it was time to ask basic questions - about whether further lighting schemes were necessary, achieved its objectives and was the minimum needed.

David Crawford, an astronomer from Kit Peak National Observatory, Arizona - one of the United States' biggest optical telescopes - was at the London conference. He said the skyglow from a big conurbation could spread 60 miles into the country.

Speakers from the British Astronomical Association and the Council for the Protection of Rural England said the Government could make a real difference by altering the official guidance which local councils use in deciding to grant planning permission for new development.

When they decide whether to reject a scheme on the grounds that it is unnecessarily lit or overlit, it is this guidance which they rely on - and which guards them against the developer mounting an appeal against the rejection.

They said the text which covers light is sparse, scrappy and unclear. It was high time these ``Planning Policy Guidance'' documents were revised to give councils a clear mandate to reject schemes with intrusive, inefficient lighting.

Dr John Mason, who heads the astronomical association's Dark Skies campaign, said security lighting of homes and commercial premises, floodlighting of sports grounds and decorative floodlighting of heritage buildings were becoming leading sky polluters. This summer The Independent revealed that a string of millennium projects seeking National Lottery backing relied on extensive floodlighting.

Sodium street lighting being now being installed was of a much better design which threw very little light upwards. But it would be at least two decades before less efficient, more polluting designs were replaced across the country. Today nearly a third of Britain's 6,500-mile network of trunk roads and motorways is lit.

Floodlit golf driving ranges which have been springing up in the countryside around Britain have been a particular menace, he added. Scores of people living near them have objected.

But Assistant Chief Constable Richard Childs, who heads the Home Office's Crime Prevention Agency, told the conference that lighting undoubtedly had a part to play in fighting crime. Some studies had indicated that it did actually deter criminals, and it certainly made vulnerable people feel safer.

There are security lighting designs which are well shaded and efficient, casting no rays upwards, he added.

Kate Painter, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, told delegates about "the Dudley Project". High pressure sodium lighting was installed a few years ago in an estate in the West Midlands town, and both crime and the fear of crime fell, compared to a similar but unlit estate.

So, can we have our cake and eat it - more and more light, but with designs which cut sky glow? The answer seems to be yes, but only up to a point.