Are the stars out tonight? How some councils are tackling the problem of light pollution

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Earlier this month, a new study reported that 80% of the world’s population now lives under light polluted skies. In Europe and the United States, this figure is even higher – for 99% of their populations the night sky is obscured by artificial lighting.

Later in the same week, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) released the most detailed ever satellite maps of England’s dark skies. The maps show that the Isles of Scilly, West Devon, and Eden in Cumbria are England’s darkest districts, while the very darkest spot in England is a secluded hillside on the East Kielder Moors in Northumberland.

However, the maps also showed the areas where light pollution is obscuring the night sky. Among the brightest spots in England are:

  • above the Tata Steel foundry in Rotherham
  • the Thanet Earth greenhouse complex in Kent
  • the space around Wembley Stadium in London
  • Leicester City’s King Power stadium

Nineteen of the brightest 20 skies are above London boroughs, and just 22% of England is untouched by light pollution.

The problem of light pollution

While artificial lighting is important for safety, crime prevention and leisure activities, it can be obtrusive. Poorly designed sodium lights reflect off the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a lurid yellow blanket that obscures even the clearest of starry skies.

Artificial light also has wider economic, environmental and social implications. Local councils in England alone are estimated to spend £613 million a year on street lighting, and these lights can account for between 15-30% of a council’s carbon emissions. Light pollution has been claimed to have negative effects on human health and on ecosystems.

Tackling the problem

There is now a growing awareness of the need to tackle the problem of light pollution, and an acceptance that local planning authorities have a role to play. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework from the Department of Communities and Local Government stated that:

“By encouraging good design, planning policies and decisions should limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation.”

A 2014 CPRE survey of local authority approaches to lighting reported that, while there had been progress in developing policies to control the use of lighting, including street light switch-off and dimming schemes, there was still a lot of potential to improve lighting management to reduce light pollution.

Good practice in Kent, Northumberland and Galloway

One local authority keen to limit the adverse impact of artificial light through planning mechanisms is Ashford Borough Council, in Kent. Its 2015 dark skies supplementary planning document recognises the problems of light pollution. Although it does not seek to prevent lighting as part of new developments, the document does suggest that lighting should be carefully directed and sensitively designed so as to reduce obtrusiveness.

Meanwhile, Northumberland National Park has been working with the county council to ensure it remains Europe’s largest area of protected night sky. The park authority’s chief executive, Tony Gates, explained to a local newspaper:

“In all our planning activities we continually seek opportunities to preserve and improve the situation. This includes offering pre-planning advice, where we advise on how all developments, large and small, can preserve the Dark Sky Park. We also use this opportunity to proactively promote dark sky lighting good practice.”

North of the border, the Galloway Forest Park has controlled development of the land, providing night-time visitors with dazzling celestial displays. And earlier this year the Dumfries and Galloway town of Moffat became the first European town to achieve Dark Sky status after installing new street lighting. Dumfries and Galloway Council intends to build on the status by including a protection policy for Moffat in its next local development plan.

A vital role for local authorities

Not every region of the country can have its own dark sky park. But the CPRE report accompanying the new satellite maps recommends various ways to decrease light pollution. It underlines the role of local authorities in implementing light pollution policy set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, and calls for local authorities to develop policies to control light pollution in local plans. The report also recommends that National Park Authorities and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should continue their exemplary work in curbing light pollution in their areas.


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