The BAA campaign for dark skies: twenty years on: a special report.
The starry sky is, unofficially but indubitably, a site of special scientific interest and an area of outstanding natural beauty--if it can be seen. It is currently the only part of our environment without protection in law.
20 years ago, the idea of a campaign to protect our dark skies for both astronomers and non-astronomers was discussed by Ron Arbour and Pete Welland. They felt that the time had come to counter the ever-growing tide of skyglow which had tainted the night sky and gradually veiled the stars over Britain since the 1950s. Initial investigations showed that the task would be an overwhelming one for just two people. After discussions with other concerned members of the BAA in 1989, Ron Arbour formed a committee in April 1990, and the BAA Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS) held its first formal meeting on Friday 1990 May 18, in the rooms of the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House. The minutes report that the following were present: Ron Arbour (Chairman), Bernard Abrams, Graham Bryant, Stuart Hawkins, Gordon Taylor, Dr Paul Murdin and Pete Welland (Secretary). Also involved but not present at that meeting were Alan Dowdell, Paul Kemp and Dr John Mason. At that meeting the committee styled itself the Committee for Dark Skies. The name was changed to Campaign for Dark Skies before the end of 1990, and a letter from Pete Welland in the BAA Journal of 1990 December introduced the CfDS to BAA members.
The policy of the campaign from the outset has been to work positively with all those connected with lighting--those who make, choose and install lamps, or luminaires as they are called in the trade --and with local and central government, trying to influence trends in lighting design and aiming for 'star-quality' illumination rather than calling for lights to be switched off, unless they are unnecessary. The Campaign's remit might be summarised as: the right amount of light, and only where needed.
Once caused almost exclusively by poorly aimed streetlamps and building floodlights emitting light above the horizontal, skyglow is nowadays increasingly the result of vastly over-powered, incorrectly mounted household security lights and literally 'over-the-top' sports lighting.
The CfDS has grown into a network of 139 volunteer local officers, and several hundred committed supporters, who work to persuade their local councils and other organisations of the benefits of well directed lighting. In 2001, a lighting professional stated at a conference at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers that the campaign had been 'the biggest factor in the evolution of lighting design over the last ten years'; and a measure of the campaign's success in publicising the problem of light pollution (a phrase that very few people had heard of in 1989) is the fact that it is now a separate entry in dictionaries.
The eleven-strong committee currently consists of Dr Darren Baskill, Dr Chris Baddiley, Graham Bryant, Stuart Hawkins, Martin Male, Dr John Mason, Bob Mizon, Martin Morgan-Taylor, David Paul, Mike Tabb and Tom Webster. The committee feels that the CfDS has made good progress. It continues its dialogue with central and local policymakers, the lighting industry, retailers, the British Standards Institute, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Institution of Lighting Engineers and other bodies. The CfDS has strong links with similar movements overseas, and is currently working with other European dark-sky organisations to plan a concerted approach to the European Parliament. Members have attended many international meetings and have been involved in petitions to various legislative bodies.
In 2006, the CfDS staged the sixth annual European Dark-Sky Symposium in Portsmouth. This event attracted an audience of local government personnel, lighting professionals, environmentalists, and many others. The Symposium was opened by Lembit Opik MP, and Robert Key MP made the closing speech. Many other well-known speakers appeared. Much of the proceedings are on video on
Recently, CfDS was strongly represented at the 2007 and 2008 Dark-Sky Symposia in Bled (Slovenia) and Vienna.
Perhaps the most interesting development to date in the twenty years of CfDS' existence was the decision of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee, in 2003, to investigate and report on 'Light Pollution and Astronomy'. Representatives of the CfDS met the eleven MPs of the Select Committee at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and later gave evidence in the Houses of Parliament, in early 2003 June. They pressed home the point that the night sky deserves as much protection as any other part of the environment. The committee's report appeared on 2003 October 6, and came out very strongly in favour of firm control of waste light: 'We regret that PPARC and the Government have adopted a defeatist attitude towards light pollution and astronomy in the UK'. The report recommended that light be on the list of statutory nuisances, and that the Government should cease its previous apathy on the subject and persuade local authorities to take light pollution more seriously. The CfDS committee saw the report as a welcome step forward on the road to winning back the stars and combating light nuisance. The full report can be viewed at www.parliament.the-stationeryoffice. co.uk/pa/cm/cmsctech.htm/reports
The government's response to the report was lukewarm at first, but after some debate in both Houses of Parliament, instigated in some cases by MPs sympathetic to the CfDS cause, obtrusive light acquired statutory nuisance status. DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), the arm of the government charged with the protection of our environment, finally conceded after many years of prevarication that light should become a statutory nuisance within the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment (CNE) Bill in the 2005 parliamentary session. This was passed in 2005 April, and came into force in the spring of 2006. Inexplicably, transport premises (bus and railway stations, docks etc.) were excluded. CfDS is working to change this; Lembit Opik MP asked a question in the House of Commons on this subject in 2008 January, and was informed that the matter was under discussion. The CNE Bill does not specifically protect the night sky, but offers some redress to householders troubled by intrusive lights.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that future generations live in a country where good lighting is the norm is to have proper standards stipulated and enforced at the planning stage when any new development is being proposed. It has long been the aim of the CfDS to persuade those responsible for planning policies to include lighting in their directives. In a Commons debate in 2004 February, a government spokeswoman echoed a promise by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM, now Department of Communities and Local Government, DCLG) that it would be directing local authorities' planning officers (via a new annex to Planning Policy Statement 23) to consider light pollution when granting planning permission for new developments. This was supposed to take effect sometime in 2006, but both DCLG and DEFRA have been dragging their feet on this issue. CfDS is working with them to get things moving.
The inclusion of light pollution into planning policy decisions will be a positive step, but it may not address the problem of small-scale lighting (e.g. 500W domestic floodlights, which CfDS aims to have banned) which can cause light nuisance, glare and skyglow over a large area. One of the CfDS' 2009 targets will be a major initiative to get 500W floodlights removed from retailers' shelves. In an era when energy considerations are looming ever larger, the very existence of such lights is a bad joke.
The legalities of light pollution have been dealt with in several articles in the professional journals. Lawyer Penny Jewkes examined the subject in the Journal of Planning and Environment Law, Jan 1998, with her seminal article 'Light Pollution and the Law'. BAA member Martin Morgan-Taylor, of the Law department of de Montfort University, further examined the legal aspect with 'And God Divided the Light from The Darkness: Has Humanity Mixed Them Up Again?' (Environmental Law & Management, Jan-Feb 1997, and 2004). Martin organised a conference on 'Light Pollution and the Law' in Leicester in 2006 April, which attracted a large audience, mostly of local government Environmental Health Officers.
In many places over the years, for example Northampton, Great Yarmouth, Chester, Worthing, Milton Keynes and Skegness, councils have ordered skybeam advertisements on night-clubs and similar establishments to be switched off on environmental and sometimes traffic safety grounds. In a landmark decision in 2000 January, Her Majesty's Planning Inspector Ava Wood classified night-club skybeams in Guildford as an advertisement, even though no overt advertising supported it. She called the twin beams 'an alien presence in the countryside', and ordered them to be switched off. The CfDS gave evidence in support of the night sky at this enquiry. The Guildford decision meant that such displays could be opposed under advertising legislation, and hard work principally by Martin Morgan-Taylor in 2007 with DEFRA and the DCLG, means that now, all skybeams and similar displays must have permission under that legislation before being switched on. The new regulations can be seen at: www.communities.gov.uk/documents/ planningandbuilding/pdf/321506. All local authorities must now act against unauthorised skybeams--and there is no harm in reminding them of this!
It is a measure of the reputation that CfDS has achieved in the astronomical and industrial communities that a representative of the campaign was invited to a science reception at Buckingham Palace on 2006 October 25. Co-ordinator Bob Mizon met Her Majesty the Queen, and they compared the relative merits of the night sky as seen from Balmoral and London. Bob was able to give Her Majesty some advice on the new Buckingham Palace lighting scheme.
Sports lighting is overtaking road lighting (where the trend is positive) as the major source of UK light pollution, in its triple forms of glare, light intrusion and skyglow. There are many well-directed and 'sky-friendly' sports floodlights on the market, but while clubs are allowed to opt for cheap, obtrusive lamps and bolt them to masts, aimed vaguely at the playing surface and just about everywhere else, they will still constitute a major environmental threat. The new, firmer guidance from the DCLG/DEFRA, when it comes, will mean that local planning departments may be less likely to ignore the environmental impact of lights when allowing planning applications.
In 2004, the CfDS collaborated with Philip's map company and ISTIL (the Italian Light Pollution Study Institute headed by P. Cinzano, producers of the World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness), to produce the Dark Skies Map of the UK (ISBN 0-540-08612-6).
An encouraging development is that large numbers of modern, downward-directed road lights are now coming 'on stream', and are vigorously promoted by major lighting manufacturers. The CfDS is pleased to see that the Highways Agency has opted for downward-directed lights only on all new and replacement 'A' and 'M' road schemes. Many councils are choosing 'sky-friendly' options: for example, Dorset CC and East Dorset DC have now re-lit much of their area with well-directed lights, and the author can confirm that the improved visibility of the night sky in many places is pleasingly obvious. But given that there are 7.5 million road lights in the UK with an average lifetime of thirty years, progress towards a nationwide lamp conversion is slow. Several local authorities have now embarked upon switch-off programmes for night-time lighting, in a bid to save energy and money, and, in Essex for example, savings have been made and publicised. Upsurges in crime and disorder predicted by sensationalist newspapers have not materialised.
Light 'art' is a growing concern, with landscapes threatened by projects involving floodlighting of the natural environment at night. CfDS has been working with the CPRE against some of the more environmentally-unfriendly schemes, and contributed in 2007 to the abandonment of what was, in the opinion of the campaign, a reckless scheme to shine 15-mile long laser beams across rural Hampshire (including the New Forest, a National Park) by Southampton City Council. CfDS also joined the CPRE in a nationwide star count project, to raise public awareness of light pollution, in the winter of 2006-2007.
Looking at the Campaign's past achievements and future challenges from the perspective of 2009, perhaps the two most valuable things that the CfDS has done are to have contributed to a trend in better-directed lighting, and to have alerted the population in general to the fact that lighting is not always a good thing. The present energy 'crunch' can serve only to accelerate better lighting practice. The greatest hurdles the CfDS still has to surmount are the public perception that light--the brighter the better, in some minds--is somehow an infallible guarantee of security, and the inaction on light pollution of the great mass of amateur astronomers.
If all who care about the night sky lent their voices to the movement for darker skies, a solution would be sooner in coming. Not everybody wants to be a full-time campaigner, but there are so many ways in which the individual can 'spread the word'. When you close this copy of the Journal, perhaps the next thing you do will be to open http://www.britastro.org/dark-skies/ inf006.htm which suggests many courses of action. Or write to the coordinator, whose address is inside the back cover of every Journal, for further information.
Bob Mizon, Coordinator, BAA CfDS