Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Mexborough and Swinton Astronomical Society submitted by Tony Morris

  We are a group of amateur astronomers based in South Yorkshire with our own observatory located in the countryside to the north of Rotherham.

  Members of the Committee

    You could try a little experiment yourselves the next time you leave the "house" during the winter evenings. Take a few seconds to look up at the night sky. Is it clear of clouds, yes? Can you see any stars or planets; can you make out any of the constellations?

  To answer the Committees questions based on our local perspective.

1.  What has been the impact of light pollution on UK astronomy?

  Our southern observing horizon is over the Rotherham and Sheffield urban conurbation. Light pollution dominates approximately the first 20 degrees from the horizon on most nights. The orange sky pollution we see is mostly from poorly directed street lighting. Further sources of pollution come in the form of high intensity floodlights which allow light to spill out away from the intended area. To our northern horizon recent developments have added yet more light pollution to the sky.

  One of the most disappointing aspects of the burgeoning light pollution is usually demonstrated during our public outreach evenings or when we run special events for school children; this is the increasing difficulty showing the main constellations to our visitors. It is now only the brightest stars that can easily be seen with the naked eye. The younger generations are losing the splendour and the inspiration of the night sky.

  As a society we try to escape our local light pollution once a year by travelling to a dark sky site. We usually travel to and stay in rural Aberystwyth as a group. Our observing is usually done from the hills a few miles inland from the town itself. The difference in the darkness of the night sky is absolutely stunning. It throws into stark contrast the light pollution over a typical urban area to the potential night sky we could all enjoy if the light sources were efficiently directed to where they were needed.

  For members trying to pursue special interests within our society we have recently purchased a "light pollution filter" to use with our telescopes. Unfortunately it is not really effective. As stated by the manufacturer it is not an alternative to a really dark sky.

  We seem to be living in a time where there are now more telescopes, equipment and books available than ever before but our skies are becoming more light polluted. It is difficult to understand the underlying reasons behind this conundrum, but possibly the commercialised production of astronomical equipment at affordable prices with the availability of more disposable income has led to the equipment boom. People may be buying equipment only to be put off by the poor skies, thus the equipment lies dormant at no great financial loss to the owner. Maybe the advancing age profile of many astronomy societies is a by-product of our poor skies, as the younger generations cannot see them as their parents did

  Due to the combination of our famous British weather and light pollution a good dark sky is a rare event indeed. Arm chair internet astronomy is flourishing with visits to our American and Australian colleagues web sites a must, where they can still enjoy really dark skies due to the remoteness of some of their observing sites.

2.  Are current planning guidelines strong enough to protect against light pollution?

  Although our observatory is located in a countryside area with no local street lights we are now finding that local buildings have been flood lit for various reasons. We have two examples:

    (a)  A local monument on the Wentworth estate, approximately 250 meters west of our observatory, has been restored and re-opened to the public for limited daytime use. Unfortunately for us part of the restoration project allowed floodlights to be installed. None had been fitted in the past. To the lay person it appeared that the upper floodlights had been attached to the monument by unsightly scaffolding poles. They looked completely out of character during the daytime. Although the flood lights were to be operated between certain times and dates; within the first few weeks of operation enough chaos was produced by members of the public travelling on unlit narrow lanes looking for the illuminated monument that questions were asked about the reason for flood lighting. A site meeting was attended by a Wentworth estate representative who thought that the floodlights detracted significantly from the monument. He "suggested" that they should be removed; they were! If this source of pollution had been allowed to continue it would have severely limited our enjoyment of the night sky towards our western horizon.

    (b)  A small public house within 1km of our observatory has been renovated and enlarged by its new owners after a fire. It is now a multicoloured light pollution source. The roof tiles are flood lit with green light, the roof eves have bright blue neon tubes under them and the walls have white floodlights pointing upwards. To add further light pollution the signs are upwardly illuminated!

  These examples highlight the difficulties for us as amateur astronomers in understanding the effectiveness of the planning rules as outsiders in this area. Whereas the local council has been replacing defective street lamps with the new types that direct the light downward, illumination schemes like the examples above are allowed to take place.

  It would appear that current planning guidelines are not strong enough to protect against light pollution.

3.  Are planning guidelines being applied and enforced effectively?

  Taking the two examples above it is difficult to determine if the guidelines or enforcement are at fault. It may be the case that once a scheme that produces light pollution is committed then retrospective enforcement is difficult to carry out unless sufficent complaints are received.

4.  Is light measurable in such a way as to make legally enforceable controls feasible?

  There are guidance notes already issued by the Institute of Lighting Engineers for reduction of light pollution. These guidance notes give the maximum light levels to be allowed under certain conditions. These guidance notes should have been based on measurements to be of any worth. There are quite accurate light meters available to amateur photographers, calibrated versions of this type of instrument complemented with operator training and light pollution centric operational instructions give a basis for legally enforceable controls.

  Even before the controls were applied many lighting applications should come under further scrutiny by carrying out a simple walk through test.

  This test should address the following issues:

    —  Is the lighting really needed?

    —  What does the light do?

    —  Does it do it cost effectively?

    —  Could it be more environmentally friendly?

    —  Could it be achieved in an environmentally sustainable way?

  Often we can readily test for lighting effectiveness without the need for special equipment, for example:

    —  How many commercial and road signs are flood lit from below where a substantial portion of the light misses the target area? This is particularly noticeable during foggy conditions as the beams of wasted light can be seen easily.

    —  How many times can you see the bulb of an illuminating device when you are not within its target area? Sports grounds and flood lit car sales lots are typical examples of wasteful illumination.

    —  Pavement ground lights that illuminate the soles of your shoes as you walk through our towns and cities; how are these fittings supposed to be contributing to the enhancement of our environment?

5.  Are further controls on the design of lighting necessary?

  The area of lighting seems to be riddled with inconsistencies; for example at the domestic level when you visit your local DIY store you are presented with a wide choice of light fittings. Many displays encourage you to buy well designed light fittings with energy efficient bulbs for indoor use, but the next display may offer poorly designed 500 watt outdoor security lights with no real guidance as to the impact of these devices on your neighbours or the environment. Your local council may be fitting well designed full cut off streetlights on the same street as premises wastefully illuminated with upward pointing floodlights.

  With the environmental and financial impact of energy generation, and the growing awareness of the disappearing night skies we must all be concerned about the design and implementation of all lighting schemes from individual bulbs to national projects.

April 2003

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