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Can the law bring back our starlit nights?

Friday 07 April 2006

Countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes new laws banning light pollution - but hopes that country folk can sort out any problems it brings as good neighbours

SOME 30 years ago, as we walked back to our hotel under a magic umbrella of stars, my toddler daughter looked up to me and asked: "Why do they have more shooting stars in America than at home, Daddy?"

We were on the coast of Maine in mid-September, miles from the nearest city of any size, and the glittering display above was better than in any man-made planetarium. And this question from a five year old stopped me in my tracks. As the saying goes, From the mouths of babes…

I am no astronomer but I assume that there are just as many shooting stars criss-crossing European skies as there are in the New World. But on that one New England evening we had seen two or three, a mind-blowing experience for my girl - she had never seen a single one before.

Casting a new light
Casting a new light

So I tried to explain that the stars were probably there but we just couldn't see them in England because there was so much light pollution from towns and cities - conurbations much closer together than is normal in America. And she said: "It would be nice if they would switch off the lights sometimes so we could see the shooting stars."

This week, an attempt was made to switch off some of the lights - in the countryside at least - under the curiously named the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act, 2005 (see News, April 5). The Act was designed to make our towns and cities nicer places to live but as the CPRE pointed out, it might also help restore the comfort of darkness in the country.

Now I heartedly agree with this, even though I have had more than the odd shock whilst out in the dark sea trout fishing. Once, in the water alongside a high bank, I turned to see two glowing yellow orbs floating in the air just a foot from my nose. I let out a yelp and the curious dog fox whose eyes had glowed in the dark fled into the night. Which of us got the bigger shock I cannot say.

Here in the villages of the Yorkshire Dales, we are lucky enough to get a fair view of the stars on a clear nigh. But even in market towns like Skipton, Settle and Hawes, the glow from streetlights, shop windows and houses eradicates this awe-inspiring view of the universe. No wonder the ancients worshipped the night sky as the home of the gods.

Under the new act, a neighbour annoyed by light from, say, a brightly lit conservatory next door can bring down the law to have the lights switched off. This could apply in particular to advertising signs for pubs and hotels, of which - thankfully - there are still many in the Dales, although the pub in particular is under threat as never before.

I have a worry here. Over the years, I have reported many cases of people - often newcomers - taking legal action to stop local customs that have been going on for years. One of the commonest complaints is against church clocks striking during the night hours, as has happened in many villages for generations.

Others involve the closing down of rights of way which have also been used as shortcuts by locals for generations. People who take these actions often have the law on their side - but being legally right often puts them in the wrong for many a long year in the eyes of the locals.

This act could be used by such complainants - busybodies is a word that comes to mind - to make pubs and hotels switch of their signs. And that could be the very straw that breaks the camel's back for businessmen and women who could probably make a great deal more money by simply selling up to some developer anxious to turn their properties into up-market homes (or, worse still, holiday cottages).

So I just hope that if an when such cases occur, the people involved will have the nous to come to some neighbourly compromise like, say, switching off any signs at 9 pm. There are all too few businesses providing jobs in the Yorkshire Dales. And there are already too many villages without a pub, the social heart of many a community. So let there be dark - and a little light-hearted cooperation too.

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