If mankind were eliminated from the planet, the first trace of human existence to disappear would be light pollution. It would fade almost at once. Even so, it would take another four and a half years for the beam of the last lightbulb to make its way, however feebly, to the nearest star. By the same token, the light of the stars and galaxies of space have been making their journey to our telescopes for years, decades, centuries?sometimes since the dawn of time itself. Only in the past few decades has Britain?England in particular?set about denying itself a regular communion with the awesome mystery of the night sky. Yet already, according to the CPRE, more than half the children in the country cannot see the Milky Way, such is the fug of light pollution around their homes.

Even in rural areas, what should be a common birthright is being usurped by excessive and badly designed lighting?on streets and around transport facilities, out-of-town shopping centres, golf driving-ranges, airports and private homes. Earlier this autumn, we made protection of the night sky one of the 10 demands of our Countryside Manifesto. As a nation, we have striven to safeguard the character of the landscape through a raft of legislation; old buildings ?the works of man?have been dutifully listed. We have neglected to preserve our ability to see, undiminished, the black-velvet, diamond-studded immensity which is the vault of heaven itself.

Some kinds of light pollution have been made a statutory nuisance under the Environ-mental Protection Act 1990. However, the new regulations apply only to domestic and commercial lighting. As by far the largest number of complaints to local authorities about light nuisance are of this kind, a public service has been performed. But it does little to tackle the major offenders?the Highways Agency and county councils which are responsible for Britain’s 6.2 million street lights, the ports and airports which operate in daylight conditions around the clock, the sports stadia with floodlights and large distribution centres. We need a programme for action.

First, local-authority staff must be trained to recognise the problem. A report carried out for Defra earlier this year showed that awareness of the Government’s own ‘Lighting in the Countryside’ document among environmental health officers was low. Planners have taken on board the new mood of anxiety about road traffic, but there is as yet little sensitivity to potential light pollution.

Manufacturers of lighting equipment do not help. Lamps are sold according to wattage?the power going in. How much more sensible it would be if they were designated according to the lumens they produce?the light levels coming out. (Light cast by different 100-watt bulbs can vary by a factor of four.) The object of all outdoor lighting is to illuminate the target area, not the sky above it. This is a matter of energy efficiency as well as common sense. To this end, lamps should be labelled to indicate what boffins call the Upward Waste Light Ratio (UWLR)?the amount of light that escapes above the lamp rather than being directed towards the

ground. Lamps with an excessive UWLR should be banned. It is critical that this is applied to the new generation of street lamps. The Government’s 10-year plan for transport pledges that lamp columns that have reached the end of their designed life?more than half already

have or will do so in the next few years?will be replaced.

Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, must ensure that the replacements do not emit upward light. Pollution-emitting lights should be eliminated from sensitive areas such as the national parks. In 2004, the ODPM promised to attach a clear policy statement on light pollution as an appendix to the planning document known as PPS23. Two years later, it has still not appeared. Let’s have it quickly.