Artificial Light and Noise: Effects on Human Health (Science and Technology Committee Report)

Thursday 9th May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Motion to Take Note
14:53
Moved by
Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To move that this House takes note of the Report from the Science and Technology Committee The neglected pollutants: the effects of artificial light and noise on human health (2nd Report, Session 2022-23, HL Paper 232).

Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this Science and Technology Committee report on the effects of artificial light and noise on human health. I thank past and present committee members who participated in the report, especially those who will speak in today’s debate. As ever, huge thanks are due to the committee staff for their excellent assistance in preparing the report—Matthew Manning, Thomas Hornigold and Cerise Burnett-Stuart—and to our specialist adviser, Professor Russell Foster from the University of Oxford.

The inquiry ran from January 2023 to July 2023, with follow-up correspondence with Defra earlier this year that is available online. We had 38 oral witnesses, including scientists, architects, mental health experts and noise campaigners, as well as people from professional bodies, private companies, the UK Health Security Agency and relevant government departments. We also published 57 pieces of written evidence.

We decided to look at the impacts of noise and light on people because of the growing evidence base for the impacts on health. Although many of them are on animals rather than on us, there is a common thread in the impact of noise and light on our circadian rhythms. While we have a noise policy statement, and have had one since 2010, we have no equivalent for light despite a dramatic increase in artificial lighting both inside and outdoors since the advent of cheap, energy-efficient LEDs.

Worryingly, despite this step change in our traditional illumination of our lives, there is no formal measurement or monitoring of the change it has brought about. Our report describes noise and light pollution as the neglected pollutants. When we think of pollution, CO2 emissions causing climate change and plastic, water and air pollution all come very quickly to mind. They are all extremely important and need urgent action, but they all have dedicated central government strategies to address them.

This is not the case for the pollution caused by light and noise. It has a passing reference in the 25-year environment plan:

“We must ensure that noise and light pollution are managed effectively”.


Beyond that and the noise policy statement for England, most of the efforts to address noise pollution arise from the environmental noise directive, European Union law that was transposed into domestic law for England, which requires noise mapping and action plans to be published. However, there has not been a major policy push on noise or light pollution in recent years.

These pollutants may be neglected by government, but they are not forgotten by people. I have not experienced such strong public interest in a committee inquiry before. We had a much greater number of submissions from members of the public and campaigning groups than we would normally expect to receive. This will be familiar to local councillors and many constituency MPs, who I am sure have a very keen understanding that noise and light pollution can affect quality of life. This is a quality-of-life issue that I am sure will have affected most of us at some time or another.

However, it is not just a quality-of-life issue. Research by the World Health Organization ranks noise pollution second only to air pollution in western Europe in contributing to ill health. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that 130,000 healthy life years are lost in the UK every year and that 40% of the British population is exposed to harmful noise levels from road traffic. While our understanding of light pollution’s effect on health is more limited, in part due to the lack of a broad evidence base, there is plenty of research suggesting that light pollution has a serious impact on the natural world, from insects to bats. We learned during our inquiry that many animals have even more sensitive circadian systems than we do, and they do not always have the luxury of controlling the light levels in their environment.

Our committee member, the noble Lord, Lord Rees, through his work with the APPG on Dark Skies, highlighted the impact of light pollution on amateur and professional astronomers and the benefits of dark skies to society more broadly. RAND Europe estimates that sleep disturbance costs the UK economy £34 billion a year, and noise and light pollution are significant factors in this. At the sharp end of the stress response, they cause not just annoyance but cardiovascular problems, metabolic effects and even reduced cognitive performance in children. Our inquiry heard a great deal of evidence about how disrupting circadian rhythms can have a strongly negative impact on mental health.

There were occasional positive notes. We heard some interesting evidence about the positive health effects of light boxes for people suffering depression and resetting circadian rhythms when the sun is not around. We urge NICE to look into this as a possible alternative prescription for mental ill-health.

Noise and light may not be grabbing the attention of central government, but they are linked to priorities around NHS mental health waiting lists, which the Government and the Opposition have said they will prioritise and which the public clearly want to see actioned. At a time when the Government are looking for public health interventions at an early stage that can ultimately reduce downstream pressure on the NHS and improve quality of life, it is worth reassessing whether there are some relatively easy wins in reducing exposure to these neglected pollutants.

One issue that concerned us was that this is a policy area that seems to fall between the cracks in government. Defra takes overall responsibility for pollution, including the environmental noise directive and the responsibilities set out in the 25-year environment plan, but much noise comes from road, rail and air traffic, which come under the Department for Transport’s remit. Much of it can be managed through planning, which comes under DLUHC, and dealing with specific planning issues and noise and light complaints typically falls on local government, as decisions to deal with them are often devolved. That means that it is not always clear who is responsible for dealing with these problems, and no one in government really seems to own these neglected pollutants.

Cross-departmental co-ordination is vital but often lacking. For example, our report suggested that local authorities should report trends in noise and light nuisance complaints to the owners of policy in central government, such as DLUHC and Defra, but we were told that this would introduce another burden on local councils. It is very hard to see how a national response to these issues can be co-ordinated if those prioritising and making the policy have no evidence of whether it is being effective. Indeed, the Government have said that they will not commit to developing metrics that would allow them to monitor light pollution. We will continue to rely on amateur surveys, such as counting the number of stars that are visible, to map light pollution in the UK. The commitment in the 25-year environment plan to

“ensure that noise and light pollution are managed effectively”

rings rather hollow, given that we have no robust way of knowing whether light pollution is getting better or worse.

We all know that local councils have extremely stretched finances and, in some cases, are struggling to meet their statutory obligations. For this reason, our report made it clear that part of addressing this problem would be to ensure that local councils are properly resourced, financially and in terms of expertise, to assess and tackle these issues. In correspondence, the Government set out that the local government finance settlement increased core spending by £4.5 billion. This is welcome and above inflation but, even with this increase, core spending power is still 11% below the 2010-11 levels in real terms, and the duties of councils have changed quite a lot over that period. It is difficult to expect cash-strapped local councils to prioritise addressing noise and light pollution—especially when the benefits accrue outside their areas of responsibility, such as to the NHS and across society more broadly—without some impetus or incentive from central government.

However, there is more good news. One of the really heartening points in our inquiry is that there are professional, campaigning and industry bodies that take this very seriously. The Institute of Acoustics, the Society of Light and Lighting and the Institution of Lighting Professionals are all concerned with ensuring that their industries do not contribute to light and noise pollution. In many cases, they have developed best practice guidance on planning and design and are passionate about seeing it widely adopted. There is significant scientific, public health and technical expertise on the causes of, and solutions for, light and noise pollution. We urge the Government to work with these organisations to ensure that this guidance and support is used effectively each time key decisions are made.

During the inquiry, we were told about Defra’s new noise mapping model. In his letter, the Minister described this as game changing. It will allow Defra and the UKHSA to get better estimates of the burden of disease from noise pollution in the UK. This is a very good first step, for which we commend the department, but we have not yet seen a clear and firm commitment to take action to reduce noise pollution on the results of this modelling.

The Government will not set a target for reducing the disease burden from noise pollution, even as they take steps to measure it more effectively. They say that a target could lead to perverse outcomes, but, without a metric for success, it is hard to know what is meant by their promise to act on noise pollution. This again underlines the lack of real ambition and sense of ownership to deal with these pollutants. We urge the Government, at the very least, to use their model to perform a cost-benefit analysis of potential interventions to understand where they rank in terms of the public health interventions that they need to fund, and to make that information available to the public. Will the Minister commit to this today?

We also urged the Government to develop a national light policy statement, setting out their approach to limiting light pollution and the responsibilities of different departments. In their response, they told us:

“Significant gaps in our understanding of the effects of artificial light would need to be addressed”


before this could happen. This was particularly disappointing as the response also rejected our recommendation to develop a programme of research to investigate the impacts of light pollution. The Government appeared to be saying both that the evidence base for action was not yet there and that they would not support the development of that evidence base. This does little to dispel the impression of neglected pollutants. If the evidence is not yet there to support a national policy, will the Minister make any commitment to funding research or assessing the existing evidence base around light pollution and human health?

For some people who are severely affected, light and noise pollution can make their lives a misery. For many of us, avoidable instances such as the grinding brakes of the Tube or the dazzle and glare from a car’s headlights are a nuisance. Both of those points were raised specifically during the inquiry. These impacts can seem minor but the evidence shows that, in many cases, noise pollution is a serious public health concern. These may be neglected pollutants some way down the Government’s list of priorities, but that does not mean that they do not impact the health, quality-of-life and levelling-up agendas, which are at the top of those priorities. It also does not mean that we would not all benefit from renewed focus and action in these areas, which have not received much political attention for many years.

The Government have developed tools that mean we are now in a position to understand the causes and consequences of noise pollution more effectively than ever before. There is considerable enthusiasm among the public and experts to tackle these problems in a co-ordinated way, but there is still a sense that they are not owned properly anywhere in government and are, at best, being tackled in a piecemeal way. Will the Minister commit to changing this state of affairs, taking co-ordinated action and ensuring that the Government play their role in making sure that we can all enjoy healthier lives with less glare and more peace and quiet? I look forward to hearing the contributions of noble Lords and the Minister’s response.

15:06
Baroness Neville-Jones Portrait Baroness Neville-Jones (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank our chair for her excellent leadership in our examination of policy on light and noise as they affect human health; it has been exemplified by the exposition and presentation she has just given us on the committee’s conclusions. I also echo what she said about the outstanding work done by the staff in preparing the report.

We were not equally happy about the Government’s reaction to our report. The report sought to put policy on a more substantial footing than exists at the moment, with some, frankly, fairly modest recommendations for more research, greater involvement of experts and the updating of policy goals and guidance. Those recommendations are not without any financial consequence, obviously, but they were modest in scope. However, as our chair said, they were met by a pretty negative response, which was also distressingly dismissive in tone and lacking in ambition. The Government’s reply of last December leaves the impression that, where shortcomings exist, the priority to be accorded to them is not great enough to merit much action. We are quite aware that these pollutants are not the most important thing that the Government face. Nevertheless, this is one of those cases where a small amount of action can improve a situation and prevent it getting worse without a great extension of government activity or expenditure.

One of the difficulties pointed out by our chair is that many of the noise generation issues—and, indeed, some of the lighting issues—lie outside the direct purview of the lead department, Defra. They fall under the Department for Transport or local government, or elsewhere in government. We would like to see Defra seek to engage them and assert its co-ordinating role, which is rather dormant at the moment. This is despite the fact that, in its reply, the department acknowledged that, second only to poor health quality, noise is an environmental cause of ill health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease. The costs of those will not be borne by Defra but they do increase the national bill for health, which the taxpayer has to bear. So, lack of action is not neutral in its effects. Contributing to bringing down the adverse impact of noise should be a priority for Defra; this implies also that the department will work with the UKHSA to fill the gaps in our knowledge that the department accepts exist.

Other members of the committee will cover our conclusions relating to noise. In my remaining time, I will focus on the effects of light, of which our understanding, as others have noted, is even less well developed than that of the effects of noise pollution. The reasons are fairly obvious, but our lesser knowledge does not justify lighting not being treated as a nuisance, when it was recognised as potentially being so as long ago as 1990. Relatively little has happened since then. In 2010, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution made recommendations on minimising light pollution, but many of those have remained either unimplemented or only partially implemented. The Minister, Rebecca Pow, told us in her evidence that

“there was not enough evidence to do anything to change the way we regulate”.

Subsequent policy statements have taken different positions. Policy statement 23 of the National Planning Policy Framework removed lighting from the context of the environmental improvement plan, which failed to mention it—whereas the 25-year environment plan included it. That is part of the background to the committee’s comment that policy is confused.

Since the 1990s, artificial light at night has become ever more pervasive and the night sky harder to see. Cheaper LED lighting has increased the pace and brilliance of illumination. A lot of that is popular, but glare on roads from car headlights is becoming an active source of disruption and complaint from drivers. It has long been clear that light can influence circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep, but exactly how and to what extent are less clear. That is why we recommended that, as UKHSA has no explicit team focusing on the effects of light, the work should continue and that it needs to move beyond the laboratory to investigate more realistic light exposure patterns relating to human behaviour so as to provide a better evidence base for mitigation policies.

In her evidence, the Minister acknowledged that, while policy had not evolved much in recent years, the situation was changing. She said that a national policy statement on light, to parallel that on noise, was

“certainly something that could potentially be considered”.

The department’s response of December, however, contains the following statement:

“Significant gaps in our understanding of the effects of artificial light would need to be addressed to inform a Light Policy Statement for England”.


The response argued that a more immediate priority should be to identify the most important knowledge gaps and to prioritise the research to fill them. There is no disagreement on our part that research is needed, but, as our chair has said, the department rejected our recommendation, relating to core evidence, that a standard methodology be developed for tracking, monitoring and reporting on light pollution. It did so on the grounds that technical data issues would need to be resolved by developing the necessary techniques to do this. In other words, valid evidence could not be collected because the department did not know how to do it. I very much hope that the department’s intention to hold a round table of experts to

“identify the most significant gaps in evidence; areas where the most value could be provided to public health; and options for how government can facilitate and potentially coordinate new research”

will be the start of the development of the techniques necessary to collect relevant evidence that could underpin valid research on the impact of artificial lighting. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm this.

The department said it did not agree that creating a body of independent experts to give advice would be useful—a surprising statement—as this would “reduce flexibility”, and it commented that “one-size-fits-all guidance” from government on lighting standards would not be useful for professionals. I do not think the committee suggested that or would regard it as sensible. Indeed, when you look at the scene, the professionals have provided quite a lot of the movement, guidance and development on controlling light pollution—more so in many respects than government action. I hope the Minister will agree that, when the department defends its action on the basis of existing policies being followed by various government agencies in different spheres, this, although useful, does not cover the ground adequately.

In the Minister’s letter of 17 April, the Lighting Liaison Group is said to be considering how a UK lighting strategy might look. On the face of it, this is a helpful step forward. I hope its exploration of the possibility of accessible guidance on light pollution for local authorities and their planners to deal with statutory nuisances and develop best practice will result in the creation of such guidance and its implementation by government. The key question is whether “considering” doing it means that the Government will actually do something about it. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether that is the case. Can the involvement of the UKHSA, which was mentioned, be interpreted as an earnest of the department’s commitment to reducing the impact on health of unwanted lighting?

Finally, it is good to hear that departmental officials are pursuing the possibility of links with relevant officials in other European countries to investigate best practice there. More ambitious research appears to be happening among some of our neighbours, and evidence given to the committee suggests that investigating it could be profitable. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

15:16
Earl Russell Portrait Earl Russell (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak on this important and timely inquiry. I welcome the work that has been done and thank those involved. In the interests of brevity, I will speak only about noise pollution.

This is such an important inquiry because it looks at a very poorly understood and evidenced policy area. There is—please excuse the pun—a glaring and complete lack of evidence or understanding of the causes and consequences of noise and light pollution and their impacts on well-being and health. That is not a good position for government or citizens, who depend on good policy for their personal well-being. Regulation is poor and not joined-up or evidence-based. As a result, public policy is not purposeful, which impacts greatly on human health. For noise and light pollution, it really seems to be a case of “see no evil, hear no evil” from past Governments and this one. We need evidence-based policy, preventive strategies and a public health-first approach. This is almost universal across all other areas of government policy. Noise and light are complete outliers.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the past and continuing fight for clean air policy and the development of a knowledge-based and public health-based approach in this area, and contrasting this with developments in noise and light pollution now. Prevention is better than cure in all health matters. On noise pollution, the inquiry says that, while the increased risk to an individual of stroke and heart disease resulting from exposure is low,

“the exposure of millions of people results in a significant aggregate health burden”.

We know that harm is being done to human health, particularly from the impacts of noise pollution:

“Environmental noise and light pollution contribute to a range of adverse health outcomes including heart disease and premature death. Yet light and noise remain neglected pollutants, poorly understood and poorly regulated … Epidemiological evidence suggests that noise pollution can both cause annoyance and increase the risk of stroke and heart disease … The World Health Organization estimates that noise pollution from traffic results in one million healthy life years lost in Western Europe every year; research from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that in 2018, 130,000 healthy life years were lost in the UK”


and that a staggering 40% of the British population are exposed to harmful noise levels from road traffic.

I worked for a few years as a community mediator in London, solving neighbourhood disputes, many of which related primarily to noise issues. From that work, I know what a massive and devastating impact noise pollution can have on people’s everyday lives, their mental health and well-being, and their physical health. That, in turn, impacts on family cohesion, educational outcomes and work prospects. These things should not be underestimated at all: they are really important and they are neglected. When people are in their homes and cannot escape from noise, it has big psychological impacts on them subjectively.

Departmental responsibility is confused. While Defra has the lead, the inquiry highlights that many of the levers sit inside other departments, such as the Department for Transport. This is in stark contrast to policy on all other pollutants, such as air pollution, which sit directly with Defra. In policy terms, the Government need to regulate noise and light pollution, as set out in the 25-year environmental plan in 2018. With no duty to report noise where NPSE applies, the inquiry notes the need to close the feedback loop between policy ownership and policy implementation for noise. There are no specific targets and there is little impetus from central government on these issues. It is also impossible to know whether the limited regulation is effective. Confused responsibilities, a lack of clear guidance and shortfalls in local authorities’ budgets all mean that enforcement action is patchy at best and not consistent across local authority areas. The Government must do more to ensure that local authorities are incentivised to act on noise pollution, and to help share best practice between authorities.

The report makes several recommendations, mainly around data and evidence-based policy approaches, past practice, ownership of policy, and enforcement across government and government departments. I welcome some of the Government’s responses, particularly in recognising that further research is needed on the impact of noise on human health. However, it is disappointing that the Government have not agreed with the call for an expert body to be established.

The Government also failed to recognise the need for an overall noise reduction target, saying that it was not feasible without a “significant amount of work” to understand how targets could be standardised and measured across many different sources and authorities. This work should be undertaken, and I call on the Minister to respond to this point and to think again. I find it shocking that there are still no restrictions on levels of noise pollution from roads, for example.

Mitigation strategies are missing from this report—I am not certain why; I assume that this was felt to be out of scope—but cost-effective mitigation is critical. We must improve noise insulation in housing, particularly social housing. Better building standards and the retrofitting of old buildings need to be government priorities. Can the Minister possibly say a word on the Government’s plans in these areas?

In many areas of noise abatement, what is good for health is also good for the environment, and vice versa. The planting of trees, green petitions, baking in good urban design from the start, and better access to locally available green spaces and nature are win-wins for both public health and the environment.

I know these matters are complex, but my hope is that the Government more than take note of this report; I hope that it helps to shape and guide future policy in these areas, and helps to mark a turning point in our policy regulation of these neglected pollutants.

15:24
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I say a huge thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for bringing this debate, which is well overdue—I say that not as a criticism but with relief that it has actually happened.

Back in 2000, three Greens, newly elected to the brand-new London Assembly, were made aware by a diligent staff member that London was about to fail the EU standards on clean air. We worked on that issue, and I have worked on it ever since. The evidence has stacked up on the damage that air pollution does to humans—often the poorest in society who live closest to large roads. The death of Ella Kissi-Debrah meant that it was understood that such pollution could cause deaths, as well as all sorts of other health issues. Ella was the first person in the world to have air pollution as a cause of death on her death certificate.

My work has included bringing a Private Member’s Bill to this House with some quite tough measures to clean up our air. It passed, but it is now languishing in the other place. However, not once that I can remember have we thought about the impact on wider, non-human ecosystems. As the Select Committee says, there are significant gaps in our research on all kinds of pollution. I was interested that the Government’s response was rather dismissive. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation of that dismissiveness.

The excellent briefing from Buglife concentrates on research into artificial light pollution and lists a worrying number of detrimental impacts on all forms of wildlife and on humans. While I understand that the reduced number of meteors visible to us because of light pollution is a shame, it is the list of impacts on human health which disturbs me. It includes diabetes, depression and cancer from disrupted circadian rhythms, not to mention considerable consumption of electricity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Much more than that, the impact on insects, birds, bats, reptiles, sea-life, fish and crabs, and even plants such as corals—are they plants?—is truly worrying. Light pollution can confuse and alter feeding, life cycles and survival. There is a mantra: “No bees, no bugs, no food, no people”. Luckily, in the case of light and noise pollution, we have a Select Committee report that clearly outlines what we do not know but ought to know, and suggests some methods of getting there.

Noise pollution is easier for most of us to understand. Here in London, in Lambeth, I get woken by foxes shrieking, or even occasionally by my overhead neighbour’s clog-dancing classes, and we all hear aeroplanes. Aeroplane noise from Heathrow is painfully unbearable for many residents—apparently there is, on average, one complaint every five minutes. I completely support the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about better noise insulation in housing; that should be a must. With noise pollution, we get an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and strokes. That puts pressure on all other parts of society, such as children having to deal with ill parents, and on the NHS. It is not just a complicated issue but one that impacts society.

On noise pollution, there has been a fairly positive reaction from the Government, who say that work is under way. It would been good to hear an update from the Minister on how that work on noise pollution is going. The Select Committee argued that the current government approach to regulating noise and light pollution is “confused”, but instead of taking this report and accepting that there is a problem here for national government, we see excuses.

One possible bright point in the response is that the

“UKHSA will consider a dedicated team focusing on light and health”.


It would be lovely to hear an update on that dedicated team. However, the Government disagreed with the committee’s request for a statutory requirement for local authorities to report nuisance complaints to DLUHC, as this

“would introduce a new burden on stretched local authorities”.

That is because the Government have massively cut their budgets, so they can barely run the transport schemes that would reduce the number of cars on the road and so improve air pollution.

Finally, the Government argued that the committee’s

“recommendation that DLUHC should set out what resources local authorities should have to respond adequately to light and noise pollution policies would involve restricting the choices local authorities are able to make over their own staffing and funding priorities”.

The Government have no problem interfering in other areas of local authority work, so I wonder why not this one.

It is not as if this Government have not been warned. I do not just mean by the Select Committee today and by environmental activists like me. Back in 2009 there was a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, but almost none of its recommendations have been implemented. Perhaps the Minister could tell us why that is. My last question is: when is Defra going to take this seriously?

Finally, I am so delighted to be speaking before the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because he says that when I speak, I make the rest of the speakers look reasonable. I thank him for that.

15:30
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for that introduction. I will correct the record; corals are animals related to jellyfish and sea anemones. I am a zoologist, so I have to be pedantic about these things.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. It was a great privilege to serve on the Science and Technology Select Committee under her brilliant chairmanship and to benefit from the superb support of Thomas, the policy analyst, and Matthew, the committee clerk, as well as Professor Russell Foster, the specialist adviser.

In my few minutes I will speak about noise. I will make four points related to the economy, responsibility, data and solutions. First, on the economy, last month the Prime Minister announced an initiative to get many long-term sick people off benefits and back to work. He described it as a “moral mission”. You can see why it is a problem. Apparently, there are 2.8 million people of working age off work with long-term health issues. According to the Prime Minister, this costs the country £69 billion in benefits—more than the schools’ budget.

If you believe, as I do, that we should aim to prevent people getting sick in the first place rather than punishing them once they are sick, we should look at the causes of chronic ill health. There are, of course, many causes, but one important contribution, highlighted by our report, to chronic ill health is exposure to noise. We have heard the figures from noble Lords before: 40% of population are exposed to harmful noise from roads, 130,000 healthy life years are lost each year as a result of noise pollution and sleep disturbance costs the economy an estimated £34 billion per year, noise and light pollution being significant contributors. I do not know how reliable those figures are—I did not study exactly how they were derived—but I think it is safe to conclude that noise is both a significant economic and health problem in this country. Therefore, it should be a higher priority for reducing long-term sickness. Does the Minister agree?

My second point, which has already been covered by previous speakers, concerns responsibility. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, is here this afternoon—I have the greatest respect for him, and I wish him well in answering this debate—but, as others have said, it is slightly odd that Defra is responding. If you ask which departments bear the health and benefits costs of noise pollution, it is not Defra but the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions. If you ask which department should worry about the impacts on the workforce and economic growth, it is not Defra but probably BEIS and the Treasury. If you ask which departments have policy responsibility for the levers that could reduce noise pollution, it is not Defra, but DfT for transport noise and DLUHC for matters such as planning, local authorities and soundproofing standards. As others have asked—I repeat the question—could the Minister in his response tell us who has overview of the impacts of noise on health, well-being and the economy and for deciding on appropriate measures to reduce these impacts?

I turn now to the theme of data. As the saying goes: if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. This is why Defra officials were especially pleased to demonstrate their new noise map, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. This map is capable of revealing, we were told and shown, at a very fine scale of resolution who is exposed to excessive noise. Although this is a useful step forward, the modelling underpinning the noise map has a significant weakness: it is based on the average noise exposure over a 24-hour period but often intermittent noise is more of a problem. Imagine that you live near a road with a loose drain cover that goes “clunk” every time a vehicle drives over it, near a rail track along which an express freight train hurtles once every half an hour, near an airport where low-flying aircraft disturb the peace every few minutes or in the countryside where a bird-scarer fires off once a hour. In all those cases, the noise map might conclude that you are living in a quiet, peaceful location because the average noise over 24 hours does not exceed a certain threshold. However, the annoyance and the impact on health—for instance, by sleep disturbance—could be high. Noise researchers in Switzerland are developing methods to model intermittent noise and its impact. Does the Minister agree that although the noise map is a useful first step, it will be of more value in guiding policy when it incorporates intermittent noise?

Finally, I turn to policy solutions. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already alluded to solutions. We heard rather little on them in our inquiry, so let me make a suggestion. With other environmental pollutants, there is an accepted principle that, in so far as it is possible, they should be tackled at source. It is better to stop sewage being released into rivers than to try to clean up the rivers afterwards. It is better to reduce waste than to bury it in landfill. It is better to reduce carbon dioxide emissions than to invest in costly technologies to suck it from the atmosphere. Does the Minister agree that the same principle of tackling at source should be applied to noise? If so, can he suggest what measures might be implemented to reduce noise at source?

Here are a few thoughts for traffic noise. First, introduce lower speed limits in built-up areas; I note that this is the opposite of current government policy. Secondly, create quieter road surfaces using new technology. Thirdly, repair potholes and drain hole covers. Fourthly, implement the findings from a Europe-wide project covering 12 countries—including the UK—that investigated ways of reducing rail noise under a scheme called LOWNOISEPAD. Finally, encourage less noisy forms of transport, such as walking or cycling. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, they are often win-wins: things that reduce the burden of noise pollution also have benefits for the climate and health aspects. As well as the co-benefits, these measures will also promote innovation in the infrastructure industry, so what is not to like? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

15:37
Baroness Neuberger Portrait Baroness Neuberger (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the whole idea behind the work of the committee that led to this report was that we might be able to point to valuable public health interventions to improve quality of life and reduce the pressures on the NHS in the UK. We urge the Government to reconsider their policy on light and noise pollution and to take these issues more seriously; every speaker so far has said precisely that. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, has already made the case very powerfully. I pay tribute to her as a brilliant chair of the committee, to our clerk, Matthew Manning, to our policy adviser, Thomas Hornigold and, of course, to our special adviser, Professor Russell Foster.

I must declare my interest as chair of the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust because I had to send my apologies for a meeting this afternoon in order to attend this debate today. When I did, the chairman of that committee, who is a very distinguished doctor, wrote back and said, “Of course. It’s really important”. We all want less light at night and less unwelcome noise; he just made the point that it is really important. This matter concerns absolutely everybody.

It is for that reason that I find the Government’s response so very disappointing. There is real public interest here. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, said, we had a huge response to this report, much more than we normally do to a Select Committee report. People mind about this, and we should take it seriously. We know that noise pollution is detrimental to human health and well-being. We heard quite a lot of the data. We heard good evidence on annoyance and sleep disturbance relating to cardiovascular disease—that is, heart attacks in relation to road traffic noise—about which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said something. There is also some evidence on metabolic impacts, in particular diabetes.

We have heard about the estimate from the World Health Organization and the European Environment Agency back in 2018 that more than 100 million people were exposed to harmful levels of environmental noise pollution. People are saying that there are an estimated 48,000 new cases of heart disease and 12,000 premature deaths every year in Europe, and so on. We know quite a lot about the data—although, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, we could probably know a great deal more.

I add to that; this is really important. Based on new research, the World Health Organization has concluded that the negative health effects caused by prolonged exposure to environmental noise are likely to occur at much lower noise level thresholds than previously thought. This implies that better management of noise generally would considerably benefit the UK population. It goes precisely to the point about the number of days off taken for ill health because of the stress caused by these noise problems. We know that people mind about it.

I could go on about this for a long time but I shall not because I have a specific question for the Minister. We were told that noise pollution issues span government departments. Better interdepartmental co-ordination is clearly warranted, therefore, but the Government did not accept our recommendation for an expert advisory group on noise pollution—as there is for air pollution—despite witnesses to the committee making it clear that there was no one place to go with new and emerging evidence of harms. In their response, the Government simply spelled out the good work led by Defra that is already going on with the collaboration of UKHSA and others, to which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred. We commended that work but, if the effects of noise pollution are as great as the World Health Organization and the UK Health Security Agency suggest, what is going on now is simply inadequate. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some explanation as to why the eminently sensible recommendation for an expert advisory group was rejected. Given the evidence, that decision seems somewhat perverse.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, mentioned, the Government argued that we need flexibility. They said:

“Flexibility must be maintained to draw in the most appropriate expertise to individual areas of research, rather than relying on a group of individuals to embody all necessary knowledge across the board”.


Of course that is the case—it is obvious—but that might equally be true about air pollution. An expert advisory group does not have all the knowledge at its fingertips; it has people on it who know whom to go to in order to get the material they want. It was seriously perverse to turn down the recommendation on that basis. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some explanation.

I could go on but I shall not. I want simply to add two other things. We know that light pollution is much more difficult to measure at the moment. We cannot calculate a burden of disease in the same way as we can for noise pollution—probably because of a lack of data, which has been referred to on all sides of the Committee—but it is interesting that, in Japan, a series of longitudinal studies have measured the light in people’s environments. We lack that in the UK, so it seems absolutely essential for us to say now that we will start to undertake those sorts of studies. The UK Health Security Agency is doing great work in this area but it needs to go further.

If you talk to hospital patients and staff who work in hospitals at night, they will tell you all about exposure to light and how incredibly disturbing it is. People who have been in hospital for a long period—we have rather a lot of them at UCLH—will tell you that the worst thing once they come out is not the general convalescence but trying to get back their sleep patterns, which have been disturbed over a long period because of exposure to light. We need light in hospitals but we could do better there, too. The Government need to take the issue of light more seriously and say more about it. They need to give us a really good explanation for why they did not accept our recommendation for an expert advisory group.

Lastly, the Government already have in UKHSA a team of experts on circadian rhythms and the impacts of light on health, but we need to see this as a single point for evidence gathering and co-opting external expertise. I would argue that, as well as having an expert advisory group on noise, the Government should think about having an expert advisory group on light.

15:45
Lord Randall of Uxbridge Portrait Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I should start by declaring my interest in the register as a council member of the RSPB because I will, as noble Lords would expect, concentrate on the biodiversity angle of this issue. I say to the noble Baroness that I am a member of Buglife; I have had some excellent briefing from David Smith and Matt Shardlow.

I congratulate the committee, in particular the chair, on an excellent report. I have already heard a great deal. If there is one thing about following noble Lords, it is that, if I am not sounding reasonable, I am finding myself intellectually unequal. It is a great thing to listen to noble Lords; I rather wish I had not put my name down sometimes.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the chair made a point about constituency MPs. With regard to noise in its many forms from road traffic, a new road surface was eventually put down on the A40 where it was dualled because it was causing so many problems; that was probably around when I first came into Parliament, in 1997 or 1998. The neighbour problem is huge. It is not that the neighbours are necessarily noisy; it is just that the walls are so thin. Ultimately, the two other big issues that used to be in my constituency have not gone away. One was Heathrow and the impact of noise on residents, particularly children; there was a report on cognitive problems. The other was HS2, although it put quite a lot of effort into trying to show that it was not going to be noisier than what was already there with ordinary trains. Anyway, I digress.

I want to talk about light pollution. We know that it occurs and that we have to be considerate about safety problems and things like that. Research published in 2023 revealed a rapid increase in global light pollution levels of 10% a year for the past decade, which represents a doubling of sky brightness every eight years. We occasionally see maps on TV of the light coming from Europe. It is quite scary because what is that doing to humans and to our natural world? No artificial light is truly environmentally friendly due to its disruption of the natural rhythm of day and night. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, that, having spent a good deal of the past year in hospital—and with another little rest period coming up—I understand her position on light. I know why it is there; I think they just switch it on to annoy me from time to time, but that is life.

These are all very serious matters. We know about the problem of insects declining. There is a great deal of evidence to show that that is due to lots of things but one of them is artificial light, such as street lights. We also have a problem, which has already been mentioned, with marine animals. I do not know whether your Lordships remember seeing “Planet Earth II”; I am talking about the last episode, I think. When young turtles hatch, they normally go towards the moon, but they were fooled by a taverna and were all crunched into the road because they thought the moon was the other way. That is a good example of the sort of problem we face.

I am not entirely convinced in some areas. In the countryside, there are a few areas where it is still quite dark at night. I am not sure that it is that dangerous. I understand the problem of personal safety, of course, but I am not entirely sure that people do not feel better just looking up at the stars—assuming it is not cloudy.

One reason why I shall be utterly reasonable is that my noble friend Lord Benyon is the most reasonable of men. I do not think that Defra is not doing its full amount; I think that it is down to some of the other departments, so I echo the call for something that encompasses all the departments. I make just a little plea on that—in an entirely reasonable way, I assure my noble friend.

Funnily enough, as I was coming here today, the Metropolitan line let me down—or a fire at Rayners Lane did—so I got an Uber with a gentleman to Harrow-on-the-Hill. It turned out that he is in the lighting industry. We were discussing this, and he said that there are lots of controls for lighting to make sure that it is not invasive in many areas. He also mentioned that there are switches, so in those large buildings that we see lit up somebody can actually go round and switch the lights off. That would save companies money and save us on some of the emissions. The other thing he said was that he had just been putting in some bat-friendly lights around Kew Gardens. These things exist; we just have to make sure that they are not just for those places that consider them but go a little wider.

I was interested to read that in France’s national biodiversity strategy and action plan, in response to COP 15, there is an ambition to achieve a 50% reduction in light pollution by 2030. Slovenia, Czechia and Croatia are adopting regional laws around that too. Perhaps we can learn something from that.

I tried making amendments along these lines to the Environment Bill and got quite a lot of support, but possibly I was too reasonable in listening to the answers. I will not let this go away, because it is incredibly important. Addressing light pollution will have multiple benefits in tackling nature, climate, energy and economic crises. I will leave it there and wait to hear from my noble friend.

15:52
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on setting up a committee on this important but neglected subject, and the committee itself on an excellent report. I have listened with great interest to the valuable speeches from its members today.

The report rightly concentrates on the effect of light and noise on human health, but that assumes that there is a positive good in the first place. If too much noise is harmful, then the assumption is that lack of noise, silence, is of value in itself, so I want to begin by emphasising this simple point. In March and April 2010, a volcano in Iceland erupted, sending billions of tonnes of ash into the air and resulting in the cancellation of some 100,000 flights over an eight-day period. The effect on the ground literally felt miraculous. It was as though we lived in a world born anew, one characterised by a deep quiet. We may remember that there was something of the same healing silence in the worst days of Covid, when movement of traffic by air and road was at a minimum. Those experiences remind us that, for most people, silence, or at least a minimum noise level, is a positive good and that if we are deprived of it there are inevitable implications for mental, physical and spiritual health. It is not surprising that within at least most religions of the world silence has been of so much value and people have gone to such lengths to find it in deserts and monasteries. Let me quote just one example, from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear”.

A great deal could be said about traffic noise—I would have liked to hear more about that—but, against that background, I will focus on aircraft noise. I was surprised that it was not mentioned in the report, although the Government refer in their response to two Department for Transport-funded domestic cross-sectional studies, one on aviation night noise and one on attitudes to aviation noise. I do not criticise the committee; I will later come on to the fact that, at the moment, strangely, aircraft noise does not seem to be covered by the statutory definition of noise or a pollutant.

I declare an interest as someone who lives in west London, one of the many millions along the Thames, from Fulham and Putney through Barnes, Richmond, Kew, Windsor and Hounslow, who suffer—I use the word deliberately—aircraft noise. If you look up “aircraft noise” on the internet, you find adverts for soundproof windows. That is fine when you are in the house, but being outside on a summer’s day can be destroyed by the regular deafening noise coming from overhead every minute or so, and you are forced indoors again.

Paragraph 10 of the Government’s response refers to the benefits of green spaces and claims that £2 billion of treatment costs could be saved if everyone in England had access to green space. However, if you go to some of the best green spaces in Britain today—Richmond Park, Kew Gardens, Windsor park and the smaller parks in the Hounslow area—the day’s outing can be totally blighted and destroyed. More widely, children’s learning at school gets disrupted and health suffers in all sorts of ways, as the report emphasises. A large-scale study of people living under the flight path in the Heathrow area found that they were 10% to 20% more at risk of stroke and heart disease.

As I suggested, I imagine aircraft noise did not feature in the report in the way it might have done because it seems to be legally exempt from the charge that it could be polluting. The Civil Aviation Authority guidance notes that aviation noise does not constitute a statutory nuisance, unlike other forms of noise pollution, and nor is it covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or the Noise Act 1996. This means that local authorities do not have the legal power to take action on matters of aircraft noise, and nor does the Civil Aviation Authority have the legal power to prevent aircraft flying over a particular location or at a particular time for environmental reasons.

This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is as though aircraft noise occupies its own space, legally exempt from the kind of challenges you would normally get from the public in so many other spheres of life. The public can make complaints—as we have heard, they do so regularly—but aircraft noise is exempt from any kind of legal challenge. Surveys show a great deal of public dissatisfaction at this. Although it is claimed that engines are now much quieter than they were, as somebody who has lived under a flight path for three or four decades I can say that there is no sign of that in my hearing. The level of public annoyance remains extremely high and the ability of Governments to pressure the aircraft industry seems very limited.

Although in modern life we have to accept much noise, as we have to accept the weather, we should not just continue to accept the present level of aircraft noise as though nothing can be done about it. Present levels are totally unacceptable for so many people. What steps are the Government taking to address this situation? I suggest that it would be worth having a special committee or group of some kind on aircraft noise. There are due to be 40.1 million flights this year, a number which is due to increase by 4.3% a year up to 2042. A committee on this subject, set up by the Government and with a brief to look at this seriously from all sides and make recommendations about what might be done to reduce and minimise aircraft noise, would be widely welcomed.

15:59
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I start by thanking the committee for its work on the report. I thank the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for introducing it, as well as all members of the committee who contributed to it and to today’s discussion.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, quoted something that is key to the report’s findings:

“Environmental noise and light pollution contribute to a range of adverse health outcomes … Yet light and noise remain neglected pollutants, poorly understood and poorly regulated”.


We heard about the WHO and the European Environment Agency estimates of exposure to harmful levels of environmental noise pollution. I was particularly interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, that they now think it will have a negative impact at lower levels than initially thought. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, focused particularly on aircraft, which have a particular impact. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that, even though it is clearly not central to the report.

The sources of noise pollution that the report talks about clearly include transport, industrial activities and wind turbines, for example. The report also talks about heat pumps and neighbourhood noise. This complicated issue is complicated even further by the need to understand the impact of intermittency, which is a particularly interesting part of it. We heard about the health impacts, particularly around sleep and circadian rhythms being confused. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about the impact of poor health on the economy and linked how noise pollution contributes to this.

Chapter 2 of the report clearly demonstrated the growing level of scientific evidence, as well as the need for further research and data to support the Government in order to act on the detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. I noted the recommendation in paragraph 28, which suggested:

“The UK should seek opportunities to collaborate with similar countries, sharing research data and methodologies”.


Does the Minister have any information about what is happening in this area? Collaboration will clearly be key.

Paragraph 15 talks about the significant amount of work that will be needed to implement any noise reduction targets. So, in addition to the potential role outlined for the UKHSA, have relevant departments spent any time scoping out what the workload to achieve this would look like? For example, are they looking at international examples?

I wish to focus on the government response to some of the recommendations on noise. First, the Government say:

“Much of the work recommended … is already under way”.


Noble Lords have talked about the new noise mapping system that has been developed. As other noble Lords said, this is a welcome first step forward, but intermittency does not seem to be taken into account; that clearly needs to be addressed. On intermittency, the Government say that

“Defra’s noise modelling system has been designed so that it could incorporate intermittency at a later date, should robust methods be agreed nationally or internationally”.

Is any work or co-operation currently taking place in order to achieve this?

Heat pumps are referred to in paragraph 16 of the government response, which says that

“an independent review of existing evidence on noise emissions and planning standards is being conducted. This is to be followed by a public consultation”.

Can the Minister provide an assurance that noise will not be used as a way of delegitimising the shift away from gas boilers? There clearly are concerns about noise, particularly if heat pumps are too close to a neighbouring property, but confirmation that the Government remain committed to boosting the rollout of low-carbon or no-carbon heat sources would be very welcome. What action, if any, are the Government taking given that the report concluded that most noise complaints about heat pumps come from poor-quality installations rather than inherent issues with the pumps themselves?

The report makes clear that light pollution is poorly understood and poorly regulated, as noble Lords have said. I also note the adverse effects that light pollution can have on both physical and mental health. Light pollution occurs when light shines where it is not intended to and where it is not wanted. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said when referring to Buglife, light pollution is the human-made alteration of light levels from those occurring naturally. We know that symptoms of light pollution are wide-ranging. We heard about the importance of being able to see the night sky and look at the stars, which few people can do day to day from where they live. The Buglife briefing was very good. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, in particular referred to it, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Brown and Lady Jones.

The noble Lord, Lord Randall, also spoke about the fact that light pollution is increasing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, said, a lot of this is to do with the rapid switch to LEDs. This increases light pollution because the lights are brighter. We have also heard about headlight glare, which comes from using LEDs. The increased blue-light radiation from LEDs causes substantial biological impacts. The report says:

“A significant proportion of light pollution is unnecessary and caused by bad design or poor use of LEDs”.


The noble Lord, Lord Randall, mentioned some very simple ways, from his conversation with his driver, in which light can be reduced. We should be looking at these simple, easy ways as a starting point.

We heard about the health impacts to do with sleep patterns and how this affects overall well-being and quality of life. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, stressed the importance of cross-departmental work. There also needs to be co-ordination with local authorities, which is a central part of the report’s recommendations. The report says:

“The Government should make clear where in each affected department responsibility for noise and light pollution lies”,


and we heard this during the debate. Does the Minister believe that this is being achieved? Can it be achieved and how will it be achieved?

Regarding local authorities, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, asked about resources. Witnesses interviewed for the report were concerned about a gap between the policy set by the Government and how the policy is being applied by local authorities. As well as looking at resources, will the Government consider reviewing the effectiveness of policy application in this area?

I turn to the Government’s response on headlight glare, for example. This issue has been raised consistently by my noble friend Lady Hayter. In April, the Government announced independent research in that area. Can the Minister provide some clarification? I know this was announced only in April, but how long is it likely to take? Are the next steps likely to be consultation or will it move straight to further regulation? I know that it is early days, and perhaps this is something the Minister could write to me on in the future. It would be interesting to know the progress on this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, mentioned that major technical and data issues need to be resolved within government priorities. I am concerned that the government response says:

“Further development of the evidence base will need to be considered within the context of government priorities”.


Does that mean that the work has not even started yet? Is it considered a priority?

Finally, it is clear to all of us here that this is a really important report that needs to be acted on. Because of where I live and work, I have clear personal experience of how this affects me. In Cumbria, we have dark skies and peace. I come to London to work during the week, and I struggle to sleep because of the difference in noise and the amount of light compared to where I live. I think many people would note that difference more if they could see that transition more clearly.

16:09
Lord Benyon Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Benyon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this debate, which has been fascinating. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for securing this debate on an important subject that affects people’s daily lives and for giving me advance knowledge of what she was going to say, which helped me to form my words in response. I am aware that the World Health Organization has placed noise second only to poor air quality as an environmental cause of ill health. I also thank the Science and Technology Committee for its ongoing interest in this area; I hope I can convince it that the Government are doing enough and will continue to treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves. I will outline why that is the case.

We aim to balance a complexity of interplaying factors in supporting the economy alongside the health and mobility of the nation. These factors include available government resources and competing national priorities. The Government recognise that noise and artificial light can have an effect on human health. The evidence associating ill health, such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, with prolonged exposure to noise is increasing. Government figures suggest that 100,000 disability-adjusted life years were lost to road traffic noise alone in England in 2018.

Although evidence for the human health effects of artificial light may be less well advanced, there are compelling reasons to explore them further. It is right, therefore, that the Government have taken and continue to take action. I am pleased to have this opportunity to update your Lordships on some of the progress that the Government have made against commitments in response to the committee’s findings, which I hope noble Lords will find encouraging.

I will talk about our advances on noise first. The most significant accomplishment is the new noise-modelling system. I believe this to be a game-changer for policymakers and decision-makers in the management of environmental noise. This world-leading, award-winning system will contribute significantly to the national evidence base on noise exposure. It is based on high-quality data and takes in all public roads and railways for the first time. It will enable national and local government to make decisions on much improved evidence around the impacts of noise. By quantifying the existing population exposure and calculating the associated disease burden, a much clearer picture of where government efforts should be focused will emerge. This tool will provide data that has never been available before, which will be invaluable to the UK Health Security Agency in its work to keep its burden of disease tools up to date.

Defra’s noise-modelling system has been designed to incorporate additional functionality at a later date. A topic of great interest to the committee was extending Defra’s noise mapping to include the metrics of maximum volume and, taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, intermittency. Those may be incorporated into the system should robust methods be agreed nationally or internationally; I will talk later about the very salient points that were made about international co-operation. I must caution that progress in these areas may not meet the committee’s desires in terms of speed and breadth. Collectively, we must remain pragmatic and realistic about what can be done, depending on resources, but I hope that this addresses the concerns about our commitment. We are determined to move this matter further as quickly as possible.

Further to that development, your Lordships may be aware of the ongoing expert group on noise. The aim of the Interdepartmental Group on Costs and Benefits (Noise Subject Group) is to assess the most recent research on the health impacts of noise and to determine whether updates to the Government’s guidance on addressing the economic impact of noise are necessary. This work draws in expertise and collaboration from across government. Again, this addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about diverting people away from needing healthcare by leading healthy lives; I will address further points on this later.

In response to the committee’s report, preparations are under way for the round-table event that will explore the current state of play and identify areas of priority for further work. These discussions will help inform the Government’s priorities looking to the future, for example, consideration of a cost-benefit analysis of potential interventions, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown.

The Government are also commissioning more research to bolster the evidence base used to support ongoing policy development. Recent and ongoing Defra-commissioned research includes: supporting the development of improved modelling standards on transport noise; developing a handbook for local authorities and others on the benefits of green infrastructure, which addresses some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Randall; and investigating diversity in acoustics in age-related hearing loss, neurodiversity and noise sensitivity.

The Department for Transport has also commissioned two domestic cross-sectional studies, following international best practice: the aviation night noise effects study and the aviation noise attitudes survey. Since Defra submitted the response to the report, my officials have commenced work on three new research projects aimed at providing practical noise management tools for local authorities and regulators implementing British standards for noise.

Of clear importance to the committee was a commitment to an overall noise reduction target. Let me explain why this is not feasible just yet. Noise is a complex entity and not simply an issue of decibels, and to further complicate this, people react to noise in different ways. The science is not yet able to support a meaningful target that does not have all sorts of perverse outcomes, and a significant amount of work is needed to understand how targets could be set, standardised, measured and achieved across many different noise sources and authorities. This includes having a reliable method to measure compliance against a statutory target. Until the data produced by our modelling system and the UKHSA’s burden of disease work have been considered, it is not appropriate to pre-empt the analysis with a commitment to setting targets on noise reduction at this point.

The Noise Policy Statement for England sets out the Government’s position on some of the issues with taking an approach based on objective noise-based measures. The Government are determined to avoid the possibility of perverse outcomes from imposing noise limits, as was seen recently in the Netherlands, where such a regime led to the closure of an established children’s playground located next to new housing. The Government believe that the correct course of action is a commitment to addressing evidence gaps and exploring the full range of options before committing to setting targets.

I absolutely emphasise the point on neurodiversity. Those of us who know children who are affected by ADHD, for example, know that they can find a noise that we find completely benign or of which we are almost unconscious so intense that they cannot stay in that place for any time. We have to relate to the divergence of the effects of noise.

This is intended to be the beginning, rather than the end, of the process, and the Government will of course continue the programme of research and policy development as resources allow, and keep parliamentarians apprised.

I turn now to light pollution. Research continues to show many societal benefits from artificial light, encompassing safety and security, and facilitating a thriving night-time economy. However, if used incorrectly, artificial light can contribute to a range of problems. It can be a source of annoyance to people and harmful to wildlife, and it can waste energy and detract from the enjoyment of the night sky. As I previously mentioned, evidence around the health effects of light pollution is considerably less advanced than for other pollutants and may not yet be of a level to justify changes to legislation. However, the Government are not standing still.

To address the points raised by the nobles Baronesses, Lady Neville-Jones and Lady Hayman, and my noble friend Lord Randall, there will be a round-table event, like that for noise, to identify priorities. Officials are continuing to pursue links with relevant officials in other European countries to learn about best practice where it exists for artificial light management. It is worth saying that other countries are struggling with this as well. The light maps for Madrid, for example, took six years to produce. That is not to say that we should shirk away from doing these things, but they are complex; if other countries are finding this tricky, we will too—although that should not prevent us doing it.

In response to the committee’s recommendations, UKHSA has initiated a new working group under the auspices of the existing Lighting Liaison Group, which is considering what a UK lighting strategy might look like. That group is exploring the possibility of accessible guidance for local authorities on light pollution, both for planners and for dealing with statutory nuisance provisions and best practice.

In addition, in answer to a question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment has agreed to undertake a scoping exercise on the available evidence on the health issues associated with light pollution. Unlike noise, there is no current equivalent process for mapping light pollution. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has conducted light mapping but there are some limitations and considerable costs associated with the technology that is currently available. A great deal of further research is needed to establish the effects, methodology, metrics and measures. We are not yet in a position to commit to a timeframe for resourcing and producing such mapping but we are exploring possible avenues.

As a former constituency MP, I really do pay tribute to the CPRE for providing me with a light and noise map of my constituency and an understanding of the parts where the darkest skies are and the places where light has the least intrusive effect. As an elected representative, whether you are an MP or a councillor, such things help you to defend those areas where you can through the planning process. Of course, the best solutions are always ones that are delivered locally.

In the real world, local authorities are crucial in the management of noise and artificial light. They have a duty to take reasonably practicable steps to investigate complaints of noise nuisance and artificial light pollution, and must act where needed. The Government recognise that local authorities face serious capacity and capability challenges—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. The majority of funding provided through the local government finance settlement is not ring-fenced. Councils are independent, democratic bodies whose expertise in local knowledge makes them best placed to understand what is needed to deliver local priorities. They are accountable to local people and are therefore free to judge how to respond and fund their responsibilities relating to noise and light pollution.

Given the demands on local government, central government cannot enforce costly new burdens on already stretched local authorities without strong evidence that they will deliver improvements. This is why we need to be sure that the evidence supports any changes we make to our policy requirements. The Government also have a duty of stewardship with public funds and need to make responsible choices around what they commit to funding. Some of the committee’s recommendations will require years of research and significant technological advances to be able to implement new policy. Departments are working to identify those issues on which they can rightly take action, and which will have the greatest impact in the near future, in a co-ordinated way across government.

Let me take this opportunity to address some of the points that were made. My noble friend Lady Neville-Jones asked—quite rightly—what leverage Defra has over other departments in government. Defra can bring noise and light to the table but it is for other departments to assess the issues within the context of the various priorities that need to be balanced. For instance, the main aim of National Highways in installing lighting on junctions is to reduce accidents. Safety concerns, as well as protecting people’s ability to go about at night without fear, are key considerations in lighting our streets. However, examples of where Defra has influenced other departments include influencing the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on air source heat pumps; influencing DLUHC on policy development; influencing the Department for Transport on aviation noise; influencing the UKHSA on the burden of disease work; influencing National Highways and the Rail Safety and Standards Board on the potential uses of Defra’s noise model; the participation of all relevant government departments in the Defra-instigated IGCB(N) work; and the existence of the planning policy guidance for noise and light.

To address a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, we are aware of the risks of noise and light for the most vulnerable in society, in particular the risk groups facing other health inequalities. Current policy is designed to manage the effects of noise and light across all of society. Consideration of noise is built into the planning system. We must balance the effects of noise against the economic, social and health benefits of connectivity and the availability of goods and services.

Key points about aircraft noise were made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. The Government are committed to minimising the effects of aviation noise while promoting the benefits we all enjoy. The Government set noise controls at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, though they are clearly not low enough for the noble and right reverend Lord. These include restrictions on night flying. We believe that, at other airports, noise controls should be agreed locally. We work in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s balanced approach to aircraft noise management, which prioritises the reduction of noise at source through quieter aircraft followed by land use planning and management, noise abatement, operational procedures and operating restrictions. The Department for Transport is currently funding two studies: an aviation night noise effect study and an aviation noise attitude study. These will include elements of research into non-acoustic factors, an area in which the committee showed interest. The findings of these studies will feed into policy development. The most recent survey of noise attitudes, in 2014, showed that annoyance towards aviation noise was occurring at lower noise levels than had been seen in previous UK studies.

Let me address a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, about established independent committees. Both noise and light cover a wide spectrum of expertise. Given the many possible areas of interaction between both noise and light and our human experience, in addition to the interactions with other species, flexibility must be maintained to draw the most appropriate expertise into individual areas of research, rather than relying on a fixed group of individuals with particular expertise to embody all necessary knowledge across the board. There is already a mature network of collaborations between departments, agencies and independent experts, in addition to the Defra-led IGCB(N).

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, asked about heat pumps. In November 2023, the Government published an independent review of air source heat pump noise emissions, permitted development guidance and regulations. The research suggests that heat pumps are generally quiet and that noise complaints are rare. The review produced recommendations for changes to English permitted development rights and the microgeneration certification scheme noise assessment document, which DLUHC and the MCS respectively consulted on this year. No changes are proposed to the maximum permissible noise levels for heat pumps. We are working with the MCS to strengthen the noise assessment document. The proposed changes to PDRs will provide greater flexibility for heat pump installations and allow more households to benefit from PDRs without compromising the current noise limits. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government remain committed to the rollout of low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps.

To address a further point made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, of course I agree that it is vital to divert people away from ill health and that that must remain an absolute priority for the Government. It not only saves the taxpayer money but has a much wider societal benefit. People will not suffer from the lack of light deprivation that my noble friend Lord Randall will be subject to when he is in hospital; we wish him a speedy recovery.

Tackling noise at source points is absolutely vital. Lower speed limits are a matter for local authorities, and there has been a lot of work happening on that. I am a quieter-road-surface geek. The M4 went through the area I used to represent and on behalf of constituents I managed to ensure that, when it is resurfaced, it is with a porous, quieter type of tarmac, which you notice as a driver but more importantly as a local person. We want to see more of that. The Government are putting more money into repairing potholes, and work is being done to address rail noise. An enormous amount of resource is being put in to encourage people to walk and cycle as much as possible.

I am glad that my noble friend Lord Randall put his name down to speak. He made an excellent speech, showing his passion for the natural environment. Bat-friendly lights is what I will take away from here. His work with the CPRE to show that technology can be our friend is really important.

I will finish by addressing a point raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who is well known for his love of poetry. We should all understand a little more his phrase, “healing silence”. A friend of mine who had a military career alongside me is now a Jesuit priest—it is quite a change—and gets to spend 40 days a year in silence. He says it is one of the most enriching experiences you can have. It is not something I shall do in a hurry, but I will go silent now because I have spoken for too long.

Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today for their thoughtful and valuable comments. It has been hugely encouraging to hear the broad consensus throughout the Committee on the importance of noise and artificial light. I make it clear that we are treating both noise and light pollution with due seriousness and welcome the support shown here.

16:31
Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I too thank everyone for their insightful contributions to this debate. It has been fascinating to hear about issues ranging from lighting in hospitals to turtles and volcanoes, right through to heat pumps.

I thank the Minister for his response. It has been good to hear of progress. Like him, we on my committee were delighted to hear about the noise modelling developments in Defra. They are very welcome, and it is wonderful to hear that they are award-winning. I am still disappointed to hear that intermittency only “may” be incorporated, and we urge Defra and the Minister to drive that forward as a crucial part of understanding the impacts of noise on stress and health.

Like the Minister, we agree that the noise expert group is excellent. We very much think that there could be an excellent light expert group, and we still do not understand the reasons why an equivalent would not be appropriate. I was disappointed to hear that Defra still feels that a noise reduction target is not yet feasible and that it might have perverse outcomes. I fear that that is being pushed down what I hope is an increasingly quiet road.

Like the Minister, we recognise the benefits of light. I am glad to say that we have many women on the Select Committee and many of us recognise the benefits of light at night in city centres when we are trying to get home from sittings in Parliament. It is good to hear that the Government are not standing still, and we are very positive about the round-table event to identify priorities for light, and the work with other countries to look at best practice. It is very good to hear that the Minister thinks that 60 years is too long to get to light mapping for the UK.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I misheard; I apologise. It is good to hear that he thinks six years is too long; that is even more encouraging. I was worried that 60 years was quite a long time. It was also good to hear about the UKHSA’s working group on a UK lighting strategy. Those are all welcome developments.

However, the Minister said that we need evidence before we can change policy, but without evidence, I do not know how it is clear that policy is working. Without having information from local authorities on complaints about noise and light, I do not know how Defra can know that its policies in that area are working. As an engineer, I have to say, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, also said: if we do not measure it, we cannot manage it. If we do not know what our targets are, it is hard to know whether we are progressing. I am afraid that it still seems rather wishful thinking, when the environment plan says that the Government

“must ensure that noise and light pollution are managed effectively”.

Even with the welcome improvements the Minister has outlined, I do not believe that we can honestly say that noise and light pollution are being managed effectively. I commend the report to the Committee.

Motion agreed.
Committee adjourned at 4.35 pm.