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

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Thursday 9th May 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Benyon Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Benyon) (Con)
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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.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge (CB)
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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)
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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.