GREENS BILL: Light pollution and nuisance

Mark today introduced a Greens' Private Members Bill to address issues of light pollution and nuisance.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: This bill deals with a longstanding problem that for too long has been languishing in the dark at the bottom of the too hard basket. It relates to the problem of artificial light pollution and the nuisance that is created by misdirected floodlights whose beams spill into the homes and eyeballs of unhappy neighbours.

In introducing this bill, let me say at the outset what it is not. It is not a sinister plot to take us back to the Dark Ages. Also, it is not an attack on the legacy of Thomas Edison. A world without artificial light is unimaginable. It would be gloomy, unproductive and unsafe. Life as we know it would be impossible. But, for all the benefits, there is a downside to the uncontrolled use of outdoor lighting. In fact, there are many: there are environmental, economic and social downsides.

When I first canvassed the idea of a bill like this on my Facebook page, I was inundated with illuminating anecdotes about the nuisance and disturbance that is created by unwanted spillage of artificial light. Most people who had experienced this problem complained that their local council was not interested in helping them resolve their problems. There were complaints about excessively bright LED billboards that could be seen half a kilometre away, many complaints about security lights that flooded into living areas and also complaints about wayward spotlights that were disturbing backyard poultry, including the roosters.

These social problems are very easy to identify. One person's light can easily become another person's annoyance. One constituent copied me into her letter to the previous planning minister, Stephan Knoll, expressing her frustration with trying to get someone to take her concern seriously. She wrote to the minister:

I am writing in regard to nuisance caused by outside lighting in residential areas and a lack of legislation to address it.

Recently I have had reason to call police because of a neighbouring property whose owners have put a floodlight positioned high up pointing towards my backyard.

As the owners already have numerous outside lights to illuminate the yard surrounding their house, the owners may have taken this step with the intention to cause nuisance.

She then outlines her interactions with both the local council and the police. I have redacted the officials that she names, but in redacted form she says:

[The council] informs me that there is no legislation to prevent the owners from putting up the floodlight. Police attended from [the local] Police Station. They cannot compel the owners to remove the light.

[The council] informed me that the neighbours can put up as many floodlights as they wish as there is no law to address nuisance caused by outside lights.

I have spoken to the neighbours about causing nuisance with their lights. The response has been to agree politely, not change their behaviour and continue to cause nuisance with their outside lights.

I request that legislation be introduced to deal with such problems of exterior residential lighting. If the police and council cannot act upon this kind of nuisance, the fault is with an absence of legislation that covers nuisance lights.

Would you please contact me regarding what steps you can take to address this problem.

That was addressed to a former minister for planning. These types of disputes no doubt occur right across our society, particularly in our towns and suburbs yet, in the absence of neighbourly agreement, there is not much that can be done.

Before I get to the regulatory regime, I want to touch on some of the other impacts of artificial light pollution. The environmental impacts are very easy to understand. We have probably all seen reports about coastal communities in Queensland where residents and the council have modified, and in some cases switched off, certain lights at certain times of the year so as not to disorient the sea turtles that are coming in to lay their eggs on the beach.

We also know the impact of artificial lights on insects. Woe betide the household in Adelaide that fails to identify that particular warm evening known as 'flying ant night' when insect swarms invade the homes of those who accidentally leave windows opens or whose insect screens are not 100 per cent secure. Apparently, about half of the millions of insect species on earth are nocturnal, meaning artificial light can have a big impact on their nocturnal lifecycles.

According to some estimates, currently artificial light can cover about a quarter of the Earth's surface. In fact, according to a report published in the journal Biological Conservation, along with habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasive species and climate change, the impact of artificial light is driving insect declines—the so-called insect apocalypse.

However, if the galloping hooves of the four horsemen of the insect apocalypse do not move you, National Geographic has some ominous news about the impact of light pollution on human health. Nadia Drake, in an article in April 2019, reported:

The connection between light and biology starts with photons striking our retinas, triggering signals that reach a knot of neurons known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus. That knot is a crucial regulator of the brain's pineal gland, which produces the hormone melatonin. Through this pathway, melatonin normally begins rising at sundown and peaks around midnight, unleashing a cascade of reactions that regulates the sleep-wake cycles, lowers body temperature, slows metabolism, and increases leptin, a hormone that reduces appetite.

Whether it's a computer screen, bright bathroom light, or intense street lights shining in our windows, indoor and outdoor electric lights interfere with those circadian rhythms by stunting the normal ebb and flow of melatonin.

Obesity is one consequence of light messing with our nighttime physiology, as it is likely linked to persistently low levels of leptin. Based on a number of studies, low melatonin levels and circadian disruption are also thought to play a role in heart disease, diabetes, depression, and cancer.

That is very depressing, and some members might think it is a load of rubbish—that excess food and not enough exercise are what cause obesity. But it turns out that there is, at least in part, an element to blame in relation to artificial light. It seems that we are less inclined to eat when it is dark.

Another oft-cited impact of artificial light is on the astronomical community. At the most basic level, we all know that you cannot see as many stars from the city as you can from the country, and the difference is artificial light. I have a friend whose hobby is photographing the skies, and his photos from the countryside are much better than his ones from the city.

Going back to the bill, it is a very simple measure. It identifies that excessive, unnecessary or misdirected artificial light is potentially a genuine problem that should be able to attract the interest of regulators or those responsible for resolving disputes. The bill is very simple. It recognises that, just like noise or vibration, excessive light can be a form of pollution; therefore, it can also be a source of nuisance.

The first act amended is the Environment Protection Act 1993. It is a simple amendment that lists artificial light as a potential pollutant. However, we do need to carve out some exemptions to make it clear that essential uses of artificial light are not regarded as pollution. It does not mean that those light sources cannot still be problematic, but any complaints will not be dealt with as pollution.

The bill excludes the following light sources from the definition of pollution: public street lighting; light from a traffic control device or a navigational aid; light from a prescribed major entertainment, sporting or other venue or facility; light emitted in the course of a prescribed activity or event, or a prescribed class of activity or event; or light of a kind declared by regulation or an environment protection policy not to be light for the purpose of the act. In other words, there will be as many exemptions as we need to apply.

Secondly, my bill amends the Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act to include artificial light as a category of local nuisance. This is not a new idea. The review of the Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act 2016 discussion paper, which was published in July 2019 by the EPA, noted that one of the original objects of that bill introduced into parliament was to classify light as a form of local nuisance. It was part of the plan all along.

The original iteration of the Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act did classify light and heat as being within the definition of local nuisance but, according to the EPA, after consultation with local councils, both were removed. The reason was:

…to ensure the starting point for regulation of nuisance was manageable by councils and not too broad. Further consideration of the addition of light and heat at a later date, once the Act had been implemented was noted in the consultation report for the draft Bill.

My view is that local councils have now had five years since becoming responsible for the policing of local nuisance, so it is time to include light nuisance within the act. I do not think that clause 5 of my bill is too broad; in fact, it is less broad than the scope that was envisaged in the review.

The definition of light is obviously qualified. We do not want to pose a risk to public safety and we do not want to be seen to be wowsers, shutting down major night-time football games or music festivals, so we need exemptions. My bill clarifies that the following are not to be considered a nuisance—a similar list—light from public street lighting; light from a traffic control device or navigational aid; light from prescribed major entertainment, sporting or other venues or facilities.

I should point out at this point that public street lighting is one area where most councils do take their responsibility seriously. People complain about street lights shining into their bedrooms. Often, it is just a simple matter of installing a small shield that is close to the light. It does not impact on the effectiveness of the light for public safety, but it does help direct the stream of light away from adjoining properties. Some councils provide this service for free and some councils will charge a fee. Regardless, my bill is focused mostly on sources of light other than lights for public safety, and it is the same for traffic lights, marine lighthouses and the like.

Since I had this bill drafted over a month ago, the EPA has now finally released its consultation report into the review of the Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act. As I have said before, this review was conducted back in 2019, but the consultation report was only released last month. I will not refer to all of that report, obviously, as it is dozens of pages, but the consultation report does deal with whether light as an agent of local nuisance should be added to the act. In its report, the EPA states:

Light and heat were included in the definition of local nuisance when the Bill for the…Act was first consulted on in 2015 but subsequently removed due to feedback from councils that the definition in the Bill was too broad. Since the Act commenced, a number of councils have indicated that being able to deal with light nuisance under the Act would be useful.

So councils recognise that complainants, like the person I referred to before, do not really have anywhere to go. The local council is the obvious place to go but until light is recognised as a form of nuisance the council is powerless. The EPA reminds us:

Light is considered a statutory form of nuisance under Queensland and ACT legislation, and also in the United Kingdom. Light nuisance in a domestic setting is generally easy to resolve through better screening and redirection of lighting or use of timers. Light from larger sources (eg sporting fields and commercial premises) may prove more difficult but as with all other nuisances regulated by the Act, light nuisance would operate within the due diligence defence provisions in section 27 where reasonability of actions to ameliorate a nuisance is a relevant consideration.

In other words, it is not saying that any light that spills from one property to another is automatically a nuisance and has to be turned off. There are obviously questions of degree and whether it is reasonable to modify either the light or the behaviour surrounding the light.

I will acknowledge that the EPA advises that the majority of council submissions did not support the inclusion of light on the basis of additional workload. By definition, light pollution occurs at night, and at night most people are home. It is not as if there are teams of local council inspectors who are out at night when light pollution is a problem, so I get why they think it is possibly a problem. I think there will need to be discussions with the state government about how this is resourced.

I will not go through all of the consultation that they did, but I will just refer to the Environmental Defenders Office submission to this review, which pointed out that, given every other sensory nuisance is included, it seems prudent to include light, considering its ability to interfere with the enjoyment of land. So it is entirely logical to include light in this legislation. I would urge members to have a look at this report, which is on the EPA and the LGA websites.

I believe this is a bill whose time has come. It will help those who are affected by light pollution to at least have somewhere to go if they cannot resolve the issue themselves. To use the words of the EPA, 'They need a resolution pathway; they need somewhere to go.' Given the importance of this issue to local communities, I think it is appropriate to put it in the act rather than trusting in the government of the day to put it in the regulations. The EPA have said, 'Well, we could put it in the regulations.' I do not think that is good enough. I think it needs to go in the act.

We can provide plenty of exemptions, as I have referred to before, but the community needs to know that we, as a parliament, take this issue seriously and we take it seriously enough to recognise that both as a form of pollution and a form of nuisance we are going to put it in the act and we will then delegate to the executive through regulations the fine detail of how the regime will work. I commend this bill to the house.