HC Deb 24 September 1948 vol 456 cc1317-27

3.18 p.m.

Brigadier Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising a matter which is of a rather different order from the discussions we have had hitherto today. At first sight, it is a matter mainly of local concern, but I think it is not without its wider significance. I refer to the flying operations carried on at the air station at Horsham St. Faith in the county of Norfolk, and the effect of these operations on the many thousands of people who live nearby. This matter has been raised in the House before, but I suggest that an entirely new consideration has now arisen as a result of the invention of jet-propelled aircraft. What was previously an inconvenience and a disturbance is now becoming a very grave interference with the ordinary way of life of the many thousands of people who live between this air station and the centre of the City of Norwich.

The request which I make to the Minister is that even at this advanced stage in the life of this air station, his Ministry might consider the possibility of moving the operations from this air station to one or other of the available air fields in the remainder of the county, or, if that is quite impossible—and we realise what an enormous amount of money has been sunk in this particular station—that the utmost possible steps should be taken to ameliorate the conditions of which we complain.

I admit at once that in the light of the international situation, or, should I say, in the darkness of it, this may not seem to be the most suitable moment to ask for the movement of an important operational air station. But it is, of course, the increased activity now being carried on at this station which is the cause of the accentuation of the criticisms which my constituents now make. Lately, there has been a marked increase in the number of flights made to and from this station. People who live on the northern side of Norwich ask, and, I think, properly, why, once again, they should be exposed to the increased hazards which result from the placing of a great air station alongside a thickly populated area?

I want to make it quite clear that in no sense whatever are these criticisms directed at the Royal Air Force. People in Norfolk are fully seized of the fact that upon the Royal Air Force, based on its stations throughout this country, rests the primary responsibility for our defence, and may be even our very existence. These residents also realise that pilots and other airmen are running daily risks to their lives in training for what may lie ahead.

We have no wish to make any request which would embarrass the Air Ministry in the great responsibilities with which it is now faced, but we say that a grave mistake was made in the original siting of this air station. If only this station may provide a lesson for the future we shall have been justified in raising the matter, because it is not only Norfolk, and Norwich in particular, which are affected by this problem, but many other parts of the country as well. This is in no sense a party matter, because the decision to site this airfield was not made by the present Government, but was taken before the recent war. Norfolk is the third largest county in the whole of England, and in view of the vast expanse of ground in the county which is suitable for airfields, why this particular site should have been chosen on the very fringe of the city passes comprehension. To the layman it does not seem as if this site has any particular tactical advantage over the many others that could have been chosen, and I suspect that members of the Royal Air Force themselves would prefer not to have to operate so close to a built-up area.

We are all familiar with the disturbance caused by low flying aircraft, and the problem becomes one of degree. If aircraft are flying too low and very frequently, and in too great numbers, a point is reached when living conditions become quite unbearable. Aircraft come over the houses in the district known as Hellesdon, which is a large suburb of Norwich, at a surprisingly low altitude. The noise is deafening, as they fly not only singly but often in twos and threes. There is great interference with school lessons, doors and windows have to be shut during the hottest weather, workers on night shift, trying to sleep in the daytime, are disturbed, as also are patients in hospital, and perhaps most of all, the children. I am told that at times it is not possible even to hear the radio. I am not sure whether this is in fact a disadvantage, but I understand that there are few more difficult domestic situations than that which is created when the roar of passing aeroplanes drowns the decisive moment in the Dick Barton exploit of the evening.

There is one incidental point on which I would touch but upon which I will not enlarge. It is our contention that the vibration of the aircraft is the cause of ceilings cracking and plaster falling in the houses in this neighbourhood. We know how difficult it is to prove a matter of this kind. The Ministry has not found it possible yet to accept any responsibility, but we hope to return to this point later with evidence which we think will convince the Minister. One further point in connection with the properties themselves is the serious depreciation in value which has resulted from this recent development of which we complain. People are not anxious to move into a district where the noise and the interference with life is becoming so notorious. I would assure the Minister that it is the considered opinion in the neighbourhood that there has been a definite and ascertainable drop, in terms of figures, in the value of the properties within range of this airfield.

I would ask the Minister if he will consult with his colleague the Minister of Town and Country Planning at some time in order to see whether there is some way by which people who have already lost by the fall in the value of their property might be compensated under the Town and Country Planning Act or in some other way. The whole matter is very much one for the Minister of Town and Country Planning, because a more impossible example of planning can hardly be imagined than the placing of a great airfield alongside this city. With the whole county of Norfolk to choose from, with its 1,250,000 acres the authorities responsible chose to place this airfield next door to the only city within 100 miles. The Air Ministry is not unmindful of the needs of the public and of their convenience and I am sure that the Air Minister and his colleagues are not happy about this situation at Horsham St. Faiths which is causing discomfort and hardship to many thousands of people in St. Faiths and in the surrounding district. Aircraft are becoming larger and noisier and these residents are asking themselves what the situation will be like in five years if it is as bad as it is today.

I would urge the Minister not to close the door but to do as we ask him. Let him re-open this matter. If it is at all possible I suggest that he or even his colleague, the Secretary of State himself should come down to this district of Norfolk and see—and hear—for themselves what it is we complain of. I feel sure that he will see the necessity of giving some reassurance which will bring a ray of hope to the many thousands of people who are suffering the deepest concern because of this interference with their way of life.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. John Paton (Norwich)

I make no apology, unlike the hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) for detaining the House for a minute or two on this very important question. Although it is a local matter, the question has a very wide significance for the country as a whole because similar complaints are arising in small built up areas. The difficulty is of very long standing. For more than two years the hon. and gallant Member and I have raised this matter both by private representation to the Department and by frequent Questions in the House in the hope of getting something effective done about it. We have always been extremely sympathetically received and we have always received soothing answers but unfortunately, except occasionally for short spaces of time, nothing effective has been done.

With the coming of the jet aircraft and the necessary intensification of air training, the noise and disturbance which were formerly a serious nuisance are now threatening to become a completely intolerable nuisance. The hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk mentioned that at Hellesdon in his constituency there are frequently such happenings as ceilings collapsing, sometimes to the great danger of young children, in such numbers that it is quite inconceivable that the long arm of coincidence stretches so far that all the ceilings in Hellesdon threaten to collapse for some undetermined and unknown reason unconnected with the aircraft.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the almost constant vibration to which these houses are subjected by the numerous flights over them at low level is responsible for the damage, and I am convinced that sooner or later the Air Ministry must accept that responsibility. Not only is the situation made worse with this intensification of flights; there is an accompaniment which is almost inevitable when one remembers the kind of young men we must attract as pilots. There is a considerable amount of aerobatics and stunting for which I do not in the least blame the officers as it is a completely inevitable accompaniment, and may be an extremely necessary accompaniment, so that one cannot complain. Nevertheless, the effect is very gravely to intensify the nuisance.

Not only is there the question of the damage to property; there is also the very considerable danger to persons. I am not thinking merely of the constant nerve-wracking strain resulting from this almost intolerable noise but the actual danger from the great number of flights over this built-up area at the extremely low levels at which the aircraft fly, as a result of which the element of danger is thereby very greatly increased. The hon. and gallant Member mentioned that education had been interrupted in Hellesdon and in the City of Norwich. I recently received representations from the Director of Education of the City of Norwich as to the tremendous nuisance being caused and the great interruption of class work. It is a fact that on very many occasions in the course of the working day in the schools class work comes to a stop for minutes on end, because it is quite impossible for any teacher to make her voice heard above the din. We must also remember the effect of these sudden roaring noises upon nervous children in our classrooms. I am certain that as a result of it there is a considerable nervous deterioration on the part of some of the children.

In the area of Hellesdon there is a mental hospital. When I have visited that hospital I have seen something of the effect upon the patients of the very alarming noises which come from low flying planes. For all these reasons, therefore, it seems to me that the nuisance of which we have been complaining during the last two years has now reached the stage at which it has become almost intolerable.

The ancient and noble City of Norwich of which I have the honour to be one of the representatives, was one of those cities which suffered great material damage during the war. Much of its property was destroyed by German bombs. Some hundreds of its citizens were mangled or maimed by these German bombs, and I say to the Minister quite frankly that it is intolerable that these people, with their living experience of the grim and tragic times of the war, should now have those memories continually revived, and be haunted again by those old dreads, as a result of the nuisance caused to them by the siting of this aerodrome right upon their doorsteps.

I am not in the least afraid, as the hon. and gallant Member seemed to indicate, to embarrass the Air Ministry on this business. It is my job to embarrass the Air Ministry until the Air Ministry does something effective about it. I shall not plead with them to keep the door open because I am perfectly certain that, if my hon. Friend tries to shut it, he will find it impossible to do so. The people in those areas of which I am speaking will not lie down under this nuisance for ever, and the Air Ministry will have to make up its mind sooner or later that that aerodrome has been planted in a position which cannot possibly be maintained and. in the long run, they will have to take the necessary steps. What I am inviting the Minister to do today therefore, is to take the step sooner rather than later.

In what I am saying I am making no criticism of the Minister who has to reply. To me, as to other hon. Members in this House, he is one of the most helpful junior Ministers in the Government. He is not responsible for the policy and is not, therefore, the subject of this criticism. I am talking to him as the representative of his Department. Neither do I blame the officers commanding this aerodrome. I think it is true to say that they have been as helpful in trying to mitigate the nuisance as possible, but it is quite impossible for them to make any appreciable difference because of the situation of the aerodrome.

The real truth is that this aerodrome should never have been put there at all. It is not only in the wrong situation but I am informed—I have mentioned this in the House before without denial—that the runways are so sited because of the wind conditions prevailing in that area, that it is only possible for pilots to gain or lose height by manoeuvring over the City of Norwich itself. That seems to me to be incredible stupidity on the part of whoever is responsible, and that is one of the main reasons why the Ministry must make up its mind that, amelioration being impossible, the only thing to do is to face up to the problem of ways and means of getting this aerodrome removed altogether.

It will be no sufficient reason for the Minister to tell me that this would lead to grave inconvenience, or that we spent a lot of money on St. Faith Aerodrome. Of course we have. I am told it is in the neighbourhood of about £7 million, but a large part of that sum was spent in the necessary extension of the aerodrome during the war. It was really a war expenditure. Only a few miles out in the country we have in the sparsely populated areas of Norfofk several aerodromes which, with a minimum of expenditure, could probably be made to give as efficient service as St. Faith does now. Therefore I say to the Minister that we do not want today bromides or soothing answers. We have had enough of that in the past. What we want now is evidence from the Ministry of the desire to get rid of this nuisance once and for all by taking effective action to end it.

3.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

In the two and a half years I have been at the Air Ministry I have dealt at this Box with many questions and in the Ministry with many letters from the two hon. Members who have spoken on this problem. Their activity on behalf of their constituents, I see from the files, goes back to the time of my predecessor the present Minister of Food.

We must all recognise the disturbance caused to the people of Norwich by having their city in what is the flying circuit of a station operating jet aircraft. I will deal with the point about low flying. Deliberate and unnecessary low flying is seriously punished in the Royal Air Force. The usual penalty for an officer is cashiering, and for one who is not an officer, discharge from the service. The hon. Members who have spoken have not claimed that there has in fact been unnecessary low flying, and I am therefore in this Debate spared the task which I so often have to perform of explaining that the laws of gravity, overruling as they do any Air Ministry Order, however carefully drafted, make it impossible for an aircraft either to gain operational height, or to land, without at some time going through a period when it is flying low—that is an elementary fact—although the pilot is not guilty of "low flying" in the technical sense.

Knowing that Norwich is called upon to bear more than its fair share of the burden of peacetime inconvenience which is necessary if we are to have an up to date efficient Air Force, the Air Ministry and the station Commander at Horsham St. Faith have done a great deal to mitigate this nuisance. I know this is not an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) who said that it would not satisfy him, but I will outline what steps have been taken in mitigation. First, about two years ago, hon. Members who are concerned will remember our fighter squadrons were being re-deployed and we took into account the special position of Horsham St. Faith and replaced night fighter reciprocating engined squadrons by day fighter jet engined squadrons. The replacement of night fighter by day fighter squadrons caused us to receive at least one testimonial from Norwich which preferred the disturbance of jet by day to the discomfort of reciprocation by night. Secondly, the station commander, at considerable inconvenience to his officers and men, lays down that such night flying training as is necessary for a day fighter squadron shall take place in the early hours of darkness; that is, before most people are in bed. Thirdly, the Director of Navigation at the Air Ministry, in the first week of this month, long before I knew I would have to answer at this Box today, wrote to all Commanders-in-Chief a letter headed "Flying over Norwich," which sets out, among other things, the fact that much of the activity over Norwich is unavoidable due to its close proximity to Horsham St. Faith airfield and goes on to say: I am to request Commands … to avoid routing aircraft on training flights over this city and to take such other steps as may be possible to discourage aircraft belonging to units of their Commands from flying over Norwich at any time, at heights low enough to make the noises from the aircraft or engines a disturbance to people on the ground. That is the Director of Navigation at the Air Ministry writing to all commands—

Mr. Paton

On what date?

Mr. de Freitas

On 9th September, 1948. The hon. and gallant Member for East Norfolk (Brigadier Medlicott) asked if I would consult with the Minister of Town and Country Planning to see if we could pay compensation for the depreciation of the value of property caused by the nuisance of this noise. There is certainly no Act of Parliament under which we could pay compensation. Of course we cannot discuss legislation on the Adjournment, but I think that the hon and gallant Member will agree, as will anyone who has studied the law of nuisance, that the noise of a jet aircraft is really only one form of nuisance and it would be extremely difficult to cover it by legislation.

On the more practical and definite point which was raised by both hon. Members who have spoken—

Brigadier Medlicott

Before the Under-Secretary leaves that point may I point out that I was rather suggesting that it was through the medium of the Minister of Town and Country Planning that compensation might be paid? I am not saying that there is a Clause in the existing Act which covers this kind of case, but rather that it should be the subject of compensation under any properly conceived scheme of town and country planning.

Mr. de Freitas

My point was that we cannot deal with legislation on the Adjournment. I will pass the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member over to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Town and Country Planning but I was saying that it seems to me a difficult one to cover by legislation because of the nature of nuisance itself.

On the question of compensation for actual damage, physical damage, caused by vibration, the position is much clearer. We are under no obligation to pay either under the Air Navigation Act or even under the Crown Proceedings Act of last year, but I give the assurance on behalf of my right hon. Friend that we will always pay ex gratia for damage which is proved to have been caused by aircraft vibration. I await with interest the evidence which the hon. Member said he would bring. I should add that so far we have no evidence from any part of the country that vibration of aircraft can cause such damage but we wait with an open mind.

On the question of noise, our scientists are trying their best to reduce it. At the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and in the acoustics section of the National Physical Laboratory they are working on it, but I do not hold out much hope of success. Aircraft propulsion depends upon the transfer of energy to a stream of air and that in the nature of things causes noise.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

Has there ever been a case in which it has been proved that damage has been done by aircraft vibration?

Mr. de Freitas

There has not.

Mr. Paton

What is the quality of proof which is required by the Air Ministry?

Mr. de Freitas

It is that required by a court of law. We are not above the law.

Mr. Paton

Surely this has never been tested nor could it be tested in a court of law since no case could lie? The compensation about which we have been talking is ex gratia payment, because, as the Under-Secretary has said, there is no legal liability on the Air Ministry in matters of this kind.

Mr. de Freitas

That is perfectly true, but I refer to the same degree of proof as a court of law would require. We are quite prepared to consider evidence. There may be such proof but in the past we have not come to such a conclusion, although we might well in the future.

I wish to take up the point made by both hon. Members that there are many airfields in Norfolk. That is true. Through its geographical position, Norfolk is at least as important as any other county in the air defence of the United Kingdom. This means that in recent years we have repeatedly examined the airfields of Norfolk to see if we are making the best use of them. We are satisfied that we are. We must not forget, in talking of the many airfields in Norfolk, that most of them have neither concrete runways nor permanent buildings. They are grass airfields. It is tempting to go back 11 years to the time of a Conservative predecessor at the Air Ministry and comment upon the wisdom of building this fighter station in 1937 on the outskirts of a great city like Norwich. I shall resist the temptation because it does not really help us to solve this problem today.

Here in 1948 we find ourselves in this position. Horsham St. Faith is a fighter station excellently sited for the air defence of the country having three concrete runways suited to the latest and fastest jet fighters. It is a station with first rate technical buildings and one of the few stations having good permanent housing for both officers and men. Hon. Members will have heard the Debate yesterday on Defence. It is no secret that if we have as many stations as good as Horsham St. Faith our recruiting problem would be very different. This station is one of the few with good permanent buildings to house both officers and men. Furthermore it represents a huge capital investment. The amount of labour and materials locked up here—used for the construction of the runways and buildings—can be imagined when I say that they cost a million and a quarter pounds.

I regret that there is no possibility of abandoning Horsham St. Faith. What flows from that? That there is no possibility of moving the jet fighters. The fact is that jet aircraft are no longer something rare in the Air Force. The reciprocating day fighter is no longer even used in Fighter Command on interception. Already every single interception day fighter squadron in Fighter Command fly jet aircraft. I can only give this assurance, and it is in answer to a direct question by the hon. and gallant Member who raised this matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air or I will visit this station very soon and see for ourselves if there is any possibility of doing anything to reduce the noise and disturbance caused to the people of Norwich by this station. We recognise what the people have to put up with and we will do all we can to diminish it.