HC Deb 28 October 1952 vol 505 cc1887-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Vosper.]

11.1 p.m.

Wing Commander Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

In the last debate on civil aviation, held on 16th July, shortly before the summer Recess, I sought for some hours to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair so that I might raise the question of the noise caused by low-flying aircraft. I was not successful. Since that date I have balloted for the opportunity to raise this important matter, and it is entirely fortuitous that in a few hours' time we shall be launched into another discussion on civil aviation.

My debate was announced before the Opposition's choice of subject for tomorrow and as there could be no guarantee that I should catch your eye tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, I proceed with my arguments. If, however, the Minister's reply is not satisfactory, I may amend the time-honoured formula and give notice that I shall seek to catch your eye tomorrow, Sir.

The noise of low-flying aircraft can affect every person in the United Kingdom, for wherever aircraft fly there is the probability of noise. Some parts of the country are more seriously affected than others, and from time to time we read, or otherwise learn, of the adverse effect of low-flying planes. Cattle and sheep have been reported killed or affected by the noise, and many other incidents have been reported. Obviously, the nuisance is likely to be increased as the output of aircraft continues and as aircraft development progresses.

My constituency, Wembley North, runs to the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill, where I live, and the area is near Northolt and the London Airport. Northolt is five miles away, and the London Airport only nine miles away. I have had complaint from my constituents of the noise caused by low-flying aircraft, and I have been in correspondence with the Minister on the matter. It may be that he will enlarge upon his letter to me when he comes to reply.

During last summer, members of Harrow School, situated on the Hill, and within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) were greatly inconvenienced by the constant stream of air traffic over the Hill, and, indeed, there were reports of complaints from residents, and from the patients and staff in the hospital on the Hill. I am indebted to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to quote a table of noise compiled by boys at the school which indicates the extent of the inconvenience caused. The scholars compiled this chart from readings taken over a week, and by means of a contraption were able to make a noise index and give, in symbols, the intensity of the noise ranging in numbers from one to 10.

I find that in the week taken in June the noise index reached 10—which indicates a noise when people could hardly hear themselves speak—on many occasions. On 14th June the number 10 was reached on six occasions; there were two occasions on a Sunday, five occasions on a Monday, eight on a Tuesday, and seven on a Wednesday. The average noise is 6½ which is considerable, and the record showed that one aircraft passes over, on the average, during every three-quarters of an hour of daylight.

To a Question put down at that time by my hon. Friend, the Minister expressed regret at the inconvenience caused, but I am sure it is not much comfort to be informed that aircraft had, of necessity, to fly over residential areas during the prevailing westerly wind. I am aware that the wind is a factor in the volume of noise.

I have had several letters from constituents of mine in the Preston Road area of Wembley, and I shall send these to the Minister. One speaks of the minor annoyance caused to television and the fact that children are awakened and their rest disturbed, but his chief concern is the obvious danger to personal safety if anything untoward occurred. Another constituent writes that low-flying aircraft caused the tiles on his roof literally to rattle, and yet another observed that low-flying air traffic has increased enormously, and that the planes seem to be flying lower.

I have also a letter from the secretary of one of the residents' associations in my division, the South Kenton and Preston Park Residents' Association, expressing concern at the low flying of aircraft traffic to and from Northolt. The secretary writes: It is estimated that the average height of the planes over the district, both incoming and outgoing, is 2,000 to 2,500 feet. I recognise that that estimation is probably incorrect because there is a minimum height permitted over a town of 1,000 feet. The secretary goes on: The noise is considerable in the daytime, and in the dark hours much more discernible and disturbing, which leads to the opinion that the aircraft fly at lower altitudes at night. He concludes: The Association recognises the necessity for air traffic and has no desire to make irresponsible complaints, but in the present circumstances, and with thoughts of future aircraft development in mind, it is considered that the matter should be brought to the notice of the authorities with a view to bringing about some form of re-organisation which will enable aircraft to maintain a higher altitude over the area and minimise disturbance caused by the noise of the aircraft in the normal course of flying. That is one suggestion, keeping the aircraft at a higher altitude.

But if this solves the problem for my constituents, whose concern I share, it does not provide the remedy for the many thousands who live near airports and airfields, and the even tenor of whose lives will be increasingly affected as we progress and step-up our air traffic. We shall have to go to the root cause, the noise. We must lessen and, eventually, eliminate the noise of aircraft engines. Modern airliners offer silent travel for passengers. Something must be done for the people on the ground.

It passes my comprehension that in this 20th century, this super scientific age, when in so many spheres, and not less in the sphere of aircraft development, we have made such enormous progress, we have not yet conquered the problem of noise. I am aware that some form of research is taking place. In a written answer from the Minister of Supply last week I was informed that under the direction of the Aircraft Noise Suppression Committee of the Ministry of Supply—I hope this is not called "anscotmos"— work has been going on for some years at a number of research establishments and firms. I cannot accept the Minister's conclusion that the making of noise is unavoidable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd October, 1952; Vol. 505, c. 123.] I am told that the Ministry of Civil Aviation are studying methods of reducing noise at airports, and that a prototype sound screening wall is shortly to be built at London Airport which it is hoped will reduce the nuisance caused by aircraft engines being run up after maintenance. Perhaps the Minister will say something about this experiment; and we shall be grateful for any other information about research which is taking place.

I understand that the Americans have some form of temporary silencer that can be fitted to jet engines when they are being warmed up on the ground. Have we any comparable silencers? Is it not possible to devise a silencer which can be affixed to the aircraft when it is flying low, leaving or coming to the airfield, and which can be taken off after it has reached a minimum height, in the way that the under-carriage is taken up after the aircraft has left the ground and when it comes down, on reaching a certain height.

The ultimate solution lies in the complete elimination of noise, and I find it hard to believe that this is not possible of achievement. I am not alone in thinking that if an urgent and serious approach were made to the problem, if a number of scientists were engaged solely on the problem, we should finally achieve the end desired.

There are some high-pitched sounds to which the human ear does not respond. I have never quite understood why persons who have been standing near to exploding bombs have not heard the actual noise of the explosion. I was amazed to read the evidence of the Harrow and Wealdstone stationmaster at the inquiry following the terrible disaster in Harrow. I live near to that station; I did not hear the noise. Hon. Members will recall that the stationmaster said that at the time of the first collision he was standing near the first carriage of the local train and he heard no noise of the impact of the Scottish express when it took place. In the second collision the noise, he said, was only slight.

Explanations for this must come from the scientists. Similarly, the solution of the problem of aircraft noise must come from them. I ask the Minister if he will consider the setting up of a scientific committee of inquiry into the question of aircraft noise. Would he, in the event of the formation of such a committee, invite the Society of British Aircraft Constructors to supply representatives for it? Could not the help of the Paymaster-General be sought in the matter? If the noble Lord would bring his scientific mind to bear on this problem and detail some leading scientists to join him in urgent research, progress would be made. The solution must come from the British scientists, and the solution means that we should capture the world's markets for our new aircraft.

In conclusion, I stress three points. I have raised this question to ventilate a subject. I cannot trace that it has been raised before, and I have no desire to retard the progress of aircraft development. What I ask is that the research should advance in step with other developments. Also, I recognise that the Minister of Supply is mainly responsible in the matter, but I ask if appropriate Ministries could co-operate in seeking a solution to the problem.

It is because I believe that the problem of aircraft noise is capable of solution that I raise the question. The problem will become more urgent with the rapid progress of aircraft development. I sincerely hope that the Minister will accept the responsibility which the problem demands.

11.15 p.m.

Colonel J. H. Harrison (Eye)

I think that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley North (Wing Commander Bullus) has raised a very important subject but he speaks for an urban constituency, and I should like to bring to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary the fact that in my rural constituency in East Anglia there have been many complaints both of noise and low-flying.

We have there many airfields occupied not only by the R.A.F., but also by our friends and allies in the United Nations. I have found when writing and meeting the commanding officers of these airfields that they are most co-operative in trying to eliminate any cases of low-flying which may have occurred, but there are occasions when training has to be carried out, as I point out to my constituents, very often at the week-ends, and I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he could give some directive that, at the week-end, as far as possible places of worship should be avoided by low-flying aircraft.

We realise that this training has to go on for our defence, but we do feel in Suffolk that we get considerably more than our share in that way. If the training could be spread over a wider area it would be a great benefit to my constituents. Possibly my hon. Friend will bear this in mind, and if he could follow the suggestion of my hon. and gallant Friend to set up a committee which might be successful in eliminating noise altogether, then I feel a great boon will have been brought to people by the debate tonight.

11.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

The hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) has raised a matter which is undoubtedly of great public importance, although that public importance seems not to be recognised by those on the benches opposite, which have been conspicuously and entirely empty throughout the proceedings. But it is of great importance to those of us in this country, who look to the development of air transport as one of the great economic developments of our country and Empire. It is important to tackle the problem which is necessarily inherent at present, and in the foreseeable future, in aviation.

Both my hon. and gallant Friends who have spoken have generously recognised the importance of doing nothing to impede the necessary development of civil aviation. I conceive it to be the responsibility of the Government to give every possible encouragement to the development of British aviation, but, at the same time, it is also our duty to see that the inconvenience, discomfort and annoyance to the public is minimised to the greatest possible degree.

This is a purpose shared by my colleagues at the Ministry of Civil Aviation and by the Under-Secretary of State for Air, who is here tonight and who has taken careful note of what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Colonel Harrison) on the subject of service aircraft. I can assure both my hon. and gallant Friends that the Government are well aware of the importance and urgency of this problem, but it is, by its very nature, very difficult to see any early or satisfactory solution.

Take, first, the inherent noise of the aircraft engine. I gather that the main cause of noise in the case of the propelled engine is the exhaust note of low frequency. In the jet engine, rapidly developing, and one which we must expect to develop progressively, there is added to the exhaust note the high-pitched whine of the impellor. That is a new problem which faces the scientist, and I can assure my hon. and gallant Friends that considerable thought has been given and is being given not only in this country but throughout the world to the problem of finding a way of reducing the inherent noise of the aero engine, both reciprocated and jet types. At the same time, however, I must warn him that so far as I am advised, no really great progress has been made by the scientists in this matter on either side of the Atlantic, and I think it would be unwise to be too optimistic at this stage about any substantial progress being rapidly made on this line.

I turn to the question of the noise made by the engine on the ground. There is, first, the question of an engine that is being tested on the bench, particularly by manufacturers. There are things called, I believe, "de-tuners," which are used in the United States, and which, I think, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) may have been thinking, which muffle the sound of a jet engine when it is being run on a test bench.

These are very large, expensive and bulky pieces of apparatus, which could not possibly be incorporated in the aircraft itself, and so far as I am aware they have been used only by a limited number of manufacturers in the United States. But certainly it would be our intention, if the testing of engines on the bench should be permitted at any of the Ministry of Civil Aviation airfields, to insist that de-tuners of this type should be installed.

The other problem that arises and which, I believe, is one of the greatest sources of annoyance and inconvenience in this matter is the running-up of aircraft engines at night, which is an essential part of the necessary maintenance of aircraft which are taking off early next morning. I know that particularly in the London area this causes a good deal of inconvenience.

We have been examining the possibilities of muffling this noise by installing what is known as "acoustic walls." The construction of the first prototype permanent acoustic wall will, we hope, be started early next month, and we intend, with the co-operation of the various airline operators, to give this acoustic wall the greatest and quickest possible test, to make sure how good they will be in practice and to see in what ways we can improve upon the construction which we have so far developed. I hope that by this acoustic wall, which we intend to install—and we will proceed with the construction of other acoustic walls if it proves satisfactory—we shall be able substantially to reduce the nuisance caused by the maintenance running of aero engines at night.

I come to the third point: aircraft in the air. There are very definite regulations about the height at which aircraft may fly. Very definite minimum heights are prescribed. In cloudy weather conditions aircraft must descend immediately to a height of 2,000 feet. Whatever the weather conditions no aircraft may descend below 1,000 feet over a built-up area or such height as would enable it, if its engine should fail, to glide to safety outside the built-up area. The minimum is 1,000 feet or, if necessary, above that.

Brigadier F. Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I take it that my hon. Friend is referring only to civil aircraft?

Mr. Maudling

My responsibility is only for civil aircraft. I could not answer for the Royal Air Force on that matter. So far as my Department are concerned, that is the regulation which we have introduced and which we seek at all times to enforce, principally, of course, by co-operation with the civil airline operators, who co-operate with us to the greatest possible extent in trying to maintain these regulations.

We often get complaints from members of the public, sometimes forwarded by hon. Members, about cases of low flying, and we are always prepared and ready to investigate such complaints, particularly if we can be given details which will enable us to identify the aircraft in question. We want to see these regulations enforced, and I am quite certain that the overwhelming majority of airline operators, and pilots also, wish to see the regulations maintained in the general interests of British aviation as a whole.

But, of course, the regulations prescribing minimum height cannot apply to aircraft which are in process of landing or taking off from an airfield, and I am afraid that the problem of low flying that troubles my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North, mostly is the passage of aircraft taking off or landing at London Airport and Northolt. Aircraft must both take off and land into the wind, and so the runway which is used at any particular time is determined by the wind which is blowing at the time. We try as far as possible so to organise our use of runways as to eliminate the taking off and landing over closely built up areas, but it is not always possible to do that because we are governed to a great extent by weather conditions.

There is a very definite limit to the angle at which a large modern aircraft can approach an airfield. They cannot approach normally at a steeper angle, I think, than some three degrees. That means inevitably that for quite a long period before aircraft actually touch down they will have to pass over the intervening ground at a fairly low height. We have studied, and are continuing to study, in co-operation with the Airline Pilots' Guild, techniques which will counteract that difficulty; but there is the fact that an aircraft coming into London Airport, or Northolt Airport, must pass over a substantial area of houses at a relatively low height. All concerned try to keep noise to a minimum, but it cannot be eliminated altogether.

Finally, there is the question of a committee, which has been suggested tonight. I think that the committee established under the Ministry of Supply, and to which reference has also been made, already contains representatives not only of the technical departments, and the scientific departments of State, but also of the airline corporations, and of the universities. Manchester University, I think, and Southampton University, are interested, as are the aircraft constructors themselves. So I think that the committee already in existence contains all the interests to which my hon. and gallant Friend has drawn attention. It does provide for, I think he will agree, a representative selection of those people, and those organisations most qualified to advise on this problem.

Let me repeat that the Government do consider this to be a very important problem; and an urgent problem, and I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for having raised it. I think it important that it should be made known continually that the solution of this problem of noise, or at any rate, its amelioration, is one of the largest subjects we shall have to face in developing British aviation on the lines which we all have at heart.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.