HC Deb 28 October 1955 vol 545 cc626-40

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

3.49 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment a local question that may become a national question—low-flying aircraft from London Airport. Practically the whole of my constituents have to put up with the noise and inconvenience occasioned by low-flying aircraft. People living near one of the funnels approaching Nos. 1 and 5 runways have undoubtedly suffered the loss of one of the most precious things in life—peace and quietness.

Many of the people who now live in that district came to live there before London Airport was built in 1946. During the few months I have been Member for Feltham, I have had numerous letters from people in various parts of the constituency—letters from Cranford, from Feltham and from Hounslow, West—all complaining of this noise, day and night. I have asked the Parliamentary Secretary to reply to the following points which I am raising today and I trust that his reply will give some hope to my constituents: first, the disturbance caused to my constituents by low-flying aircraft, day and night, and the testing of aircraft engines during the night; secondly, damage caused to property by low-flying aircraft: thirdly, what research work is being done by the Ministry to cut out this noise nuisance?

On these points I intend to read extracts from the many letters I have received from constituents. I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House and I will read mainly extracts from one or two letters. The first letter is from Cranford, and it reads: The residents of Cranford have for the last few days been subjected to a display of low-flying, heavy four-engined aircraft which have roared over their heads at remarkably frequent intervals. The noise is nerve shattering and has to be heard to be believed. I have this morning witnessed the pathetic sight of a small child of under two years running completely panic-stricken to his mother when a four-engined plane swept over the rooftops of Waye Avenue. The mother assured me that every time a heavy aircraft passed over the child reacted this way. On Sunday morning the church service was disrupted many times by the roar of engines as the 'planes took off directly over the church. The older people are complaining bitterly of having their peace so disturbed. Another letter reads: We in Haslemere Avenue had thought that we were just that little further away than some from the worst effects of the London Airport. During the last few days especially, however, we are as likely to be driven mad by the incessant vibration and droning as any other part of Cranford. Another letter reads: May I add my protest to the many you have no doubt received concerning the low- flying aircraft in this area? If the powers-that-be could see the look of terror on the faces of the young children, then I am certain something would be done. I also have a letter from the Cranford and District Residents' Amenities Association in which the Chairman writes: As Chairman of Cranford and District Residents' Amenities Association, I have during the past five years been most intimately concerned with the problem of low-flying aircraft adjacent to London Airport. Innumerable reports of frightened children, nervous disorders, particularly in middle-aged women, damage to property and the almost total destruction of the blessings of peace and quietness for some 15,000 or 20,000 people of Cranford, are the result of a piece of particularly bad planning. I am speaking for the inhabitants of some 600 to 700 houses in Cranford. We have received assurances from time to time that some effort will be made to make the position better. I have other letters complaining of the testing of engines at night, and here I think the Ministry could do something. Is it necessary that these aeroplane engines should be tested at night?

I have a letter complaining that it goes on night after night, finishing at 6 a.m. I also have a chart, kept by one of the people writing to me from Feltham, showing that for over 50 per cent. of the nights of one month they were unable to sleep owing to engine testing. The testing of aircraft should be done in the day and not at night.

There is a third point to which I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give some thought, if he cannot give a reply today. That is the question of damage. I have a letter, dated quite recently, which states: At about 1.10 a.m. on 8th October, 1955, a large portion of my front bedroom ceiling came down. This coincided with the passing of aircraft over my house. My house, along with quite a number of other houses, has been subject to quite a lot of vibration from aircraft during the past four months, the result being cracked ceilings and bad nerves. I have another letter, dated 23rd October. It says: I am writing to ask you if you can do anything in the way of compensation for the damage done by low-flying aircraft approaching the London Airport in the Cranford district. Speaking for myself, all my upstairs rooms ceilings are cracked. One room ceiling on the point of collapse, we dare not use. Also several windows are cracked. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give serious consideration to this matter.

I have given some thought to the position in Feltham. It is not only the Cranford area. Hounslow West area, Bedfont, Feltham and Hanworth all suffer from low-flying aircraft from London Airport.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

And Colnbrook.

Mr. Hunter

I can quite believe it. London Airport is established and we have to recognise that fact. I have been to London Airport, and I was given every facility for inspection by the Air Commandant. I have every admiration for the staff and employees at London Airport. They do a wonderful job. Air transport is growing. The commandant informed me that London Airport handled 30 per cent. more traffic this summer than last summer.

The problem which I have raised today will grow more and more in the years ahead. At the beginning of this century, few motor cars were on the roads. Look at the position today. Air transport will expand in the years ahead. Surely the Ministries concerned can find some solution of the problem which confronts us. Cannot they co-operate more with the aircraft manufacturers in cutting out noise?

I spoke to the pilots at London Airport. They informed me that two types of airliners made practically no noise. This is confirmed by electricians and engineers who work at London Airport, to whom I have spoken. Surely research work could be done in this direction. Let the Ministry consult the people who work at London Airport, and not leave this matter without direction entirely to aircraft manufacturers. Cannot the Ministry see that orders for airliners are of the type that cut out noise? Cannot there be international co-operation in this great research work, because, as I have said, air transport will grow. Other airports will appear in other parts of Great Britain, and one can easily imagine the horror of the other people—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Hunter

—imagine the horror of other people, in different parts of Britain, if they know an airport is to be built in their district, when they know the difficulties and sufferings of the people whose homes have been built around London Airport.

I am not an expert on these matters, but I am ventilating a great local grievance for the people of the Feltham constituency, trusting that a measure of hope will be given them by the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies to the debate. I shall not detain the House further, for I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington), whose constituency touches Feltham, would also like to say a few words on this topic.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I should like to support what the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) has said. During the last two or three months I have received many letters of complaint from inhabitants of Twickenham, Teddington, and Hampton. The complaints seem to concentrate on what happens between 11.30 p.m. and 3 o'clock in the morning. I wonder whether the cheap tourist flights in those hours have had anything to do with the matter. There is interference with sleep, but there is also interference in the day, and I am told that lessons and prayers at the Thames Valley and other schools at Twickenham and Hampton have been much disturbed.

Those points are about six miles or eight miles from the airport, so the following questions are being asked in the Borough of Twickenham. Are the regulations against low flying being observed? Cannot the pilots at Heathrow make sufficient height in that distance of six or seven miles to abate the nuisance of noise? Is there any deliberate low flying? Cannot the routes of the airliners in and out of the airport be varied?

The last question, of course, is that raised by the hon. Member for Feltham, namely, that of silencers. I think that there is no doubt that the turbo-prop Viscount is a quieter plane than the older piston-engined planes. It is those which are the trouble. I doubt whether it has very much to do with airscrew. I understand that the latest American research has thrown the onus back on the engine, and away from the airscrew. I have been connected, as some hon. Members know, for many years with the automobile engine, and I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of man to find a method of silencing piston engines.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) for having raised this matter in this particular week of important debates. Among many other grave matters surely the question of peace and sleep at night is, to all of us, one of the most urgent. I am sure that those of us on both sides of the House who have raised before the matter of aircraft noise and damage will be very glad we have another recruit to our ranks. Indeed, my hon. Friend's presence here is one of the few—almost the only—agreeable result of the recent recommendations of the Boundary Commission.

Part of London Airport is in my constituency, and many of my constituents complain of the nuisance caused, of the noise and the damage by aircraft. There is, I think, this additional hardship, that whereas a person who builds or buys a house near an existing nuisance presumably does so with his eyes open, most of the people who came to this district were there before London Airport was thought of, so they have a particularly deep sense of grievance that their homes and families should be subject to this very considerable nuisance, annoyance and interference.

There are the two problems of noise and damage. On the problem of noise, I can only say that one has actually to experience it in the district to know what it is like. A few weeks ago I was a mile or so from the Bath Road. The airport is on the other side of that road, but when engines were being tuned up it was almost impossible, unless one shouted, to carry on a conversation in the room of an ordinary dwelling-house, which was more than a mile from the airport.

At a recent meeting with the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation it was suggested that as there had been no recent protests made to the Airport Consultative Committee this nuisance was diminishing. I want to assure the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that if there have not been protests that is certainly not because the people do not feel strongly about noise and are suffering from it. The South Harlington Residents' Association, another body fighting this menace, again placed on record the feelings of many of its members at its annual meeting this year in June. Its secretary wrote to me saying: People in Harlington continue to suffer from noise particularly by being woken up at night. It is agreed that the absence of the Comets has relieved the position by reducing one of the most disturbing sounds but on the other hand … This is important— … the transfer of traffic from Northolt has raised the general level of noise. This is, then, still an extremely serious matter. I should have thought it might have been possible to have a curfew on the testing and tuning of engines and excessive noise at least from midnight to six o'clock in the morning. If those six hours were kept free it would make a considerable difference if people were not being awakened during the night, particularly the children.

With regard to damage, we hoped at one stage that the grievance which many residents in the periphery of the airport have suffered would be tackled, but I am afraid that the general impression is that we are as far away as ever from getting any form of help financially or, indeed, scientifically from the Ministry. At one stage the present Minister, with the Parliamentary Secretary, spent a morning visiting houses in Harlington and Cranford. Everyone was delighted with the presence of those distinguished Ministers. They looked at the cracks in bedroom ceilings, the tiles which had come off the roofs, and at broken windows, and even admired the flowers in the front gardens, but in due course the residents got a "dusty" answer to the effect that the Ministry was not convinced that the damage could be attributed to vibration from aircraft.

We are now left in the position in which it is up to residents to conduct their own survey of damage and then take necessary legal action. I think that that is harsh. Most of those who suffer are people of limited means who have not at their disposal funds with which to undertake that kind of survey and any resultant legal remedy. I know residents will do what they can, but it is quite clear that this damage occurs in certain definite tracks and those tracks happen to be where certain aircraft fly over at repeated intervals. Damage appears on certain sides of houses and not on the other sides. Although some of the property may not have been well built—which is an argument that has been used—the fact that the damage appears in specific places and not in others must show that it has some connection with the vibration.

I hope that even at this late stage the Ministry will feel able to help these people, many of whom have put their whole savings into—indeed, have heavily mortgaged themselves—to purchase of their houses. To be faced with deteriorating property and disturbance of one's nights and weekends is a serious interference with the ordinary amenities of life and I hope that today we shall at long last get a sympathetic answer.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)

When the Boundary Commission removed the Cranford Ward from the Heston and Isleworth constituency and placed it in the constituency of Feltham, I felt that I would be relieved of many of the protests and much of the work I have to do in the past five years in connection with noise from London Airport. I was very delighted when the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) came along and took it up so energetically.

I regret to have to say that during the last six or seven months I have had more protests about noise from London Airport, and that it is becoming a very serious matter indeed. I could not possibly read out some of the letters I have received from my constituents about noise from London Airport, because the language would not be fitting for this Chamber. It is extraordinary how noise has increased out of all proportion to what it was two or three years ago. I have led deputations to successive Ministers of Transport and Civil Aviation and I have been in houses near London Airport when Ministers, including the Parliamentary Secretary, have been present. We have always been glad to see them and have had great courtesy and sympathy from them, but little else, because there is little else they can do.

There is a very active local residents' association which tries to get aircraft to take off in different directions. If they do not take off over Feltham, they take off over Heston, so whichever way planes take off they will annoy somebody. All we can hope to do is to ensure that when they take off they are going over houses at a fairly good height instead of being low. At the moment, that is one of the big complaints. It is complained that there is more low flying than ever before.

For years we have been protesting without progress about the warming up of engines at night. The hon. Member for Feltham used the word "testing." I ask him not to use that word, because the Ministry reply is that it does not test engines there, but that they are tested somewhere else. I suppose they are being warmed up for early morning flights. I do not know whether that is for holiday makers, but that would be scandalous, although I suppose there are other reasons. I would have thought it was possible to warm them up in another way and that it is not necessary to warm up a four-engined plane and keep it running until three or four o'clock in the morning. It is most disturbing, particularly in the summer weather. What is happening to the acoustic wall which has been built and with which experiments are made from time to time? Is it being used regularly? My constituents are under the impression that it is not being used regularly and that if it were it would do some good.

When a little noise is caused by a helicopter flying over the Thames, noble Lords in another place have only to raise their little fingers and orders are immediately given to ground the machines until silencers are fitted. The people in Heston, Isleworth, Feltham, Hayes and Harlington, do not seem to matter. The volume of protest is rising and it will not be long before people march off in an effort to prevent airplanes taking off or landing at London Airport. That is the sort of feeling that exists and I ask the Minister to do everything he can to abate it.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I appreciate that the time for this debate is running out so I will put only one question to the Parliamentary Secretary. I have been in correspondence with him on behalf of the villagers of Colnebrook. That village is in three constituencies, and is partly in mine. The Minister has said in his replies to me that the runway at London Airport is to be extended in the hope that airplanes can reach greater heights so that there will not be so much disturbance at night. Will the Parliamentary Secretary now say something about the progress of that extension of the runway to meet that difficulty?

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Charles Off-Ewing (Hendon, North)

I will not keep the House more than a few minutes, because I know that the Parliamentary Secretary wishes to reply, but I think it right that this point should be cleared up. We have invested £22 million in London Airport and it is important that such a tremendous investment should be used, not for a few hours a day, but for as many hours of the day and night as aircraft can use. This means a great deal of disturbance and an increasing amount of it in the future.

It is not necessarily the size of the aircraft which measures the amount of the disturbance. Those of us who heard the Harvard during the war know the tremendous amount of noise which that small aircraft made; and those of us who have seen the Britannia, the largest aircraft of British manufacture flying today, know how quiet it is; and research into this problem could effect considerable saving while the aircraft is in the air. I feel, also, that research should be conducted towards quietness on the ground. It is rather astonishing that we are able to dig a long tunnel through which motor vehicles run when approaching the centre of London Airport, and other tunnels under the aprons so that people can get to the central building, and yet not provide a tunnel in which aircraft could be tested. I believe that the possibilities of a solution on those lines could be explored.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary could say whether, in the design of aircraft, particularly civil aircraft, attention is being given to the extra results now being obtained from flaps and what is called the "suck and blow principle" over the wings of aircraft, which allows the aircraft to land at a much lower speed. If an aircraft is enabled to land at a lower speed, it is possible for it to come in to approach very much higher, almost twice as high as at present, which would mean less disturbance to the houses below. Anything which might be achieved in that direction would be of enormous benefit. May I say that it is no good telling thirty people inside an aircraft—perhaps in the future it may be a hundred—that it is so quiet in the aircraft that it is possible to hear the bores on either side of them telling the oldest stories in the world, if, at the same time, disturbance is being caused to the peace of people in their homes.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

I hope that in rising now I have not given the impression that I wished to hurry the hon. Members speaking on this matter, but I wished to have time to try to give as full an answer as I am able on the subject raised by the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter). It is one which has been raised in this House before by other hon. Members representing constituencies in the vicinity of London Airport, but I think that the vigour and sincerity of the hon. Member was equal to anything we have previously heard about this deeply disturbing problem.

It is a problem which has long been the cause of earnest concern to the Government and which, because it does not affect only one or any individual area, carries its disturbing consequences wherever airports exist the world over. It is one which has become more and more in the public eye, or perhaps I should say more logically, the public ear. Let me emphasise that the Government are fully conscious of the dual responsibility they must shoulder, first to encourage research and invention in the reduction of aeroplane noise and secondly, in common with all those who operate airports today, to do so with every reasonable regard to the amenities of those who work and dwell in the vicinity of airports. As "The Times" has admirably expressed it in a recent searching article entitled "The Curse of Noise" it is … a most intractable problem, because it is so difficult to reduce the noise. Nonetheless much has been done, and continues to be done, as witness of the earnest intention of all concerned. London Airport is now the busiest airport in Europe. The number of passengers who pass through it has risen since 1953 from 1,204,561 to an estimated total this year of over 2,700,000. During the past July and August the maximum number of aircraft movements during any one day was 689, but the number exceeded 600 on seven days and 500 on 35 days during that period. It would therefore be impossible to eradicate the effect on local residents of traffic of this magnitude. It is not so much that the noise itself is increasing as that the total volume of disturbance is increasing. Naturally, aircraft are at their lowest in the immediate vicinity of the airport.

I am aware that there has been some controversy—and this matter was touched on today—about the actual height at which aircraft pass over the estates which verge on the airport. Therefore, my Department has carried out photographic measurements to check the calculated performance of various aircraft passing over estates in the vicinity of the airport, including, may I say, Waye Avenue at Cranford. These show that for take-offs in still air at this time of the year, 70 per cent. of the aircraft pass over at a height of between 300 and 500 feet. As soon as the wind rises, however, these figures improve rapidly and with a 22 to 25 knot wind the 70 per cent. figure rises to between 450 and 800 feet.

In landing, 70 per cent. of the aircraft pass over between 300 and 450 feet. I thought that I had better mention that point to show that we wanted to establish exactly what happened, and that there was not, as my hon. Friend mentioned, any attempt to fly low on the verges of the airport, and also because we have found that it is very difficult for people to calculate the heights of aircraft above them.

It is worth noting that the height regulations are being obeyed. We have evolved special procedures to try, as far as practicable, to keep aircraft from flying over built-up areas at these heights. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies explained this in October, 1953, to representatives of the Harmondsworth, Harlington, and Cranford Residents' Association.

He said that when No. 1 runway was returned to use, landings from the east and take-offs to the east would, as far as possible, be confined to No. 5 runway. During this summer, with No. 1 runway in full operation, the airport authorities—who have had a very difficult job indeed: I join in the tribute paid to Sir John d'Albiac and the authorities there—have used every endeavour to follow the spirit of this assurance, but initially they have been handicapped because of the absence of radio aids on No. l runway. The major portion of these have now been installed and the problem has largely been overcome.

The difficulty, however, has been aggravated since the middle of September because No. 5 runway has had to be closed for repair and modifications, but this work should be completed in about a month's time. Then No. 1 runway will only be used to the east for take-offs when operational conditions require. I wish to make the point plain that, with rapidly increasing traffic, we shall have to use No. 1 runway in peak periods in addition to No. 5 runway, but we shall do so as little as possible. The airline operators are well aware of the problems, and are using their best endeavours to encourage their pilots to climb as soon as possible after take-off and to avoid making low approaches. The regulations are, in the main, being obeyed, and when they are disobeyed strict disciplinary action is taken. This aspect of the problem is under continuous study by my Department, together with the operators, to see whether anything further can be done. One other point upon which my hon. Friend touched. In practice no two successive aircraft are likely to fly on exactly the same route.

I wish to say a word about a comparatively minor aspect of disturbance at London Airport. I realise that this is a digression from the main issue, but nevertheless, it is something which has had a cumulative aggravating effect on the resident. Owing to the increase in air traffic and the complexity of air traffic control, my right hon. Friend has decided that pleasure flying from London Airport must come to an end. Although this decision has been taken upon operational grounds, I hope that it will produce some relief, especially to the areas to the north of the aerodrome.

With regard to the question asked by two hon. Members about the damage caused to property by aircraft in flight, everybody who is concerned with this problem will be aware that my Department instituted a technical survey to be carried out by the Building Research Station of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The view of the experts, expressed in a detailed report, was that the defects observed in houses inspected were such as are commonly experienced in houses of similar construction in various parts of the country, and that the passage of low-flying aircraft or the testing of engines had not contributed either to the incidence of the defects or their magnitude.

I appreciate that these conclusions have not been acceptable to many of the local residents, and that they have pressed for a statistical survey. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend, as he has already pointed out, is satisfied that the report by these independent experts is a right one, and he is not able to agree that he has any further obligation to arrange for a Government-sponsored survey.

As to the general problem of aircraft noise, however, research is continuing not only by the Ministry of Supply but also by aircraft and engine manufacturers, with a view to reducing engine and propeller noise at the source. Rolls Royce have recently announced the results of experiments with corrugated jet nozzles, by which it is hoped that the audible sensations of noise by jet engines in the air and on the ground will be reduced by as much as half. Mufflers are being developed which can be used on the ground for various types of jet aircraft.

The College of Aeronautics, the National Physical Laboratory and the Universities of Southampton and Manchester all have programmes of basic research for noise reduction, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply has asked me to say that he regards the question of aircraft noise as a most serious and urgent matter.

Now listen to the voice of one of the world's foremost operators. This is what Sir Miles Thomas recently wrote in an article in the "Sunday Times": My personal feeling is that we aircraft operators can well consider injecting a new factor into our forward aircraft specifications and refuse to buy machines that do not conform to a strict noise limitation. Forthright and telling words from one whose organisation controls orders for millions of pounds worth of aircraft.

If any proof were needed of the attitude of my right hon. Friend, let it be known that it was at his express wish that the introduction of the helicopter service from London Airport into Central London was delayed until a silencer could be developed and fitted to these machines. In this case, it took a combination of expert brains and engineering skill many months to achieve and, even so, with a considerable weight penalty. But the problem of silencing the great fixed-wing air liners is even more complicated, and to talk, as some people do, about introducing legislation to make silencers compulsory is nothing less than wishful thinking, since no practicable method has been developed anywhere in the world of effectively silencing a jet engine or eliminating the noise of the conventional multi-engined type.

It is impossible to keep aircraft away from heavily populated areas, and London Airport must be as near the capital as possible. The size of Greater London is such that aircraft cannot help crossing built-up areas and, consequently, the noise of aircraft close to London Airport is bound to be troublesome to many people.

But it must be realised that air transport is with us to stay, and is of considerable benefit to the country. British air lines are making appreciable earnings overseas and London Airport will handle about 3 million people this year.

Those who live near the airport can be assured that the Government are not sacrificing the individual blindly to this industry. This great and growing social problem will continue to be energetically investigated in the best interests of the nation as a whole. I shall read with the greatest interest everything that has been said this afternoon, and though I have not been able to reply in detail to all the points mentioned, they will continue to be examined and, so far as my right hon. Friend and I are able, we shall do what we can to continue to have London Airport operated in such a way that it will least affect the people who live around it.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.