HC Deb 07 November 1957 vol 577 cc455-64

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I am glad to have the opportunity tonight to raise an important matter on behalf of my constituents in Cains Lane, Bedfont. I am not raising the question of my constituents' claim for compensation because a Soviet jet airliner was involved; it would have been raised had it been of British, American or any other nationality.

On 8th September, a Soviet jet airliner took off from London Airport at 4.10 a.m. It cannot be denied that it created a great noise and disturbance. Many people in the neighbourhood were awakened from sleep and thought that an aircraft had crashed. This was fully reported in both the national and local Press, with the announcement that the Minister of Transport had asked that the Soviet jet airliner should not land at London Airport on its return journey on account of its noise.

Cains Lane is only 600 yards from the runway. The houses were built in 1937, long before London Airport was built, and the district was then mainly country. Noise and vibration go together, and in my opinion the vibration from the jet airliner caused damage to seven houses in Cains Lane. My constituents have sent me estimates they have obtained from a local builder to repair the damage, and the amounts are as follows: No. 4, Cains Lane, £88 2s. 6d.; No. 6, £85 5s. 0d.; No. 8, £8 10s. 0d.; No. 10, £10; No. 12, £10 5s. 0d.; No. 14, £129 2s. 6d., and No. 16, £10 15s. 0d. At the request of my constituents, I will forward those estimates to the Minister of Transport, so that he can have them checked. I sincerely trust that he will meet their claims for compensation

My constituents are not wealthy people; they are owner-occupiers who have struggled for years to pay their mortgages, and this damage is a serious matter for them. In his reply the Minister may refer to the Report of the Building Research Station. I would remind him that that is a Government Department and not an independent tribunal, and I know that it will not convince my constituents—who were awakened at 4.10 a.m. to find cracks in their ceilings, broken windows, tiles off their roofs and distemper all over the floors—that the vibration from the Soviet jet airliner did not cause the damage.

It has been suggested to me that the runway was not long enough for the Soviet aircraft.

I inspected the houses, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), and I am grateful for the assistance he has given me. I questioned my constituents in Cains Lane, and I am completely satisfied that they told me the truth. In my opinion, the vibration from the Soviet jet airliner caused the damage, and I trust that their claims for compensation will be met.

Before I finish on this subject, I earnestly appeal to the Minister to redouble his efforts into research on noise and vibration. In the News Chronicle of 24th October there was an article: Watch your ceilings in 10 years time when the big jet airliners fly over towns. In some parts of my constituency they have to watch ceilings now. Air travel will grow, and we all want it to expand in this country. We desire that our airline corporations should lead the world. It will, however, bring problems, and noise and vibration will be the chief one. I ask the Minister to extend research, especially with the aircraft manufacturers. Research should not be confined to this country. The problem of noise and vibration is an international one, and all countries should co-operate to find a solution to end it.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Frank Beswick (Uxbridge)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) on raising this matter. I think that the electors of Feltham are lucky in their Member. I do not believe that any hon. Member could be more diligent in following up the interests of his constituents.

In this matter, not only, as he says, did he go on the spot and have a look for himself, he also persuaded me to go with him. I am glad that he has raised this matter, not only because of the interests of his own individual constituents, but because it raises a problem of very wide importance.

We have been considering today the threat from the problem of the Sputnik, but there is no point in lying awake in bed at night worrying about the future threat of the Sputnik if our bedroom window is broken by the vibration from one of the old-fashioned jet aircraft which are only now about to take to the air routes of the world.

I also recognise the problem that faces the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary. I know only too well that once he admits that there is some damage caused by aircraft he is opening the door very wide to all kinds of claims and he has to tread very warily. Nevertheless, if there is a legitimate claim for damage I do not think it is good enough just to say that we cannot make any precedent. We have to be fair to the individual citizen.

In this case, as I have already said to my hon. Friend, I was surprised at the size of the estimates of damage, and it may well be that some of them are inflated. Having made all allowance for that, it still remains a fact that some of the damage cannot be explained away other than by the fact that the vibration from the noise of the engines in the TU.104 caused the damage.

Even if it is only one cracked window that we accept as having been damaged, it raises a problem of considerable importance. Firstly, let me ask the Parliamentary Secretary this question. His experts say that there is no proof one way or the other that the damage was caused by this aircraft. I ask him what further proof he wants and what further proof there can be. What experts are there in the cracking of windows? I agree that if a crack were grimed with dirt then its cracking must have been caused some time ago. That is fair enough. If there is no dirt, and if there is a recent crack, how can one provide technical proof that it was caused by the vibration of this machine? The only proof I can see that one can accept is the word of the occupants, that the window was not cracked when they went to bed and that when they were awakened by the noise of the machine they found the crack. What further technical proof is the Minister demanding that the damage was caused by vibration?

The second point is on research. I know that a good deal of work has been done in the measurement of noise. I recognise the interest which the Parliamentary Secretary has shown in this problem. But here we are dealing with damage caused by vibration and not simply with inconvenience caused by noise. The two matters can be quite different. What research or investigation has taken place since this incident? For example, has there been any other jet aircraft taking off on this particular runway, or have we arranged for it to do so? Have we measured the vibration and the disturbance caused when engines are run up at the end of the runway? Have we made allowance for the fact that the engines of the future will be much more powerful than those currently used?

Finally, if it be accepted that some of the damage was caused by the vibration of these engines, upon whom does the liability rest? Is it with the Minister, as the owner of the airport, or with the operator? Has anything been done to settle liability? What is the law on the matter, and has there been any attempt with other countries to get standardisation of procedures or of liability? These are matters which we shall have to face, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, who I know has gone very deeply into this matter, will be able to answer some of my questions.

10.14 p.m.

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

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) for raising this matter on behalf of his constituents, and to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) for putting so fairly the difficulties. It is a matter of the highest importance for the residents of the neighbourhood of London Airport, not only because of this one machine, but because of its implications for the future. We shall have more and more jet aircraft flying in at London Airport. Local residents naturally want to know how they will be affected.

My right hon. Friend has every possible sympathy with the local residents, and the hon. Gentleman, who has the wellbeing of his constituents at heart, may be certain that it will not be overlooked. My Department has in the past done everything possible to minimise the disturbances caused by aircraft noise. The hon. Member will be aware of the special techniques which have been devised to enable aircraft to take off and to gain height as rapidly as possible and thus be as far from the ground when flying over residential areas. And where a choice is possible, runways are selected for landing and take-off with a view to causing the least possible nuisance to the neighbourhood.

While on this subject, I should remind hon. Members of what my right hon. Friend has said on the question of noise and disturbance from future aircraft. In the last Session he said that he would have to take the noise factor into account when considering whether future types of aircraft could be permitted to use our international airports. Last week, on the same subject, he said: …before aircraft of this type have the unrestricted use of London Airport and other airports in this country, we shall want to be satisfied that the level of noise is not such as to cause an intolerable burden to the inhabitants who live around these airports. I hope that the House will pardon me for having dealt with these general matters at some length, but I felt it necessary to emphasis the concern of my right hon. Friend for local residents on this question.

Now, with regard to the specific incident raised by the hon. Member for Feltham, we have no doubt whatever as to the sincerity of the constituents of the hon. Member in claiming that damage was caused to their houses by the TU.104. I hope, however, that both hon. Members will appreciate the position of my right hon. Friend when, after an independent inquiry, it has been found that the damage complained of cannot in fact be attributed to that aircraft. Before I come on to the question of liability, may I state the facts from the point of view of my Department. The TU.104—

Mr. Beswick

When he refers to an independent inquiry, and if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is referring to the report of the Building Research Station, is it not a fact that the Laboratory did say in the case of the windows that there was insufficient evidence either way?

Mr. Neave

It did, indeed, say that it was not conclusive either way. Of course, that does not establish liability, as the hon. Gentleman will agree. I would stress that the Building Research Station is a completely independent body, and in all the circumstances it is difficult to see how my right hon. Friend could do otherwise than accept its conclusions. However, I will deal with the report in a moment.

This TU.104 took off in a westerly direction—that is in the direction away from the East Bedfont area—from runway number 5 at three o'clock in the morning (G.M.T.) on 8th September. About an hour later the southern area Air Traffic Control Centre received a telephone call made on behalf of the chairman of the East Bedfont Residents' Association; it was stated that complaints of loud aircraft noise had been received and that some of the houses in the neighbourhood had been shaken.

About the same time a complaint about noise was received from a resident of Sunbury, some miles away. The following morning another complaint was received from Mr. J. R. Shipman, of 14, Cains Lane, Bedfont—he subsequently wrote to the hon. Member for Feltham—saying that his ceilings and roof had been damaged. Officers of the Aerodrome Constabulary were immediately sent to Cains Lane to inspect the damage at Mr. Shipman's house and other houses in the neighbourhood. An investigation was subsequently made by engineers from the Air Ministry Works Directorate who made certain estimates about the amount of damage. I should say now that no formal claims have been received in respect of this damage, but the estimates quoted by the hon. Member for Feltham do not agree with those at my disposal.

Mr. Hunter

I will send the hon. Member the estimates tomorrow.

Mr. Neave

I am much obliged. No doubt we shall have an opportunity to consider those estimates.

In the circumstances, my right hon. Friend decided to ask the Building Research Station of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to make an independent inspection of the houses in Cains Lane. This was carried out on 20th September, each house being inspected in the presence of the householder or his wife. The Building Research Station's conclusion was—and I think that perhaps I had better quote from its Report— The majority of the defects complained of are of long standing and attributable to causes other than the take-off. It is not possible to decide the cause of cracking of one pane of glass at No. 6 Cains Lane, East Bedfont"— and this is the point raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge— nor to comment on the few tiles on the roof at No. 14 which had been moved by the owner of the house after the incident. The fall of very small amounts of loosely adherent distemper bridging old cracks which occurred on the night of September 7th-8th could have been caused by the aircraft though there is no definite proof. Those are the words of the Building Research Station inspectors.

As this conclusion may have come as a surprise to the householders concerned, I should perhaps explain how it was arrived at. The Building Research Station found that none of the tiles which were alleged to have been broken as a result of the take-off showed a new fracture and it was evident from the dirty surfaces of the cracks complained of that the tiles had not recently been broken. This was confirmed by the fact that only a very few of the broken pieces were still available. It was also noticed that a number of the tiles on various roofs were cracked but all the cracks were dirty and were not of recent origin.

With regard to the complaints about the ceilings, the Research Station found that these cracks were not of recent origin but had been covered over with distemper which had already lost adherence it was only this loose distemper which had been dislodged during the night of the incident. This may have been caused by the take-off, but there is no definite proof of that. I want to stress again that this is from an entirely independent body.

Those are the facts as seen by my Department. I now want to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, which is: what evidence is required in such a case? What sort of evidence would be acceptable as proof that a particular piece of damage was caused by a particular aircraft? This really involves a claim for compensation and is a matter for the courts. It is not for me to say what sort of evidence would be required by a court of law. In this case, the question of proof or lack of proof only arises in respect of one pane of glass, and I think it is relevant that it was not noticed that the pane of glass was broken until the following morning. Also, the window in which the pane was cracked was on the far side of the house from the aircraft.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge also asked me what tests were being made, what research has been conducted by my Department into aircraft noise and possible disturbance of this kind in the neighbourhood of London Airport. I have to tell him that the operational research branch of my Department has made measurements of noise in all the residential districts around London Airport. The noise measured has been that made by aircraft taking off, running up before taking off, landing, in the air—both before landing and after take-off—and by engine-running in the maintenance areas.

The hon. Member may like to know the method by which these measurements are made. The noises are recorded on tape recorders—"bottled", as it were—at various points, and are then taken away to the laboratory and analysed by a long and elaborate process.

The hon. Member for Feltham has also referred to research into the question of the big new jets and noise suppression. He has referred to the need for international research. At the hon. Member for Uxbridge pointed out, I am extremely interested in this matter. I agree that everything possible should be done, in view of the development of new types of aircraft. A great deal of research is going on into the prospects of noise-reducing devices for jet aircraft both in this country and in the United States. My Department and aircraft engine manufacturers in this country are in close touch with the New York airport authorities and aircraft manufacturers in the United States.

The hon. Member for Feltham referred to the length of the runways and suggested that one of the causes of noise and vibration might be found in the fact that the runways were too short. If the runways were longer, I suppose that it would be possible for aircraft to take off at a point farther to the east or to the west, as the case might be, than at present, but I cannot see how this would do more than benefit one group of residents at the expense of another.

Mr. Hunter

It was suggested to me that this runway was too short for the Soviet jet airliner.

Mr. Neave

The hon. Gentleman has heard that, but I have no definite evidence about it. As I say, I do not think that one could make an alteration in length of runways without, in fact, making difficulties for people on the other side of the airport, as things stand at present.

I now come to a very important point raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, that is, the legal position. May I put it in this way: in this particular case, no damage caused by aircraft has been proved, and no formal claims for compensation have been received. The hon. Gentleman has, however, asked me what the legal position would be on the hypothesis that physical damage to premises were proved to have been caused by aircraft using London Airport. I am taking a hypothetical case wherein it has been established as a matter of evidence that damage was actually caused by aircraft using that airport. The hon. Gentleman will understand, since he has had much experience in these matters, that, like all hypothetical questions of this kind, the answer depends very much upon the facts. Subject to that qualification, I am advised that the legal position would depend upon the application of the provisions of Sections 40 and 41 of the Civil Aviation Act, 1949, and how they are interpreted by the courts.

This, of course, is a case where, so far as my Department is concerned, no damage has been proved, and no claims have yet been formally received. The matter would be one to be decided as a matter of law as to whose responsibility it is and whose should be any liability for claims of this kind. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether liability would rest upon the owner or the operator of the aircraft. That is not a matter which has been legally decided and that again, I think, is a matter for the courts. It is not for my right hon. Friend to interpret the law. The hon. Gentleman may well be right in thinking that the question ought to be interpreted, and that is one of the problems we have to face. I accept that that may well be so.

I should like to conclude by saying that, of course, my Department will continue to study the whole problem in a sympathetic way and, I hope both hon. Gentlemen will agree, in a realistic way, so far as it affects people living near aerodromes. I have tried to reply to all the points which have been raised as best I can, and I hope that hon. Gentlemen will be satisfied that every effort is being made to find a solution to what is, indeed, a very difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.