HC Deb 17 March 1969 vol 780 cc160-74

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

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

Since 7 o'clock we have been discussing the activities of local authorities. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue the trend—in this case, the activity of Luton Corporation, which operates an airport to the discomfort of some of those who live outside Luton's boundaries. The airport has grown from what was initially a flying field constructed in the late 1930s and then used by flying clubs for Gypsy Moths and that type of aircraft, but it is only really in recent years that it has developed with the provision of facilities for charter companies catering mainly for package tours.

The rapid rate of growth of the traffic is reflected in the figures. Whereas in 1963 about 133,000 passengers passed through the airport, by 1967 the figure had reached 425,698. I believe that, in 1968, the figure was close to 1 million and that the consultative committee has been informed that it is expected to increase by 50 per cent. further this year. The two major operators which run these tours expect a general growth of aircraft movements of 40 per cent. increase per annum, which is formidable prospect.

The biggest use comes in the summer holiday season, involving a very fast growing use of twin-jet aircraft. Many of the complaints I have received emanate from the beginning of the use of twin jets. Whereas, in summer last year, there were 1,831 jet take-offs from Luton it is estimated that this summer there will be 5,300—nearly a threefold increase.

The airport itself is a tongue of land which protrudes into Hertfordshire and you will not be surprised, Mr. Speaker, to see another Hertfordshire Member here in the person of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), because most of the take-offs and landing approaches cover Hertfordshire rather than Bedfordshire, although parts of South Bedfordshire are affected.

Night take-offs, which are a particular intrusion into people's privacy, peace and quiet, are also to be trebled this year. This is perhaps causing even more concern than even the daytime flights. The traffic in 1969 is, I understand, expected to reach the limit of the capacity of the terminal buildings. But what is worrying the people who are affected by these flights is that the limit of capacity of the runway has not nearly been reached as yet, so that there is the possibility of future growth without even providing additional runways.

The fears of people affected in the area have led to the formation of the Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise—known as "Ladacan". It has been informed, I understand, that the present facilities at the airport could allow 32 aircraft movements per hour, which is a considerable number. This apparently is not thought to be sufficient by Luton Corporation, which has engaged Sir Frederick Snow, at a fee, I believe, of £15,000, to explore and advise on the possible development of the airport. There is the possibility of a new 10,000 feet runway which would enable the traffic to increase to 60 full movements per hour, which is even more horrifying to contemplate. So it is little wonder that there is such widespread concern in the areas affected.

I wrote to the Minister of State's predecessor in July, 1967, with complaints from constituents, and was told in a letter dated 13th August, 1967: I must explain that as regards aerodromes which are not owned by the Board of Trade or the British Airports Authority, we have no powers to impose restrictions on aircraft in flight in order to protect amenities in the vicinity of the aerodromes. On learning this, I wrote to the then Town Clerk of Luton—I think that he has become a director of one of the airline operating companies, although I am not certain—but his reply was not particularly sympathetic. He passed on what I regarded as somewhat arrogant observations from the airport authority which merely said that there was no evidence to support the allegations of low flying. This was at a time when there were training flights for pilots learning to use twin jet aircraft at the airport.

On 20th September, 1968, I wrote to the Minister of State about reviewing the routes. He replied: They— the Luton Airport authorities— have sent us their proposals for comment and these are now being considered. The decision is, however, a matter for the airport authority alone". This airport is not controlled in any way by the Board of Trade and, therefore, air traffic may grow willy nilly. Who controls the growth of air traffic at Luton?

It is interesting to note that a Press release from Hertfordshire County Council in November, 1968, dealing with representations made by the council to the Luton Borough Corporation about the possible expansion of the airport and the intensification of the use of existing facilities, said: For the Borough Council, it was pointed out that the Airport is licensed for 24 hours per day and that their control over the growth of air traffic to and from the airport was very limited, although they were endeavouring to persuade airline operators to reduce aircraft movement at night. The Board of Trade is not in control and apparently the borough council has very limited control of aircraft movement. Are we seriously expected to believe that the growth and pattern of air traffic are entirely in the control of the operators in a case like this, that they have to be persuaded by Luton Corporation not to make life hell at night for the 585,000 people who live within a nine-mile radius of the airport, that no one can say them nay?

Furthermore, as Luton is a county borough, it is the planning authority in its own area. This means that it can develop the airport within its own boundaries as much as it wishes without reference to any other authority. I understand that major developments have to be referred to the Minister of Housing and Local Government but he does not have aviation experts in his Department and is probably not concerned with air traffic routes or anything of that sort. Most of the developments proposed for the next four or five years, which are to cost, I understand, some £3 million, are regarded as of a minor nature. This is an anachronistic situation.

Obviously, most planning decisions taken by a county borough would affect merely the ratepayers within the borough, and they have a say in what their council does, or hope to have, and can at least put out the council if they do not like what it does. But planning decisions affecting an airport concern large numbers of people living well outside the boundaries of the borough, people who are not represented on the council and who have no say in it. They have no remedy. Not only in Luton but in towns like St. Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Letchworth, Redbourn, Welwyn, Harpenden, Stevenage, Hitchin, Dunstable, Welwyn Garden City and many small and attractive villages, people will be greatly affected by this growth of traffic

There is a rumour that the abolition of the special status of county boroughs is to be recommended by the Royal Commission on Local Government, and that seems good reason in itself for holding up further development of the airport until the Commission's recommendations are known. There is also the Edward Committee of inquiry into air transport and the Roskill Commission on the third London airport. Is it sensible to allow Luton Airport to grow and attract more and more traffic regardless of the recommendations which these bodies may ultimately make?

Furthermore, if Nuthampstead, for instance, in East Hertfordshire, were selected finally as the site for the third London airport, those who live in North Hertfordshire would find themselves flanked by two major airports, because if Luton is allowed to grow, as it is growing, without any check, it will become a major airport in the six years or so that we can expect to pass before the third London airport is built.

I wonder whether the Minister of State has considered the implications of the present position. There is not only the question of destruction of amenity over a very large area. There is also the question of safety. It might have been safe enough to have a flying field with a few light aircraft flying around only two miles from the town hall in the late 1930s, but is it sensible and safe to have a busy jet airport, with international flights, with a runway only two miles from the town hall in a town of 150,000 people?

The Vauxhall motor works are close at hand with extensive paint shops at the west end of the runway. They employ 20,000 people. An HS125 jet aircraft crashed there in September, 1967. It was only good fortune that the works were closed at the time and, therefore, the casualties were merely the two in the aircraft, whereas there might have been thousands more had the paint shop, for instance, been hit and caught alight. There are secondary schools in the area, children's homes and old people's homes and many other places which one would expect to want to be in safe areas.

I suggest that only a lunatic would put a jet airport in such a situation if he were starting from scratch. It really seems absurd that, merely because there was this small flying field there in the late 1930s, we should now have this big airport growing before our eyes.

Do we have to accept the view of the Luton Corporation that, since the airport is there, it must simply be allowed to grow and to hell with the consequences? A consultative committee has been formed in advance of the legislation passed by Parliament, but, of course, it has no power to prevent the growth of traffic at the airport. Indeed, its members are already feeling depressed at the cavalier fashion in which they seem to be treated by the corporation.

I have a statement made by a member of that committee representing Harpenden Urban District Council, but I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, might wish to quote from it. One thing which is surprising, however, is that he states: The Luton Corporation say that they are proposing certain definite routes to the Board of Trade, but they did not produce any details; also they insisted that they have no responsibility after the aircraft leave the airport boundary for where they fly. It is an absurd situation if the Board of Trade, Luton Corporation and everybody say that they have no control over where these aircraft fly. It seems to me that we cannot allow this airport, with its traffic, to grow outside the context of the plans which are being made for air traffic in the South-East. I hope that the Minister will intervene in the interests of the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives can be so greatly affected by the piecemeal and uncontrolled growth of this airport.

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Bedfordshire, South)

In support of some of the things that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has said, I should like to say that the problems of this airport are not confined to the people who live outside Luton. My constituency is probably evenly divided, with about half of my electorate in Luton, in the county borough, and half outside. These days I receive a steady number of complaints about the airport which are equally divided between those who live in the county borough and those who live outside.

As the hon. Member for St. Albans has rightly said, looking back into the late 1930s, and even into the immediate post-war period, there was no real problem associated with this airport.

It being Ten 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. Harper.]

Mr. Roberts

The problem has reached considerable proportions only over the last two or three years, because the traffic at this airport has about trebled over this period. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, it is contemplated that next year there will be about 5,300 summer jet flights.

The matter reached what I regarded as acute proportions when this hare-brained scheme was put forward last year that, in addition to the existing 7,000 ft. runway, another 10,000 foot runway should be built which would be capable of taking 60 movements an hour.

The worst thing I felt about this was the apparent lack of consultation with the Board of Trade before this inquiry was set up. When I wrote to the then Minister of State, he indicated that there had been no direct consultation with him before this inquiry was initiated. I should like 1o emphasise the need for far greater consultation and far greater knowledge of what goes on by the Board of Trade.

The hon. Member for St. Albans has referred to the Luton Airport Consultative Committee. Many people have felt that the Committee has not been sufficiently representative because many local bodies which wish to have a say on the committee have not been represented. I also believe that those which are represented have felt up to now that not sufficient weight has been given to their views.

I have yet another letter from some body within Luton which states that the people of Luton feel that they are not sufficiently consulted. It is unfortunately true that on this matter the two major political parties have long-established attitudes—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is drifting back to the point that he made some time ago in the House. He is beginning to debate the policies of Luton Council.

Mr. Roberts

In this case they were still thinking—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must debate on the airport something for which the Minister has Ministerial responsibility. In this case it is the Minister of State for the Board of Trade.

Mr. Roberts

There is a feeling among the people of Luton that they would like greater opportunities for expressing their views on this issue.

I should like the Minister to provide from the Board of Trade much more positive rather than negative consultation. I have no doubt that the Board of Trade has provided the answers whenever Luton has posed the questions. The hon. Member for St. Albans has referred to the problems in Hertfordshire over Nuthampstead and growth at Luton. He could imagine the problems of South Bedfordshire if Cubington was chosen as the third London Airport.

I want to ask my hon. Friend for two assurances. Will he say that under no circumstances will the Board of Trade countenance the type of enormous development at Luton which has been envisaged by the council? Even if he is not prepared to do this, I hope that he will at least make it clear that the Board of Trade will insist on much closer control over traffic movements from Luton, and also that these movements be kept within such limits that they do not affect the airports in the area.

If my hon. Friend will give the House some of these assurances the debate will have served its purpose.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I wish to declare an interest, as one of the many residents in my constituency who have to suffer from the shocking noise from aircraft taking off from Luton Airport. At Tring, 15 miles away, the noise is deafening. At Markyate, where I have my cottage—four miles from the airport—the noise is appalling when jet aircraft are directly overhead. On Saturday, when I was pruning my roses, an aircraft passed about half a mile to the north of Markyate and the noise was acceptable. Immediately afterwards a jet aircraft passed directly overhead and the noise was indescribably bad. This is what we are used to getting day after day and night after night.

During the proceedings on the Civil Aviation Bill, last summer, I described the situation in Harpenden, with aircraft making their hideous noise. As a result of that Measure we are to have a consultative committee at Luton, but the procedure has not yet been completed. In consequence, we have only an interim consultative committee. Nevertheless, one would expect that that committee would be able to operate as a consultative committee under the Act when the procedure is completed.

So far, Tring has been refused direct representation on that committee. I should like to know the definition of "neighbouring local authority" is in the Act, because although Tring is only 15 miles away it is apparently not regarded as a neighbouring authority. Although the noise is thoroughly unpleasant, Tring is not to be consulted. The town is represented by a person who represents all the urban districts in Hertfordshire. He is an extremely able man, but he cannot possibly represent everyone. It would be very much better if every authority concerned were represented.

That gentleman was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), and I want to quote another point raised in his report. He says: It is regrettable to have to report that it is unlikely that the Consultative Committee will, as it is at present operating, have any significant effect in controlling the way in which the expansion of air traffic from Luton airport will go on, or in halting the further deterioration of the situation in the surrounding areas of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, unless the Luton Corporation itself radically changes its present attitude. The Corporation appears to have little regard for the views of the Consultative Committee as has been particularly demonstrated regarding plans for night flying in 1969. The consultative committee suggested to the corporation that its plans should be drastically revised, in view of the strong increase to which my hon. Friend referred, and was firmly snubbed.

Aircraft noise has become intolerable to those living nearby. Therefore, routing is vitally important yet as my hon. Friend said, virtually nothing is being done. The Board of Trade, which is supposed to think of routing, normally says that it is not a matter for the Department, but for the airport directors, who say that it is a matter for the Board of Trade. Aircraft should not be routed over towns; this is essential.

I have heard from the Minister that training need not be done at busy airports where there is considerable inconvenience from noise—it should be done at remote airfields—but this news has not got through to Luton, which continues to do training normally over the roofs of Harpenden. The country should wake up to the fact that aircraft noise is becoming intolerable. If the operational requirements of the third London airport require flying over the green fields of England, life would become appalling. The dangers from jet aircraft noise will make the country a hell on earth unless the Minister controls it.

10.13 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. William Rodgers)

When I assumed my present responsibilities last summer, I was immediately made aware that the problem of noise from Luton Airport was something with which I would deal. One of the first things I did was to visit the airport and make clear the considerable concern outside Luton about the noise problem and the apprehension about the corporation's reported plans for a new runway. I also met representatives of "Ladacan" and expressed to them my concern that the growth of aircraft noise should cause such upset and distress to increasing numbers of people.

I am, therefore, not surprised that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) should have raised this matter. I am glad to be able to make clear where we stand and what our powers are. The hon. Member has been assiduous in telling me of his concern, as have the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Gwilym Roberts). My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) has made clear to me her problem. In other words, this problem is of common concern throughout the countryside around Luton.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) wished to be here for the debate. He, too, has put me under consistent pressure about the situation at Luton. He, too, has been concerned with the need for consultation and concerned that the new machinery which has been set up and any further machinery should be genuinely representative of all the interests in the locality.

I have much sympathy with all these complaints. We all know from experience how harrowing aircraft noise can be, at least for some people. What we have to do, taking a larger view, is to ensure that the inevitable growth of air transport and of flying generally does not place an increased and unreasonable burden on the people. In that respect, I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead.

The story of Luton has been set out by the hon. Member for St. Albans. There has been very rapid growth indeed since 1960—more rapid, I think, than anywhere else in the United Kingdom—based very largely on the growth of inclusive tours. In fact, 20 per cent. of all inclusive tour traffic to and from Britain goes out of Luton, which is a high percentage.

Turning to the question of the economics of aerodrome operation, Luton is now breaking even and from the point of view of the corporation it is a very successful municipal enterprise. But the very success of the corporation—and we must give the corporation credit for what it has achieved in the area, whatever view we may take about the consequences—has created the further problems, and I ought to make it clear that as the responsibility for the airport is Luton's, the Board of Trade and other Government Departments have very limited powers indeed. It was a policy decision of the previous Government, with which I would not necessarily quarrel, to ensure that municipal airports had a chance to develop and in fact to pass over to municipalities, where they wished to take an airport on, those which were previously under the control of the Board of Trade.

But inevitably this creates problems. We cannot exceed our powers nor can we insist on controls for which there is no provision in legislation. Broadly speaking, as I understand, when my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu), said that we have no powers he was to a large extent speaking the truth, and it would be for Parliament to change that situation if it wished. In the meantime, although the Board of Trade can give a great deal of advice and help, ultimately decisions concerning the future of this municipal airport are for Luton to take. We play our part in planning matters, in sanctioning loans, in licensing the aerodrome and in providing the kind of technical assistance and advice which the Board offers to all such aerodrome owners, but the Government's powers to regulate activities at the aerodrome are limited. I do not wish to give the impression that the Board of Trade is in a position to compel Luton to change its policies.

Mr. Goodhew

Will the hon. Member deal with the question whether Luton Corporation has power to control the direction of the traffic? It says that it has not.

Mr. Rodgers

I hope that I shall do so. It is certainly true that Luton has complete control of air traffic movement through the airport, and, as I shall show, Luton is in a position to lay down and have the Board of Trade confirm and publish regulations affecting routes at landing and take-off. Luton has these powers and, of course, it has the powers of monitoring them.

Mr. Allason


Mr. Rodgers

I cannot give way again, or I shall not answer all the questions which have been asked.

I will deal next with the concern about possible major extensions at the airport. Looking to the future, Luton has been forced to consider a situation which will arise when the requirements of operators exceed the capacity of the present runway and the terminal building complex.

On this, it has called in expert advice, and I emphasise that the study to which reference has been made has been commissioned but is not yet complete. Far from there being the risk that decisions are now in process of being made without due consultation, Luton's neighbours should know that the borough still awaits the data upon which any policies will need to be based.

Even with the consultants' recommendations before it, the borough has many other factors to take into account before reaching the point of seeking planning permission for any major developments. It will have to take note of the short list of aerodromes recently published by the Roskill Commission, with the sort of implications mentioned this evening. In fact, no specific expansion could be undertaken without its place in the general plan for the region being studied, and the close relationship which exists between the borough and the Board of Trade in a consultative way ensures that all aspects of forward planning are taken into account.

In addition, in so far as new land might be required for any development of the airport involving modification, for example, of the county planning map, it would be necessary to get planning permission. Any objector would have every opportunity to make his views known and have his case weighed against the merits of the project. Any major development would be correspondingly costly, and the borough would probably have to borrow to finance it. For such loans, it would need the sanction of the Minister of Housing and Local Government who, in turn, could rely on the sponsorship of the scheme by the Board of Trade to guide him.

I turn now to the immediate and present problem of noise abatement measures for the airport with its growing prosperity and volume of traffic. Luton has set up a consultative committee for its airport in advance of a decision by us under the powers that we have taken in the Civil Aviation Act. Despite the criticisms mentioned this evening, I hope that the consultative committee will be a suitable forum not only for examining the forward plans which I have mentioned, because I see no reason why they should not be fully and frankly discussed with the committee, with a plain declaration of intention at the right time. In addition, the consultative committee will be able to consider matters of general and current interest affecting Luton's neighbours.

I do not think that I need bother hon. Members with the precise composition of the committee, because it is familiar to those who have shown an interest. It includes, for example, apart from representatives of local authorities, a representative of Ladacan. In addition, an airline representative has recently been added, and I understand that it is likely that an invitation will be sent to the Luton Chamber of Commerce to appoint a representative. It is not for me to say whether there may be scope for further additions, but I hope very much that the committee will seek to satisfy all genuine demands for consultation from the local communities as a whole, official and unofficial, given the limitations on size in order to be effective. I want to see genuine consultation. It is a matter for Luton, but I am sure that it will judge that it is in its own best interests.

With regard to procedures, about which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead was asking, new requirements were published last week in a document which is called a "Notam". This sets out new procedures for the routing of aircraft after take-off, a requirement for progressively decreasing noise-levels on the ground after a safe height for power cut-back has been reached, landing procedures aimed at keeping aircraft as high as possible for as long as possible, and restrictions on night training circuits and Sunday training circuits for jet aircraft. I will let all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and others who are interested have copies of the document. It is a very interesting one.

The first requirement is: Every operator of aircraft using the airport shall ensure at all times that aircraft are operating in a manner calculated to cause the least disturbance practicable in areas surrounding the airport. The second provision, about minimum noise routings, says that the routings laid down in the document. … shall apply to all aircraft taking off from Luton Airport in accordance with the air traffic control clearance so specified, unless air traffic control otherwise instructs … Thirdly, there is a reference to the need for power reduction. It says that every jet aircraft shall maintain a rate of climb of at least 500 feet per minute on power settings which will ensure progressively decreasing noise levels at a point on the ground under the flight path.

Fourthly, inbound aircraft shall maintain as high an altitude as possible, and a minimum of at least 3,000 feet while flying over any congested area of a city, town or settlement. These minimum noise procedures are formidable, and I hope that they will make a significant difference to the problem of noise in the surrounding areas.

Finally, on this point, I should say that Luton will shortly be setting up four monitoring points—two on either side of the runway—to check noise levels of arriving and departing aircraft. This is intended to be a fully automatic system of a type currently being installed at Heathrow, and I understand that some of the equipment is already on order.

This all shows that the Luton authorities are prepared to take steps to alleviate the noise problem. I certainly welcome this attitude, and I am sure that it will do something to ease the anxieties expressed in this debate. But, having said that, I must make it clear that unless civil aviation—which serves an increasingly wide section of the community either directly or indirectly—is checked in its expansion, there is bound to be growing inconvenience to many people living close to airports until such a time as quieter aircraft are introduced into service.

That time is not as far off as is sometimes supposed, and, had I the time now, I would explain the lead which Britain—in conjunction with, in particular the United States and France—has given in laying down minimum standards for international operation, and also in putting a great deal of money into research and development on less noisy aircraft. What I say is not a counsel of despair, but only a recognition of reality. The growth of private road transport, too, has created real problems of noise and amenity.

For the reasons I have given, there are special problems at Luton. I sometimes feel that when we have a consortium controlling an airport it is easier to get some consensus of where a balance may be struck. In this case, a single borough is responsible for the airport and has a proper interest in its growth and in the contribution it can make to the growth of our transport generally. Those outside find it more difficult to identify their interests with the growth of transport, yet feel themselves peculiarly the victims of the noise that has been caused.

I fully recognise the discomfort, the irritation and the upset. As I have tried to show, the ultimate responsibility for the necessary decisions is Luton's, but we are doing all in our power to safeguard amenity and the peace of our countryside and of the people who live there, and of the people who live in towns and urban communities as well. I am sure that our consultations with Luton, and all that has been said tonight, will help to emphasise, if it needs emphasising, the need to accommodate the growth of our traffic at Luton, however important to the prosperity of Britain, to the need also to preserve much that is fine and much which the people love and enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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