HC Deb 17 February 1970 vol 796 cc212-6
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Concorde test routes.

The bulk of Concorde's supersonic testing will take place over the sea. But for a small proportion of tests a route affecting some land areas is necessary for technical and safety reasons. In the light of discussions with the authorities concerned, and after carefully weighing the various factors involved, the Government have decided to authorise the use of a route along the west coast.

Copies of two maps of the test routes, including that along the west coast, will be available to Members in the Vote Office.

Flying along the west coast route will not start before the spring. Use of the route will be strictly limited to ensure that there is as little disturbance as possible to the public. If any claims for compensation for damage arise they should be addressed to the Concorde Division of my Department.

In due course an Order in Council will be laid before the House extending the protection of Section 40 of the Civil Aviation Act, 1949, to Crown civil aircraft including those engaged on the test flights and providing a statutory basis for compensation.

This decision to allow a limited number of supersonic test flights overland does not prejudge in any way the issue of whether aircraft should be allowed to fly supersonically over this country in commercial service. This question is being kept under review. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will announce a decision in due course in the light of further information and research on the problem.

Mr. Corfield

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I—and, I hope, all my hon. and right hon. Friends—accept the necessity for some test flights overland, and in doing so particularly welcome the strictly limited nature of these tests and the fact that they do not in any way prejudge the decision on operational flights? May I also express the hope that those who are inconvenienced by these flights will at least try to seek consolation in the knowledge that they will thereby be making a contribution to a great national, and indeed international, achievement?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he has said. A great deal of trouble has been taken in 14 separate presentations by the Department to those likely to be concerned and during discussions something of what he put into his supplementary question has been reflected back to us.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Twenty hon. Members wish to put supplementary questions. I must protect the business of the House. Questions must be brief.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his statement indicates that the programme of Concorde is still on target? Is he still optimistic that we shall obtain a very good return from the money that the country is spending on this advanced project?

Mr. Benn

The programme is going well. I can confirm that. We shall not know about the return until the orders for Concorde have been finally placed.

Mr. Fortescue

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, no matter what the result of these tests, the ability or otherwise of Concorde to fly supersonically overland in Europe will make no difference to its viability over trans-Atlantic routes?

Mr. Benn

Yes. There is no relationship between the two. I underline that these are tests of Concorde, not tests of the acceptability of the supersonic bang. I emphasise that these are two quite separate issues.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is it not clear that they are not tests of acceptability, because if that were the case the aircraft would need to be tested over urban areas and if that were done the uproar would be so great that the project would have to be cancelled immediately?

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend has been quite consistent in his total opposition to the programme throughout, on the grounds which he has put forward, but the object of these tests is to test the performance characteristics of the aircraft and in such a way as to create the minimum of disturbance.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman amplify his reference to statutory compensation? Is this a new element in the law of compensation and, if so, would it perhaps serve as a model for an extension of compensation in a more general field?

Mr. Benn

Behind that innocent question must lie some subtlety which brings me to the limit of my legal knowledge. I will refer it to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Crawshaw

Is my right hon. Friend correct in saying that these researches are necessary? May they not prove that the airports most acceptable for these aircraft are centred on the coast? Is this not at variance with the Government having refused to support Liverpool Airport, which is on the coast?

Mr. Benn

That question is certainly for my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, but I doubt whether he would connect these two issues—whether one should have supersonic aircraft and whether Liverpool should have the new airport it wishes to have—because they are quite separate.

Mr. Bessell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although the proposed route passes very close to if not actually over my constituency, I share his view that we should not pass advance judgment on the noise level or any other interference? Will he say whether, under the procedure for compensation, he will ensure that, if necessary, claims will be referred to an impartial authority?

Mr. Benn

There will be opportunity for discussing the compensation point on the Order which my right hon. Friend will present to the House. I should need further advice on this point.

Mr. Cronin

Assuming that Concorde will fly at operational height, is my right hon. Friend not being pessimistic in implying that there will be widespread disturbance and damage requiring compensation?

Mr. Benn

I did not say so, but experience suggests that there will be claims for compensation. We must not pretend that although the aircraft will be flying at a considerable height there will not be considerable disturbance from the bang, because there will be.

Sir A. V. Harvey

To what extent is the right hon. Gentleman collaborating with the United States authorities over the tests with a view eventually to getting the Concorde accepted into Idlewild?

Mr. Benn

There has been a great deal of contact between ourselves and the French and American authorities with a view to minimising the difficulties that might arise from the entry of Concorde into service. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who is the senior aviation authority in this country.

Mr. MacDermot

Is it intended to measure the sound effects of the tests—not the subjective reactions of people to the sound, but how much actual noise is being made over what area? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be, without much further delay, a proper study of the subjective reaction to Concorde's sound before any decisions are taken?

Mr. Benn

Although the object of the flight is to test the aircraft we shall take the opportunity of testing the noise experienced on the ground. We shall, as in the early French tests, test this in both a scientific and subjective way. I have seen the early reports from there. We shall get the most we can from an operation designed to prove the performance characteristics.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Will Concorde fly over any part of Wales? If so, will it endanger such an ancient monument as St. David's Cathedral? If it does, what compensation can there be for that?

Mr. Benn

As the map will show the hon. Gentleman, it will touch on the territory of Wales. The cathedral to which he refers is one of three which will be specially studied during the flights. We have no reason to believe that the worst fears that have been expressed about this have any basis of justification.

Mr. Rankin

Within what limits, north and south, will the Concorde operate? Shall we have a report on the flights in due course?

Mr. Benn

I should stress that I am speaking only of about 50 flights on this route over a three-year period. The rest will take place over the North Sea. The Concorde will fly from off the coast of France to the very northernmost part of Scotland. This 800-mile route will extend over the whole period. We shall, of course, keep the House informed.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that some of us in the South-West are proud to think that we can play a very small part in the development of this plane? Does he agree that adequate compensation is needed, and that commercially flying the plane is an entirely different matter?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlying the total difference between the commercial rules which may apply in respect of supersonic flight and this test. I am also grateful for what he said earlier, which will be appreciated by those making the aircraft all over the United Kingdom.

Mr. Sheldon

What are the technical reasons my right hon. Friend has referred to?

Mr. Benn

There must be a very long straight run to calibrate the instruments. It is not possible to do this wholly over the sea for this purpose in these 50 or so flights without running into difficulties of air-sea rescue, radar control and various other technical matters. The pilot, Brian Trubshaw, has associated himself with at any rate some of these presentations in order to underline exactly what the technical factors are.