HC Deb 06 March 1970 vol 797 cc868-80

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

4.2 p.m.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise on the Motion for the Adjournment the problem of aircraft noise within the vicinity of Manchester Airport at Ringway, and I am grateful, too, to the Minister of State for being here to reply to the debate—I know, at some personal cost to him, and, I happen to know also, at some cost to his constituents. I am grateful to him.

As you, Mr. Speaker, have often found it necessary to remind us, we live in a very noisy world.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Very rarely do I have to remind the House about this.

Dr. Winstanley

But occasionally you have reminded us, Mr. Speaker, that we live in a noisy world. I know very little of space exploration, and I do not know whether anybody lives on any other world, but I do know that if anybody is living there he will know that we are living here: he is bound to have heard us!

Of course, aircraft noise is only one aspect of the total problem of noise. There is traffic noise; there is industrial noise. It would be a mistake to blame all the problem of noise on aircraft, but aircraft noise is what we are here this afternoon to discuss.

This subject typifies, I think, the kind of conflict which politics faces in modern developing society, the conflict between competing interests—in this case, the conflict between the need for rapid and cheap travel, and the need for peace and quiet. This conflict has somehow or another to be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both sets of interests. It is not a matter of one side winning and the other losing; both sides have to win, because we have to find a way of drawing an acceptable line between the two positions. Society has to find a way of resolving many conflicts of this kind, with atmospheric pollution, planning, and so on, but they are typified by the aircraft noise problem.

Such conflicts may sometimes exist within the same individual. I have kept the correspondence of a constituent living near Manchester Airport who complained about the noise. His wife was made ill; his children were in danger of failing their O levels because they could not get on with their homework; he could not get on with his work and had to stay late in the office to deal with his papers. The same constituent wrote to me some weeks later from his business address complaining about the inadequacy of flight schedules to Düsseldorf and how his export business was being held up. This is an example of the conflict that can arise within an individual.

Those who seek to control and reduce aircraft noise do not seek to abolish air transport or aeroplanes; they merely seek an acceptable compromise.

People's degree of tolerance towards noise varies enormously. There are people who are not disturbed by noise and others who are easily disturbed by it. This was revealed in the Wilson Report some years ago, and has been confirmed many times. I have confirmed it myself. In calling at houses in my constituency, I have asked at one house whether the occupations were troubled by noise, and I have been told that they are desperately troubled, they have been made ill, they are wondering whether to move. When I have asked at the house next door what the occupants felt about the noise, the reply was been "What noise?". There is a great variation in people's noise thresholds. Nevertheless, we must accept that noise in general, and aircraft noise in particular, can be a nuisance almost to the degree of becoming intolerable to certain individuals.

We have not had a discussion in the House for some years on the subject of the noise in the neighbourhood of municipal airports. People who live close to municipal airports are, possibly, at a disadvantage compared with those who live close to airports which are controlled by the British Airports Authority. For example, I understand they cannot at the moment qualify for soundproofing grants. It may be that municipal airports are not controlled by the rules and regulations which the Minister has power to make.

I recall in an earlier discussion in the House on the feelings of the public about municipally-owned airports the comment of the Minister of State's predecessor that in the case of municipally-owned airports local democratic pressures apply. I remind the Minister that this municipally-owned airport is not situated within the municipality; it is owned by the Manchester City but is in Cheshire, and the land immediately abutting the airport is mainly in the Urban District of Cheadle and Gatley and in Wilmslow. Local citizens cannot, therefore, apply democratic pressure to their councillors. Their councillors are not the councillors who are concerned with the control of the airport and have no vote within the Manchester area.

This controversy has a long history. The area is a good residential one, and the residents are the sort of people who take notice of the environment. They are interested in the amenities and the quality of life, and they respond rapidly to stimuli of this kind. Much of the campaign has been led by the Heald Green and Long Lane Ratepayers Association. I pay tribute to that organisation for its enthusiasm, its activity, its energy and its degree of responsibility. It has campaigned not in an entirely negative way but positively.

A great deal of help has been obtained from two newspapers in the area, The Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. They have done a great service to the local public by bringing this controversy into the open, not by taking one side or the other, but by looking at the controversial matters which are causing difficulty.

By allowing these matters to be argued publicly many of the anxieties have been relieved. Doubt and uncertainty are a potent cause of worry and anxiety. Some of this has been removed by the kind of newspaper coverage given to this matter by the Evening News and The Guardian, the most recent being an excellent article by John Evans appearing in the Manchester Evening News this week which argues for soundproofing grants now.

Two reports recently produced by Mr. Kenneth Williams, the Chief Public Health Inspector for the Urban District of Cheadle and Gatley, have had great effect since they give a careful and balanced survey of the situation.

In one report published in October, 1969, Mr. Williams says on page 9: Aircraft noise in the district is a serious environmental health problem and is increasing. The report, which I know the Minister has seen, states that many jets taking off from Ringway are exceeding the noise limits laid down at Heathrow. Detailed information was published in the report. Measurements were taken showing that 34 per cent. of aircraft taking off exceed the Heathrow rate limit of 110 perceived noise decibels, and that 21.5 per cent. of aircraft exceed this limit on landing.

The second of these reports published in February, 1970, goes into further detail. It applies noise contour maps from Gatwick, another one-runway airport to the Manchester Airport area, and makes certain deductions therefrom. The report urges a strong case for soundproofing. Section 6 of the second report says this: The airport authority is to allow 2,750 aircraft movements during the seven summer months from April to October, 1970 between the hours of 11.30 p.m. and 6 a.m. Section 7 says It is probable that residents at Heald Green which the Minister knows is part of the Cheadle and Gatley U.D.C. will suffer greater nuisance from noise at night during the coming summer months than any of the communities around the two London airports. If that is correct, then it is a serious matter.

It raises the question of soundproofing grants. If they are available for householders living close to Heathrow they should equally be available to other citizens who are similarly troubled, citizens who, as the report shows, are possibly troubled even more.

The most recent event to which I would draw the Minister's attention is a meeting that was held in my constituency on 14th January under the auspices of the Heald Green and Long Lane Ratepayers Association, at which more than 100,000 local citizens were represented by ratepayers' and residents' associations. They came to a number of conclusions and published an interesting and highly responsible report, a copy of which I have sent to the Minister. I hope that he will confirm that what they are asking for is reasonable.

Obviously, all that they are asking for cannot necessarily be given now, but I hope that we shall hear in the Minister's reply something about the possibilities of their getting what they are after. I do not suggest that nothing is being done. I am aware of the action taken by the Board of Trade. The document "Action against aircraft noise", published by the Board of Trade, has done a great deal of good in spreading information and has gone some way to dispel the doubts and uncertainties about whether anything is happening which has been one of the factors aggravating the whole situation.

I turn now to what I see as the kinds of remedy that are sought. In the long term we must plan for the siting of major international airports on estuaries so that as far as possible flying is not over residential property. That is in the long term, and there is no immediate advantage from it. I do not suggest that we should close down airports such as Ringway, but I suggest that the major expansion could be at an airport on an estuary with overland links between other airports.

The second—this is the thing from which we shall get the most advantage—is further research into quieter aircraft engines. I am interested in what I have heard about the noise certification scheme. This is encouraging. I believe that the Government hope to introduce the scheme shortly. I should like to know in what period of years any benefit will flow from it to those now suffering from aircraft noise. Those are the long-term solutions.

As to short-term solutions, what noise abatement procedures are in force at present at Manchester Airport? Are they being effectively monitored? If so, are these noise abatement procedures being observed, and are they effective?

Next, what is the present situation with regard to soundproofing grants? It is possible that this will require legislation. That may have to be initiated by Manchester Corporation. What is the Government's attitude towards it. If they accept the figures which have been put forward by Mr. Williams and which are backed up, they must agree that it is only just that the people in the area of Manchester living close to the airport should have the same rights as other people who live close to other airports.

Next—this is very important to us all—there is the question of night flights and night schedules. I take the view that people will, in general, tolerate a considerable amount of noise during the day. Once night flying becomes extensive, once there are many flights through the night. I believe that people will begin to object and that the amenities of the district will be considerably disturbed.

What plans does the Minister have for trying to get control over the number of night flights? I appreciate that a plane which leaves one place has to settle at another time in another place. An aeroplane cannot be kept suspended in the air during the night: it must land somewhere. I fully understand that to do anything about night schedules there must be an integrated scheme between a whole number of airports—the point of exit, the point of entry, and so on. This would need co-ordination, presumably at Ministerial level. What steps are being taken?

Next, perhaps the Minister will say something about his ideas on the consultative committee which has been set up. I am glad that this committee has been established. I believe that it holds out great hope now that it has on it representatives of all those from the area, because they feel that at last they can put their problem to the airport authority.

I have no criticisms to make of the consultative committee. I would merely express one reservation. I do not want to be misunderstood. I have a high regard and great respect for Mr. Boynton, a local authority official of great distinction and ability. However, it is, perhaps, a little unfortunate that he was appointed secretary of this body, as he lives in Chester—30 miles from the Manchester Airport—and as he is closely identified with one of the parties concerned.

It might have been better from the public relations point of view, as the secretary has a large part to play in the machinery, if he had been somebody a little more independent and somebody sharing in the problem. I repeat that I do not want to be taken to be criticising Mr. Boynton. That is the last thing I would wish to do. I am sure that he is doing excellent work.

I want the committee to function effectively. What powers, if any, will the consultative committe have? Will it have the power to demand that it should be informed about new developments as to night flights?

The next and last thing that I want the Minister to tell us is his ideas for the future. It might be helpful to have the two airports in our area—Manchester Airport and Liverpool Airport—Spekeunder some integrated control so that we could then operate them as an airport complex for the whole area of the North-West, with rapid overland travel between the two. This would allow for a flexibility which could reduce the nuisance from which we suffer. Perhaps we could then have more night flights going from Liverpool rather than from Manchester.

I am aware that the business of where an airport is placed is rather like a game of musical parcels: nobody wants to be landed with it when the music stops. When the House discussed the question of Stansted and the Third London Airport, the only voice that was raised in favour of keeping the airport at Stansted was that of the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Boston), who knew that if it was not at Stansted it was likely to go to his parish.

I am not saying merely that all the aircraft now flying from Manchester should in future fly from Speke. I am saying that some kind of integrated arrangement as between the two might in the end be helpful to both.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I am sure that people in my area are desperately concerned about this problem. I am equally sure that they understand the difficulties and are prepared to accept that there are difficulties. They will accept a compromise solution which meets the desires of both sides. They will approach the whole matter with responsibility provided that they understand that something is being done.

4.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Goronwy Roberts)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) on his choice of subject for this debate and on his balanced and constructive presentation. I was particularly interested to hear from him the account of the meeting on aircraft noise which he attended during the Christmas Recess, and to hear today the main points of concern to people living in the vicinity of the airport. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) has on many occasions in the past made clear to me the concern about the effect of noise disturbance from Manchester Airport upon his constituents.

The points raised by the hon. Member are particularly worth serious consideration because, like the hon. Member himself, many of his constituents approach this problem in a responsible and, as he said, positive manner. Their voices are not the voices of people determined to obtain alleviation from aircraft noise at no matter what cost to the aviation industry, which brings great benefits to the country as a whole and which, through Manchester Airport, contributes greatly to the economy of the North-West. They wish to see a further expansion of the airport in order to share in the rising prosperity of the country, but they do not wish this expansion to come about by causing undue disturbance to people living nearby. This is an attitude that I understand and with which I sympathise.

I fully share the concern about the growing problem of aircraft noise. Since I have been in my present office, I have been made deeply aware, not least by the hon. Member, of the extent of the problem, and I am determined to do all I can to contain it and to commence steps which will bring about a real reduction in the disturbance suffered by people near major airports such as Manchester.

I must say that a complete solution is not in sight, and I would be misleading the House if I did not make this clear. It must be a long-term process, as the hon. Member indicated. With the inevitable and, indeed, desirable growth of civil aviation, the position is unlikely to improve generally for some years. I believe we now have the means to effect this eventual improvement, and I shall refer to this later, and to one or two points cogently made by the hon. Gentleman.

In the meantime I should like to concentrate upon the particular immediate problems of Manchester Airport. I know that there is a feeling locally that the Manchester Airport authorities have not been active enough in protecting the amenity of people living near the airport, and this has led to demands that the Board of Trade should impose noise abatement measures at Manchester as we do at Heathrow and Gatwick. I think it is well known now that we have not the same legal powers to impose noise abatement measures at municipal airports as we have at British Airport Authority airports. It must, therefore, be for the local airport authorities to devise measures to protect the public, although the Board of Trade is always available to give advice to these authorities.

I think it is right that there should be this devolution of authority. It is only local people who know the full extent of the local problem and who are also aware, through their many contacts, of the economic needs which their airport meets locally. The local airport authority is, therefore, in a far better position than are we, sitting far removed in Whitehall, to strike the right balance between local economic needs and local amenity.

Whatever criticisms may have been made in the past, I know that Manchester Corporation is now well apprised of the need to take active steps to protect the local population to the fullest extent practicable. It has devised some draft noise abatement measures which are currently under discussion with my Department, whose advice Manchester has sought. When finally agreed, these measures will be published by the Board of Trade as a "NOTAM" issued on behalf of the Manchester airport authority, and thereafter included in the United Kingdom Air Pilot for all airlines and pilots to see. The Manchester authorities hope eventually to supplement these first measures by additional ones such as minimum noise routes and monitored take-off noise limits for jets. My officials are already discussing the ways in which minimum noise routes could be made compatible with air traffic control requirements. All this is at present under study, and it is too early to say to what extent such measures will be appropriate, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that work is in hand between my Department and the Corporation.

I think that these facts establish that Manchester Corporation is alive to its responsibilities as a "good neighbour". I was glad that the hon. Gentleman made the point that there must be co-operation with adjacent authorities, even though the airport may not straddle the boundary between authority areas which are equally affected. In addition, as Manchester is an airport designated under Section 8 of the Civil Aviation Act, 1968, the airport authority has now set up a consultative committee on which sit representatives of all areas surrounding the airport. All matters affecting the interests of people living in the neighbourhood of the airport can be discussed on this committee, and I hope that it will prove effective in bringing direct to the airport authorities first-hand information of the worries and anxieties of people affected by noise disturbance. As the committee has been in existence for only a few months, it is too early to expect really effective action yet; past experience has shown us that it may take some time for consultative committees to settle down and play their fully effective part.

There are two other points I should like to mention. First is the soundproofing of houses. As hon. Members know, we have instituted a soundproofing grants scheme at Heathrow, administered and paid for by the British Airports Authority. This scheme followed recommendations by the Wilson Committee in 1963, which stressed the need for special measures to meet the special needs of Heathrow airport. Only a very small percentage of householders eligible applied for a grant under this scheme. We are rather surprised to have found this poor response, but it seems that soundproofing does not provide a complete answer. We have, in any case, no powers to introduce such a scheme at Manchester or similar areas. The possibility of such a scheme there, together with its likely extent and efficacy, is, however, the sort of thing which might well be discussed by the consultative committee.

The other point I should make is the question of night jet flights. Clearly, disturbance at night time, causing broken sleep, is more serious than the already serious daytime problem. It is also an unfortunate fact that the peak period for night traffic is during the summer holiday season when people tend to want their windows open and the noise from jet aircraft passing overhead is even more noticeable.

On the other side of the coin, airports and airlines exist to serve the travelling public, and there is, clearly, a rapidly increasing demand for package holiday tours, which to a large extent, are responsible for the number of night jet flights in the summer. I do not deplore the fact that increasing numbers of people in this country now find it possible to go abroad for their holidays. I am concerned, however, lest this traffic should seriously inconvenience people on the ground.

I am also aware that an individual airport authority on its own may feel inhibited from imposing night restrictions, as a limitation in one place would deter users of the airport and probably result in the growth of traffic shifting elsewhere. I know that Manchester has announced a limitation on the number of night jet flights for this summer. This is a welcome move; but because I want to see the problem tackled in a co-operative spirit throughout the country I wrote to the Aerodrome Owners Association and the Joint Airports Committee of Local Authorities to ask whether their members could consult among themselves with the object of co-ordinating their efforts in finding a fair and equitable solution to this problem. I sincerely hope that a constructive solution will emerge from these consultations.

I should like to mention some of the more general aspects of the aircraft noise problem. The points we have been discussing and are discussing as a Department with the corporation cover measures designed to contain an already serious problem and to reduce to a minimum disturbance which must necessarily be considerable in the close vicinity of major airports until such time as aircraft can themselves be made quieter.

There is a limit to what can be done, in our crowded island, to keep the aircraft away from the people. The real attack on the problem in the longer term must be to achieve a reduction of noise at source. The Government are now spending more than £1 million annually on research in this field, and some extremely promising results have already been produced. It is now possible, as a result of this research, and of similar research in other countries, to produce aircraft that are roughly half as noisy as aircraft of equivalent weights now flying.

To ensure that the results of this research are applied in practice, we took powers in the Civil Aviation Act, 1968, to require aircraft to meet noise standards—what is known as aircraft noise certification. My right hon. Friend intends, within the next few weeks, to lay the first Order in Council under these powers to make it obligatory for future types of subsonic jet aircraft to carry a certificate showing that they have been able to comply with specified noise standards. This will apply to aircraft of all nationalities landing or taking off in this country. The United Kingdom is an aviation cross-roads—

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

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.