HC Deb 13 November 1970 vol 806 cc816-30
Mr. Speaker

For the record, I understand that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) has given the Minister notice of the subject which he wishes to raise.

2.33 p.m.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I wish to raise the subject of Luton Airport, Mr. Speaker, and I have given notice to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. It was only late last night that I learned of my opportunity to raise this matter and I am, therefore, grateful to my hon. Friend, who has had to give up another engagement to be here this afternoon. I apologise to him for the shortness of notice. The Board of Trade is, however, fairly well aware of my views on Luton Airport and there has been a fair amount of correspondence with the Department, who know that I am anxious to raise the matter on the Floor of the House, because the situation is both grave and urgent.

I had an Adjournment debate on 27th April, when I raised the question of the change of flight paths which had just been made. That meant that aircraft were flying over Berkhamsted and very close to Hemel Hempstead. In the event of their being slightly off the designed route, they would actually fly over the middle of Berkhamsted and over Hemel Hempstead itself. I am happy to say that that Adjournment debate had results, because in July the flight paths were changed by being moved about a mile to the north, thereby considerably improving the situation. I hope that this debate will similarly bear fruit.

We have extreme difficulty concerning the flight paths to the west, because there is a north-south route to Heathrow Airport and under the arrangements made by the Board of Trade aircraft flying west from Luton have to reach Beacon Hill at no greater height than 4,000 ft., sometimes at only 3,000 ft. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation Supply, when he was at the Board of Trade, wrote to me that aircraft would normally climb fairly rapidly on leaving Luton to 2,500 ft., with the implication that this was helpful. That, however, is 2,500 ft. above sea level, and the ground at this point is 600 ft. above sea level. When the pilots reach a height of 2,500 ft., they do not continue to climb gently. At that moment, they apply full power and they boost away, going straight for Beacon Hill at full throttle.

We all know that to those immediately below, an aircraft at 6,000 ft. makes a fairly unpleasant noise. At 3,000 ft., it makes four times as much noise to those immediately below, and at 2,000 ft. it makes nine times as much noise. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to recognise that what the Board of Trade has organised is very low flight paths, continuing for a distance of 15 miles, which make life miserable for those immediately beneath the aircraft. To say that the aircraft are travelling at, perhaps, 3,000 or 4,000 ft., implying that this is marvellous, ignores the facts of the matter.

I have mentioned that aircraft still fly over the middle of Berkhamsted and over Hemel Hempstead. It is difficult to discover the exact reason for this. To some extent, it is a matter of diverging slightly from flight paths. No pilot can fly absolutely accurately along an exact line. There is, however, another system under which the controller at Heathrow calls aircraft off the westerly flight path towards Heathrow.

On 18th June, I had a letter from Lord Brown, who was then at the Board of Trade. In discussing this matter, he said: In the debate in the House of Commons on 27th April, Goronwy mentioned that in certain traffic conditions aircraft were permitted to climb quickly to 3,000 ft. and then continue due south instead of proceeding to Beacon Hill. It has now been agreed that, wherever operationally possible, aircraft will not be instructed, by"— not the Luton air traffic control centre, but the London air traffic control centre— to turn south off the minimum noise route until they are to the west of Berkhamsted. This seemed a great improvement, but it was fairly soon discovered that what is "operationally possible" is the opinion of the controller at Heathrow. It is merely a matter of his convenience.

I therefore pursued what should be considered "operationally possible." The Minister of State, now the Minister of Aviation Supply, wrote to me on 12th August setting out a change in the arrangements summarised as follows: Thus unless there are some exceptional operational circumstances which force the controller to deviate from this instruction (and he must, of course, have the ultimate discretion if faced with an emergency) no aircraft leaving Luton should travel south over Hemel Hempstead or Berkhamsted. It is clear that it is the intention, only in the event of an emergency, that this should happen, and I think that this is still the intention.

I have a letter dated 3rd November addressed to a constituent in which the Board of Trade says that there are occasions when, for overriding operational reasons, the London Air Traffic Control Centre have to turn aircraft south off the east-west track of the minimum noise route to Beacon Hill before they are to the west of Berkhamsted. … I am assured by the air traffic control authorities that such occasions are very rare and I do not think that this procedure could account for the continuous disturbance which you describe. The Board of Trade is clear about this. Unfortunately, the Heathrow controller does not seem so sure about it. He still seems to be working on the basis of the letter of 18th June which states "when operationally possible". I should be grateful, therefore, if instructions could go out to the controller to ensure that it really is in extreme emergency use that aircraft should ever be diverted before they reach west of Berkhamsted.

I hope that I said enough to indicate that it is thoroughly unsatisfactory to attempt to fly westwards from Luton because aircraft are required by the Board of Trade to fly low. It is not the Luton Airport Authority which insists on this; it is the Board of Trade. The obvious solution is that aircraft should fly north. If they fly north from Luton they will not have to fly underneath another flight path and they could climb to operational level as quickly as possible.

I had a letter from the Minister for Trade about this matter on 28th October in which he says: There are in fact two routes from Luton via Woburn to the north-west … It is true that these routes may entail some flight in the Flight Information Region before the aircraft attain an airways level and join Airway Amber 2 at Woburn. Pilots are not compelled to take these routes; if they wish to remain in controlled air space they may take the routes via Beacon Hill and thence to Daventry. But since traffic in the Flight Information Region over the area west and north of Luton is comparatively light and some pilots are often willing to accept the routeings via Woburn. In due course when the new surveillance radar is operating at' Luton the traffic turning into FIR en route to Woburn should be kept under full radar surveillance. It appears that the Minister was still under the impression that I was suggesting that aircraft which wanted eventually to fly north should not fly west before turning north. I was saying that aircraft wanting to fly west should fly north and turn west when they had reached decent operational flight. I want all aircraft which would normally fly west first to fly north to gain height.

The next point concerns the surveillance radar. I understand that when this radar set comes into operation it will not have sufficient range to control aircraft all the way until they reach Airway Amber 2. Therefore, I hope that the Board of Trade will understand that it is essential that there should be a channel away from Luton Airport which will allow aircraft to climb as quickly as possible to a height at which they are not a thorough nuisance to those on the ground and then to turn west or south, or wherever they want to go, thus avoiding flying through this channel or tunnel which is required of them at the moment.

But even if my hon. Friend can arrange this, the position near the airport will still be disastrous. The local towns and villages are suffering severely from the amount of flying at the airport. It is interesting that Luton is feeling it and, starting next year, is imposing a 5s. levy on each passenger flying from Luton with the intention that the money should be devoted to sound-proofing not all those affected, but Luton residents affected by aircraft noise.

I understand that a village close to Gatwick Airport is to be phased out altogether as it will become intolerable for anyone to live there. Is this to happen around the municipal airport of Luton—that in Hertfordshire, villages will be phased out and destroyed because of Luton's ambitions? This is a serious situation which the Board of Trade must face.

In March this year the Ministry of Housing and Local Government held a public inquiry into a fairly small scheme for expansion of certain facilities at Luton airport. A large number of objections were made. In a letter commenting on the report, the Minister said: … the Inspector concluded that the volume of commercial passenger air traffic at Luton Airport was determined by popular demand, which in turn was under the control of the council exercising their power to limit the number of aircraft movements. This control, the Inspector considered, the council exercised in a manner most likely to maintain a balance between the financial benefit to their ratepayers and the amenity interest of their ratepayers and of persons living farther afield … On the basis of the council's traffic forecasts, the Inspector concluded, the daytime noise exposure patterns, i.e., the numbers of people exposed to varying degrees of aircraft noise, would not be significantly different in 1971 from what they had been in 1969 … The Inspector recognised, however, that there was a particularly severe noise problem in some small communities at the prolongation of each end of the airport's runway where, because of proximity to the noise source along the flight path, the situation would be aggravated by any increase in traffic. The Minister commented: The Minister recognises that there is widespread disquiet and concern about the effects of aircraft noise—particularly at night—on the environment as a result of the intensification of activities at the airport. He appreciates that the council have, as the Inspector says, no easy task in reconciling the conflicting interests of the commercial operation of their airport and its effects on the amenities enjoyed in the surrounding areas. But he trusts that in their negotiations with airlines or holiday tour operators, the council will have due regard to those effects and to the adequacy of airport facilities before entering into future commitments in the light of the evidence produced at the inquiry and the Inspector's conclusion that the present degree of disturbance through aircraft noise, although not yet critical, is already undesirable. The inspector was told at the inquiry that the level of aircraft movements was 2.4 million passengers and 3,400 night jet movements forecast for the period from 1st April to 31st October 1970. It is fairly clear from the Minister's letter that he is not excepting any substantial increase on that. We now have the proposals for expansion. Last week the airport committee of the Luton Council approved plans for 3 million passengers in 1971, an increase of 27.7 per cent., and 4,000 night jet movements. Night flights are particularly objectionable, and here I would like to quote what the inspector says in the report I have already referred to. The inspector concluded that: … there was no agreed method of evaluating noise nuisance due to night flying and expressed doubts about the significance of the night-time Noise and Number Indices presented at the inquiry; he pointed out that a single event might cause interuption to sleep but thought it evident from the weight and number of the objections that a problem existed. That is a fair understatement.

The tour operators, who are entirely responsible for the noise at night, are licensed by the Air Transport Licensing Board, so I take it that the Government have control over night flights. Presumably, it would be possible for licences to be granted conditional upon night flying not taking place between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. Already there is too much night flying, and it is steadily expanding. What is happening at Luton is happening all over the country.

Clearly, we cannot ban scheduled services, which have to fly round the clock. I know that there are limitations on them, but I do not suggest that there should be further limitations. It would help considerably if night charter flights were banned altogether. This might mean an extension of scheduled services, but let us cut down on night flying by abandoning night charter flights.

The objection is that to do so would put up the cost of people's holidays. I am sorry about this, but we must look at it in perspective. Either people on the ground have to put up with night after night of misery and sleeplessness, or people going on holiday on night charter flights have to pay a little more. I do not want to advertise Luton Airport, but it is running four-day holidays to Majorca for £18 a head. I do not think it would be unfair on the holiday makers if they had to pay a little more than that. We must consider who would suffer most—those who want to go on holiday, or those whose lives are made a burden by continual night flights.

I put down a Question in the House on complaints about flying from Luton Airport, and in my supplementary question. I asked: Is my hon. Friend aware that when complaints are made to Luton about deviation from flight paths they are treated practically with contempt?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th November, 1970; Vol. 806, c. 28.] There has been a certain amount of unhappiness in Luton at the suggestion that this is so. I want to give two examples which show the feelings of my constituents. The first is a letter from a constituent living in Berkhamsted to the Board of Trade on 16th October: I recently sent two letters of complaint of aircraft noise to the Town Clerk at Luton. The first concerned specific cases of aircraft flying over the centre of Berkhamsted during the night—in spite of assurances from the Ministry that the new flight path imposed on 23rd July should mean that residents of Berkhamsted would no longer be affected under normal conditions. The second letter concerned repeated deviations from the flight path—again over the centre of Berkhamsted—throughout 3rd October. On both occasions weather conditions were quite normal and wind was light. In the second letter I asked if there had been a change of flight path which would cause these deviations. My letters were passed from the Town Clerk to the Luton Airport Director, from whom I received the attached reply. The reply was as follows: Dear Sir. Reference is made to your letters of 1st and 5th October, 1970. There has been no revision to the minimum noise routings since that of 23rd July, 1970. A slight change will occur when the position of Garston V.O.R. is moved to Bovingdon airfield. Yours faithfully.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, at the moment there seems to be criticism of the Luton Borough Council. I hope that he will come to Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Allason

What I am leading up to, Mr. Speaker, is the fact that I wish to seek a change in the arrangements of the consultative committee. I hope I may be allowed just to complete this matter. I will not deal with the second example, which is rather similar. I agree that it bears initially on the Luton Council, but through that council the Board of Trade has the means of correcting the situation.

Mr. Speaker

I do not want to stop the hon. Gentleman stating his case, but he must come to the responsibility ultimately of the Minister whom he is asking to do something about the matter.

Mr. Allason

I intend to do that, Mr. Speaker. My constituent continues by commenting on the reply: From this reply you will see that while both my letters were acknowledged, his reply discourteously ignores my first letter and gives no reason at all for the repeated deviation of flights referred to in my second letter. The curt reply is typical of the evasive and bureaucratic replies received by Luton's suffering neighbours, who have no redress from the clearly unsympathetic attitude of the Luton authorities to the sleepless nights imposed upon them by the activities of a provincial town apparently more concerned with reducing the rates of its residents, than with establishing good relations with its neighbours. I will not weary the House with the second example, but it is on the same lines.

I will turn to the consultative committee and here lies the remedy. This committee was set up under the Civil Aviation Act with the intention that local interests should be consulted in the management of a municipal airport. Unfortunately, there is no goodwill in this matter in regard to Luton. The consultative committee in Luton is frequently not consulted. When there was a change of flight path known to the Luton authorities in March to be coming into operation in April, the change caused immense stress to my constituents but there was no meeting of the consultative committee. It had not been informed, there was nothing on the agenda about it, and therefore the consultative committee did not meet in March. That is the way it is treated. The committee is not consulted about proposals for the numbers of flights for the following years and is not informed what Luton Corporation intends to do. The committee objects violently and is overruled.

On the matter of complaints, the matter of discourtesy and lack of attention to complaints about aircraft noise has been raised at meetings of the consultative committee and nothing is done about it—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member will come to Ministerial responsibility. A good deal of this material must have been raised in the Luton Borough Council by borough councillors.

Mr. Allason

It was just on the tip of my tongue, Mr. Speaker. Therefore, I say that the consultative committee system is not working satisfactorily in Luton. I feel that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should appoint himself a referee in these matters so that any complaints to the consultative committee that people are not getting a square deal from the Luton authorities could be dealt with. I wonder whether my hon. Friend could say whether there is some means by which this could be done. The Board of Trade set up these consultative committees and they are just not operating in the way the House intended them to operate.

If I may summarise the situation—and I apologise for taking up the time of the House but this is a matter of acute anxiety to something like 100,000 of my constituents—the westerly flight paths are thoroughly unsatisfactory because they require aircraft to fly at a low level for far too long. I ask that the Board of Trade should abandon these flight paths and should produce a flight path going north which is practical and under satisfactory surveillance so that the pilots will be prepared to use it.

I have already shown that the expansion of flying involving a 27 per cent. increase next year is directly contrary to the basis on which the Minister of Housing gave planning permission on the last occasion.

What can the Government now do to protect the environment against this grave threat? The intention was that this sort of huge expansion should not take place. If the Luton local authority is cocking a snook at the Government, are the Government able to reply?

I ask my hon. Friend to agree that charter night flights should be banned from now on. Is it practicable to do this through the Air Traffic Licensing Board? I am not entitled, I know, on the Adjournment to suggest legislation, so I will not ask whether legislation is the necessary alternative.

Can my hon. Friend suggest a better method of making complaints? Vast numbers of complaints flow to the Board of Trade as well as to the Luton authority. Is the Minister satisfied that these complaints are being properly looked into, and what can be done when there is such evident disregard of the rules? Finally, can my hon. Friend put more teeth into the consultative committee?

3.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

May I, first, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) not only on his initiative in securing this debate at relatively short notice, but also on the assiduous and vigorous way in which he has over a number of years cared for the interests of his constituents in regard to this problem. Speaking as the only other former Third Dragoon Guardsman in the House, it is the least I would expect of him.

Neither I nor my colleagues in the Department are oblivious to the problems of aircraft noise. We all have to suffer it ourselves, and we are very conscious indeed of the misery it causes and the problems that are entailed. My hon. Friend has recalled an Adjournment debate on the subject which he secured on 27th April last. The responsible Minister of State in the previous Government explained in some detail the reasons for the change of routeing from Luton Airport which had caused disturbance to some Berkhamsted residents so I will not cover that ground again. But I will, if I may, sketch in generally what has happened since then, as has my hon. Friend, and then refer to some of his specific points.

Because of the disturbance which had clearly been caused to Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead by the change in flight paths, Luton Corporation conferred with the air lines, and took advice from my Department about possible plans to alleviate the position. As a result of these consultations two steps were taken, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. First of all, the air lines agreed to attempt an even tighter manoeuvre after take-off so as to follow a line slightly further to the north of Berkhamsted in the hope that that would keep aircraft further from the built-up areas.

I must emphasise here, as has been said before, that these manoeuvres cause a considerable workload on pilots during the already difficult take-off phase. Moreover, at the speed at which modern aircraft travel, a misjudgment of a few seconds of the point at which a turn should be commenced could cause an aircraft to stray anything up to a mile off the notional track.

The new line was put into operation on 23rd July, and although we have received some reports that the position has improved it is also abundantly clear from correspondence received in my Department that other residents in the Berkhamsted area have not noticed any improvement. We have circumstantial evidence that the minimum noise route is being followed accurately from the fact that we have had a growth in complaints from areas to the south-west of Berkhamsted that are being overflown under the new arrangements. This is evidence that there is no easy cure for the aircraft noise problem as a whole.

Mr. Allason

When my hon. Friend speaks about complaints from the southwest are they due to the turning south after Berkhamsted?

Mr. Grant

Yes, indeed. Under the new arrangements the turning south causes aircraft to go over certain other areas—I have in mind in particular Chesham and Amersham—for which we have naturally received some complaints. I mention that merely to show that there is no easy cure of the aircraft noise problem. A shifting of route away from one area is bound to affect people in another.

The second step we took was to stop the practice of aircraft flying south-west over the Berkhamsted—Hemel Hempstead area instead of following the minimum noise route. As was explained previously, this was done when traffic conditions permitted, as it was thought that aircraft would be high enough not to cause disturbance. Instructions have now been issued to air traffic controllers to stop this practice except for reasons of operational necessity, which my hon. Friend stated he quite appreciated. A spot check carried out over three days last week showed that no aircraft were deviated from the minimum noise route on that occasion.

One other general technical point remains to be mentioned here. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade has already written to my hon. Friend about it, and my hon. Friend mentioned it in his speech. Owing to the move of the Garston beacon to Bovingdon slight alterations have had to be made in air routeing arrangements. These will have only a marginal effect on the actual routes followed by Luton aircraft, but should give pilots better guidance on the places where turns should be made, and may therefore improve route-keeping in the long run.

These are actions which the airlines, Luton Corporation and my Department have taken in the interest of reducing disturbance to people in the Berkhamsted-Hemel Hempstead area. I am very sorry if they are not proving as effective as was hoped. All concerned, not least myself, are anxious to do whatever can reasonably be done to improve the situation, but I must emphasise that until quieter aircraft are in operation whatever might be done to improve the lot of people in Berkhamsted would only make the position worse for people elsewhere.

Mr. Allason

Berkhamsted is miles away from the airport. The difficulty is that aircraft are required to fly at low level because of the westerly flight path. Surely if they fly north they can go straight up to operational height?

Mr. Grant

I am coming to that specific point. I am merely painting the picture as we see it, and explaining that the problem when dealing with the whole country is that unfortunately we merely move noise from one place to another.

I should like to answer some of the specific points my hon. Friend raised, starting with the question of the aircraft route to the north. The preponderance of aircraft departures from Luton are for destinations to the south. To require those aircraft to proceed in a northerly direction before turning south would necessitate their flying a considerably longer route mileage in total and a considerably longer mileage at low altitude before they could be integrated with other traffic in the airways system. This would neither reduce the overall noise disturbance nor could operators be reasonably expected to incur the economic penalties involved. My hon. Friend will appreciate that when I tell him that there are extremely complex problems of levels at which aircraft fly, and I merely reiterate the point that going north would increase those complications and increase the overall noise.

My hon. Friend raised the question of aircraft flying low for 15 miles out of Luton. The principal restraints on freedom to allow aircraft to climb at their maximum rate are the need to keep the engine power at a reasonable level whilst they are still near to the ground, and to ensure that they are separated vertically from other traffic in the airways system. Air traffic control officers are well aware of the need to clear aircraft to the maximum height which the traffic situation allows, which in the particular circumstances of Luton's main traffic is most frequently to get them to 4,000 feet at the navigational aid at Beacon Hill.

The next point is the question of the consultative committees, to which he referred in a supplementary question to me on Monday. I can understand the feeling and perhaps the irritation that his constituents do not receive perhaps the immediate action that they would always wish. I hope that, if any complaints are made to me, the persons concerned receive a courteous—if not necessarily satisfactory—answer to them. My Department's powers in relation to consultative committees are limited to nominating the airports at which consultative arrangements should take place. The arrangements for consultation, the people to be consulted, and so on, are matters for the airport owner. I am advised that if anyone considers that adequate consultation does not take place, he may well have recourse through the courts pursuant to the Statute.

My hon. Friend also raised the problem about night flying. Some people make contrasts between Birmingham and Luton which are not always strictly accurate. Even although my hon. Friend did not refer to it today, we are informed that there is no limitation on night jet flights at Birmingham Airport except that no night training flights are permitted by jet aircraft after 18.30. Similar night jet training restrictions are imposed at Luton Airport. There was also—and this may bring some comfort to him—a restriction on the total number of night flights from Luton throughout the summer of 1970 and these restrictions will continue to be imposed in future years.

I hope I have now covered all the points my hon. Friend raised, with perhaps one exception—his reference to the Air Transport Licensing Board. The Board has stated that it is not its function to take noise into account when dealing with the licensing of services. I think that it would be an impossible task for that body to deal with questions of noise in view of its constitution.

Mr. Allason

Can my hon. Friend say whether, on direction from him, the Board could do this? I believe that it is necessary to ban night charter flights. What is the method of doing it? Would this be a satisfactory method? I shall continue to try to persuade him. Once I have persuaded him, could he do it by this method?

Mr. Grant

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point about night flights although I have to have regard to it in the context of the whole of civil aviation.

The point is that at the moment the Air Transport Licensing Board is not the correct or logical machinery for dealing with this problem. If I can find other means of meeting my hon. Friend which make sense, I will gladly do so. I do not want him to think for a moment that I am not sympathetic, because I know that night flights, particularly in the summer, are the most irritating of the lot. It is simply that I do not believe that the Licensing Board, certainly not as at present constituted, is the proper forum.

I see no immediate—I emphasise "immediate"—solution to the problem of aircraft noise in the vicinity of airports. Airport owners, as responsible people, do their best to keep disturbance to the minimum practicable. The real answer is a combination of quietening the noise at source and the correct siting of airports with appropriate land usage of the surrounding areas. However, both are essentially long-term aims and I fear that the problem, great or small, will remain with us for some time.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the vigour with which he pursues this matter. I give him the absolute assurance that we are not at all unsympathetic to what he is saying. I will gladly have further discussions with him myself. I understand that he has received an invitation to visit Luton Airport and that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade will be arranging a meeting with him for this purpose. I very much hope that any points left unanswered in this debate will be cleared up then and that Luton Corporation and ourselves between us will be able to convince my hon. Friend that we are doing all that can reasonably be done to keep the problem within bounds and at the same time to iron out some of the difficulties which have arisen in the past. I thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to air this important matter further in the House.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Three o'clock.