§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are about six or seven hon. Members on this side of the House whose constituency interests are likely to be affected by any suggestion in relation to helicopters. We are here to participate in the debate. May I ask whether it is your intention that we should be called.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
It is my intention to call as many hon. Members as possible. Unfortunately, the last debate over-ran by 20 minutes.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is taking up the 1834 time of those who are to participate in the next debate, including himself.
§ Mr. Brown
Further to my point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are, as I have already pointed out, six or seven hon. Members on this side of the House wishing to take part in the debate. There are, subject to your guidance, only 40 minutes allowed for that to happen. I am asking what your intentions are.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
My intentions are to call as many speakers as possible within the time allotted. The time has been allotted by Mr. Speaker on behalf of the House, and it is the wish of the House that is distilled into this programme. I must try to keep to it as much as possible.
§ 2.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
If it is of any assistance to the hon. Member for Shoredith and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown), I will certainly speak as rapidly as possible and sit down as promptly as I can.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the undoubted lack of helicopter landing facilities in London. Helicopters are of crucial importance as winning oil from the North Sea, which the last debate was about.
It is a matter of national importance that facilities should be adequate. This is the reason for my concern and I am pleased to see present the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) and other hon. Members with constituency and local interests, which I have no doubt they will wish to pursue. I repeat that I will do my best to be as quick as possible to make my point.
Mobility is essential in business and in public life. One reflects that time is the most precious commodity in human existence. Like others. I have lately found the helicopter to be an ideal form of transport. Those who know of its use for police, military, ambulance and life-saving purposes will naturally speak even more strongly than I can in its favour. I am sure the Government would endorse the view that the helicopter is an immensely useful and important modern form of transport.
In the current fuel crisis I have largely eliminated my own use of the helicopter 1835 as a method of convenient travel, but I look forward to the day when I can again fly freely in this way. Temporary problems in no way invalidate the point I wish to make.
I am sure that this is the right juncture at which to examine the whole picture of helicopter landing facilities in this capital city. The growth rate of civil helicopter activity in the United Kingdom has been increasing rapidly over the last three years. I will give the House the figures. The number of helicopters on the British Civil Register was 120 in 1965, 167 in 1970, 208 in 1972. It showed a dramatic rise to 320 in 1973. This makes the United Kingdom the third-ranking user of civil helicopters in the world behind the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Much of this must be associated with Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, which has given progressive companies an urgent need for a quick and reliable line of communication at home and abroad.
The main concentration of helicopter activity in the United Kingdom remains in the London area. This is where landing facilities, instead of matching the increase in helicopter activity, are, incredible as it may seem, threatened with possible extinction. If this happens, it will mean that authority in this country is saying that, irrespective of progress in other countries, irrespective of need, irrespective perhaps of the substantial export potential of the only British manufacturer of helicopters, we are content to see this industry and its facility languish and perhaps die.
I cannot believe that this would be the policy or the wish of the Government, nor of a local authority of the general competence of the Greater London Council. I do not believe that either can afford to take that view in the national interest. But I believe that it could happen through inertia, or indifference, perhaps aided a little by prejudice. It is my purpose in raising the matter to see that it does not.
I said that I am talking nationally, but I will advert for a while to the heliport in Battersea. London has only one heliport. Is is owned by the West-land 1836 Company located in the London Borough of Wandsworth on the South Bank. Westland's brought it into operation in 1969, there being at that time no official plan for a heliport. There had been plenty of committees, but no action. I remember so well the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition saying—this is one of the several things that I have agreed with him about—"committees which write minutes and waste years". Certainly this was true at that time. There being no official plan, Westland's acted and started this facility in Battersea.
Since 1966 helicopter movements at Battersea have been increasing at an average annual rate of 21 per cent. Even so, Westlands say that the heliport is operating at a financial loss. As right hon. and hon. Members opposite know, it has only temporary planning permission, which expires on 30th June 1975. According to the newspapers—it surprised me to read this in the newspapers because the operators have not received a formal reply to their application for it—the Greater London Council has announced that permanent planning permission will be refused. The inference is that in a year's time there may be no heliport at all in London or, if there is one because temporary permission is renewed, there may be a heliport with what I would refer to in the circumstances, having regard to the potential and actual user, as an impractically limited user.
I have two immediate questions to put to my hon. Friend. Incidentally, I may say that I am grateful to him for attending to answer this debate. Does he share my anxiety, does he think it right that London, alone of the capital cities in the world, should have no facilities, or inadequate facilities? What is the Government's policy with regard to the provision of adequate facilities either at Battersea, if that is a suitable place—I do not argue that it is—or anywhere else in London?
It has long been clear that facilities at Battersea are limited. An increase is possible—I do not argue for it; I merely say that it is possible—but, apart from that, Battersea is not in the vicinity of an underground or near a railway station. Right hon. and hon. Members must know that, operationally, it frequently becomes congested.
1837 The British Helicopter Advisory Board—that is to say, the industry and those interested in using helicopters—with that in mind attempted to bring additional sites into operation. Shadwell was its first choice, that was supported by the GLC but not by the local authority. A public inquiry in 1971 lasted for 16 days, and planning permission was refused. The whole process took many months, and a search for a more suitable site was then started.
The use of a floating platform in the Thames seemed ideal. When a suitable vessel was found, the City corporation supported a planning application for an experimental period of a year. Thirteen months later—and I ask the House to note the time these matters seem to have taken—the GLC refused planning permission. I believe that a serious mistake was made, and I shall tell the House why. To do so I must dwell for a moment on the reasons for that refusal. I did not think that any one of them was convincing.
The first, in effect, was that the nature of the user would not have been sufficient to justify the disturbance of persons working or living nearby. At first hearing, that sounds reasonable enough. In the main, movements from the proposed platform would have involved executive and commercial charter flights, but the facility would also have been available for police, fire brigade, ambulance work, and so on, although there was no mention of public services in the Press release issued by the GLC on 25th October 1973—that was just before the formal refusal. That document stated:We cannot accept the principle that because the time of a few people is regarded as very valuable, this should mean that a very larger number of people can be inconvenienced".I think, in general, that if the point were reasonable I might be ready to agree with it, but I am not sure at all that it was right in this case.
Noise is the inconvenience referred to. On that basis, I suppose, in logic, eventually we should ban police sirens, ambulance bells or Big Ben. I hope I am wrong, but the logic of the statement seems to be that the GLC does not hold much brief for business executives, 1838 nor does it equate their time with their productivity, which in turn must contribute positively to the country's economy.
It is interesting to note the totally different view taken in the United States, where there are at least 25 heliports in the New York metropolitan area. Los Angeles has 150 landing places and a small town—I picked one at random from a map of the United States—such as Forth Worth has 15, I am told, and is planning to increase the number to 56. London has one, and it soon may have none.
I know the area of the City site. Employees working nearby are few, perhaps 30 in all, excepting the London Fire Brigade, which would presumably be well pleased to have so convenient a site. So far as I know, there are no local residents. Thus there is no evidence of potential inconvenience to numbers of people.
The site was selected by the City corporation from a number proposed by the British Helicopter Advisory Board in consultation with the Port of London Authority. The selection was made after a trial series of landings during which the City corporation, PLA and GLC officials were present and noise measurements were taken. These showed that the noise levels were within the GLC criteria and were likely to be less noticeable—this must be so—at a site where the background noise of six-lane traffic on London Bridge would almost certainly submerge the helicopter noise.
The matter was put to practical test. In May 1973 the actual floating platform was moored for 14 days on the South Bank adjacent to the Festival Hall. It was much used because it coincided with the Air Show. Noise tests were conducted at the specific request of the Festival Hall director, who got his own independent noise consultants to take noise measurements. Their report showed that the level of noise recorded within the hall would interfere neither with the musical events nor the public use of the restaurant and foyer. Altogether, 100 helicopter movements were flown from the platform in 10 days without one complaint.
I know that noise can be a worry. It is to us all, not least to me, living, as I 1839 do, in London during the week, but in this case it is apparently more of a worry than it need be. Helicopter noise attracts attention chiefly because it is an unusual noise, but there are ways in which the problem could be mitigated.
Pilot technique is one method, obviously. More important, however, are the two practical suggestions that I have to make. First, I hope that the Government will press the CAA to allow helicopters to fly higher than 1,000 feet—say 1,500 feet. That would make a substantial difference. Discussions are taking place on this matter. I hope that they will be successful and that my hon. Friend will lend them his support. Second, I hope that military training flights through the London control zone will be reduced, if not eliminated, as military helicopters are usually the noisiest types in use.
To sum up what I have been trying to say in this section of my speech, the second reason for refusal was in my view over-stated: to the extent that it has validity, it can be mitigated.
The third reason, I thought, was ludicrous. It was suggested that motorists on London Bridge would be frightened. That is demonstrable nonsense. We have the irrefutable evidence of the trials at the Festival Hall, to which I have already referred. The site was virtually identical in position to the proposed City site and the same distance from Waterloo Bridge as the proposed City site is from the new London Bridge.
Of the 100 movements to which I have referred flown from the Festival Hall steps, about 60 crossed Waterloo Bridge without any disturbance to motorists and with no complaints. It is no unusual thing in this country—I wish it were—for aircraft landing and take-off paths to cross main roads, for example, Heathrow, Gatwick, Exeter, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh and so on, The House knows the story. The noise of a Boeing 707 whistling overhead at 150 mph is more sudden and more explosive than a helicopter ambling over at 50 mph. There is no reason why the standard road signs for such a situation should not be placed at both ends of London Bridge. I think that the third reason had little if any validity.
1840 What surprised me was that the GLC stated no facts or figures to substantiate the reasons for its refusal. It was surprising, too, that it apparently had disregarded the trials done in 1972 and 1973 which provided the very evidence needed for a decision on the application. Most surprising of all was its refusal to permit an experimental period of one year which would have provided invaluable operating data under closely controlled conditions on which to base future decisions on heliports.
I do not know why, but we seem to be frightened of what public reaction may be in these matters. An agenda paper prepared for the GLC at the time of the discussion about the Shadwell site put the matter very fairly:The objections raised on the grounds of noise and nuisance undoubtedly reflect genuine fears—I know that is true—but in all the time that the Battersea Heliport has been operating with a continuous growth in the number of flights, not one complaint as to noise or nuisance has been received, although large housing schemes have been completed nearby and there are several schools in the area.I am sure that the House will regard that as reassuring. Even more constructive, if I may pull the legs of right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition, was a Labour Party policy paper which was published—which I read with much interest—which said that so far as our existing experience of Battersea heliport was concerned, there had been no complaints of noise nuisance, and it went on to say that it is extraordinary that this modern form of transport hides itself behind derelict and crumbling factories and wharves. It concludes by asking.Why not a replanned environment for this modern user?".I support warmly what is put forward there.
I refer lastly to another quotation, from the GLC south area board planning committee, which I believe is relevant. This is more recent, in November 1973—There can be no doubt that there should be helicopter landing facilities to serve central London.That is exactly my point.
London is the capital of the third greatest civil helicopter operating country, refusing apparently to acknowledge a 1841 rapidly expanding growth rate in this transport sector, which is indicative of the country's potential economic growth rate. Instead of providing increased heliport facilities to lead this growth it threatens to eliminate them.
Unless the Government give a lead no one else will follow. The Government have that duty, which I am sure my hon. Friend recognises. The industry has done its best to provide a site, and to ask for planning permission for additional heliports in spite of great discouragement. I suggest that the Government and the GLC—and perhaps the CAA—take a fresh look at the whole matter. Sites could be found and I suggest that there are at least three needed.
Whether we have Battersea or not in future is not for me but for Ministers and the GLC to say. But Battersea is the one that exists, and if it is to continue, let us encourage it and develop it. We certainly want a heliport at that end of London, one in the City, and one other.
My hon. Friend will expect me to say what I think, and in my view it presently looks as though there has been a total lack of coherent forward planning on the part of the Government and the GLC. but I hope I am wrong about that and that my hon. Friend can reassure me.
I hope above all that my having raised this matter will be useful in the general context and in the general national interest.
§ 2.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
I hate to contradict the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr du Cann), but I fear that he and apparently the writer of the GLC paper are wrong in saying that there are no complaints from local residents about the Battersea helicopter site. I have received complaints which I have forwarded to the GLC and I have requested the GLC, as a result, not to continue with the Battersea helicopter station. The Wandsworth council has received complaints, and it has let the GLC know its opinion, which is the opinion which I share. I do not think that we need be in any doubt about that.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, other things being equal, it is desirable that we should have helicopters—we certainly shall in the future—and it is desirable that there should be some 1842 sites in London which they may use. But, confining myself for brevity's sake to the question of the station in my constituency, the objection is that it is too close to residential areas, there being several council estates both old and new very close to the site, and complaints of noise, especially at night, have been numerous even though they seem not to have percolated through to whoever wrote that paper for the GLC.
If there were more time, I might suggest other parts of London which would be more suitable. If they have to be adjoining the river, it should not be impossible to find them. In my view, the solution lies in finding a site which is on the river but which is reasonably far from residential areas, and especially from large and populous estates. I should not have thought that impossible.
Is it not possible by further research and technical effort to render helicopters rather less noisy? In the Maplin debates we have had a great deal of discussion about this, and we know that progress is being made—indeed, it was going on at the time when I was at the Board of Trade—in making jet engines generally less noisy. Perhaps it is technically more difficult to make helicopters much quieter, but I should have thought that if some small proportion of the moneys which it is intended to spend on Maplin were devoted to research and development on quieter helicopters, we might find a solution which would be happier for my constituents and which would at the same time enable the right hon. Gentleman and the business executives whom he has in mind to move about the country more quickly.
A solution ought to lie in that direction. But on the immediate issue I wish to leave neither the Minister nor the right hon. Member for Taunton in any doubt about the great opposition in my constituency to the continuance of these services in Battersea after 1975.
§ 2.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
It was extremely difficult to follow the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) because he tried to compress so much interesting information into only a few minutes. All I say at the outset is that our debate today is another indication of the failure of the House of Commons to give adequate attention to the 1843 problems of London. The problem of helicopter sites and of aircraft noise in London is of paramount importance, and I go along with the right hon. Gentleman in his desire to raise the matter in the Chamber today. It is of urgent importance, and I am glad that he raised it.
For my part, I confess that, from 1959 until 1971, as a member of the old Battersea Borough Council, I supported the existence of the Westland helicopter airport down in York Road on the River Thames, and to some extent I still support it today. What we are worried about in South London is aircraft noise—and when I say "South London" I mean especially the area of Wandsworth and beyond, dominated by Richmond, Twickenham and all those other parts represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the increase in the number of helicopters using the Westland heliport has gone to nearly 320. This is an indication of the problem which I want to bring home to the House. Not only have we had that noise—I frankly admit that the advent of a helicopter is an exciting event for children, and they like to see it—but we have had an enormous increase in the number of aircraft using a flight path which takes them over our part of London.
In the few moments at my disposal, I must emphasise that not only do we have the increase in helicopter traffic—with which, to some extent, I agree—but we have at the same time the enormous increase in the amount of noise emitted from aircraft using both Gatwick and London airport on flight paths right over South London.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cranley Onslow)
I assure the hon. Gentleman that no aircraft making for Gatwick should fly over his head.
§ Mr. Perry
I can only say that there have been several occasions when I have been flying into Gatwick and I have seen the River Thames. However, I stand to be corrected on that if the Minister assures me that aircraft going into Gatwick could not use our particular flight path and give themselves proper time and 1844 opportunity to land at Gatwick. Nevertheless, we have a great problem of noise and pollution in South London, and it arises from both the Westland heliport in Battersea and from Heathrow traffic.
The right hon. Gentleman, discussing the question of noise, mentioned the number of heliports in Los Angeles and New York. It seemed to me that those were the worst examples he could use for the sake of analogy, for those two towns have been bedevilled by this sort of problem. Their experience alone should convince us that we ought not to take the same path.
I go along with the right hon. Member for Taunton when he says that this traffic needs to be developed, but it must be developed in areas which are not concentrated in West London. At present there are eight scheduled routes flying into the Westland heliport in Battersea. Some are flying from near the Minister's constituency of Woking. Every so often there is a scheduled flight from Woking into Battersea. These services come into Battersea every few minutes. In addition to that we have the noise of normal aircraft.
That is why I want the Minister to realise that this is a London problem. We want more time to discuss the matter. I am thankful that the right hon. Gentleman has brought this question into the open. We in South London are concerned about aircraft noise and we want something done to reduce it.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I view with considerable apprehension any idea of increasing helicopter facilities in the London area. Who are the people who want to travel into and out of London by helicopter? None of my constituents wants to do that. The same probably applies to constituents of my hon. Friends who represent parts of Wandsworth.
If there is to be a development of helicopter services, we have the right to insist that much more scientific thought be applied to rendering helicopters less noisy. We have a long way to go in that respect. What has been said about Battersea applies to Lambeth, the part of London which I have the honour to represent. Those of us who live in London are being subjected to an in-creasing 1845 bombardment of noise from helicopters, aeroplanes, juggernauts and all kinds of things, which tends to make life in London very difficult and disagreeable.
I hope that the Minister will view with considerable scepticism any idea of developing helicopter services in London much beyond what they are. In any event, there are other sites which could be considered. If the people who want to use helicopters want to use them to facilitate the undertaking of lucrative business enterprises in the City of London but live in the country, let us have the helicopter site somewhere on the river near the Mansion House in order that we have less disturbance to ordinary people.
§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
Having chosen his site, my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) might have given thought to the fact that helicopters using it would be flying directly over my constituency. I am not sure that my constituents would necessarily agree that the Mansion House area was the right area for a site.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for his friendliness and the restraint of his remarks. This is an important matter for those of us who represent London constituencies. The GLC, as I understand it, has powers only to authorise or not to authorise helicopters on the aspects of land use, ground traffic generation and the effects of a heliport upon the amenities upon the immediate surroundings. It is not allowed to take into account the very much wider aspects. On researching this matter I discovered that the regulation and control of aircraft in flight to and from the heliports, and the control of the design, construction and usage of helicopters are the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority and not of the GLC. It seems impossible to make a decision on a planning application unless one is able to take into account those factors as well as the former factors.
The right hon. Member for Taunton referred to the unusual noise. It is so unusual that those who live in built-up areas—whilst they get used to the general conglomeration and cacophony of noise—feel that this high-pitched whine is so 1846 different that it has effects upon them which other noises do not.
I want to cover the point of the GLC's refusal to give a permanent site to Batter-sea. The explanation for that was reasonable. The GLC said:The location is considered to be unsuitable for the establishment of a permanent heliport because of the detrimental effect of increased traffic on the surrounding area and its geographical relationship to Central London. The present temporary facilities and intensity of use should not be continued beyond the time in which a suitable alternative site can be found to serve Central London …They further indicated thatthe Council is willing to consider in due course an application for continuation of the present temporary use which expires on 30th June 1975.Therefore, the council was not saying, with a head in the sand attitude, that the matter was finished in June 1975 and that other arrangements must be made. It was saying that it is not prepared to give approval for the permanency of the site and that the matter must be looked at again in 1975 should it be wished to continue the use temporarily until some other site can be found.
I want to end with a constituency point. I received on 16th November a letter from a constituent, a Mr. Penn, a night worker, complaining bitterly about a helicopter that has apparently been operated by the police. It has been flying low day after day, turning him and his colleagues out of bed, with the result that they cannot get any sleep. He has tried to find out about it, but has been thwarted. It was even suggested that for him to make any inquiries of Scotland Yard about the helicopter is tantamount to interfering, and almost treason. That is an example of someone suffering from the flights of just one helicopter, apparently being used by the police each day for surveillance.
I hope that before a decision is made to introduce any more heliports into London there will be a far deeper investigation. [Interruption.] It is all right for the Minister to wave his hand at me and tell me to sit down. He does not live in London, and his constituency is not in London. Those of us who represent London have a right to state our case on behalf of our constituents, even at this hour. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to consider the matter further.
§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney)
I, too, am grateful to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for raising the matter.
I wish to take part in the debate because I represent a constituency, probably the only one represented in this debate, which has managed to beat off a proposal to impose a heliport. The proposal was for a heliport in Shadwell in the Wapping area of the London Dock.
I want to put to the Minister two principles which seem to me to arise from our experience of fighting off the proposal. First, if a heliport is to be put anywhere in London, it must be in a place where the people who will use its services work and live. That excludes virtually all the working-class areas of the East End, South London and the West.
Secondly, it is no good going ahead with heliport services, it is no good adopting anything other than the most restrictive attitude, until the noise problem is solved. That problem, which was fairly raised by the right hon. Gentleman, is not limited to the time when the helicopter lands but is experienced above all when it flies over great areas of industrial parts of London where pepole live.
§ 3.7 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cranley Onslow)
I hope that the hon. Member for Shore-ditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) understands that the reason why I was anxious to get him to sit down was to give his right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) an opportunity to speak. I was anxious that all London Members present should have a chance to say their piece. I share their desire that we might have had more time for the debate.
I have not had details of the hon. Gentleman's constituency point. I have not heard of it before. If the hon. Gentleman will let me have the details, I shall look into the matter.
The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) is wrong to imagine that there are scheduled services from my constituency or any other constituency to Battersea heliport. There are routes which helicopters fly, corresponding 1848 with the railway line in my case. Helicopters frequently fly over my house. I am sure that they do so more often than they fly over the constituency of the right hon. Member for Stepney.
In the time at my disposal I should like briefly to state the situation in the round and not become involved in detailed matters affecting individual constituencies, because in many cases, as planning procedures are involved, those are matters for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I do not want anything I say to infringe on his position or to prejudge the merits of applications, some of which have not necessarily exhausted their capacity to be taken to appeal and so on. Nothing I say will, I hope, have any bearing upon the particular. I shall try to keep to the general.
The general situation is that the heliport at Battersea was set up after a planning consent in 1958 orginally given for seven years, which has been extended more than once. It is true that the planning consent expires in 1975 but, contrary to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Tauton (Mr. du Cann) says, I understand that the Greater London Council has formally notified Westlands of its decision on the application for a permanent planning consent. I hope that this is simply a misunderstanding. [Interruption.] There must be a misunderstanding, because I understood the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury to be quoting from a decision letter.
In any case, the fact is that the site is limited to 8,000 movements a year, a total which was reached in 1972. Of that total, 55 per cent. were executive or private, 24 were military, 20 were commercial charter, and others, which might include police, accounted for a mere 1 per cent.
Schemes for other heliports in London have been advanced by various parties. The British Helicopter Advisory Board has been taking a lead. It has seen my hon. Friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping, and I have had talks with the board about the possibilities as it envisages them. It was for some time concentrating on a site below Tower Bridge. It used a temporary site at St. Katherine's Dock in 1970 before redevelopment took place. As the right 1849 hon. Member for Stepney has said, it was defeated by the mass forces of Tower Hamlets when it sought to get permission to use the Shadwell Basin site. There was also a planning application for a site at Swan Lane, which is above London Bridge. Application was refused by the GLC last October.
Another consortium—Air Associates Limited—made an application for a site in the Surrey Docks, but the GLC refused permission. Application was refused mainly on grounds of noise. When the GLC has refused permission, I do not think that there have been appeals against its decision.
The question is whether a demand exists. Perhaps the House will agree that the number of movements of which we have evidence and the interest in establishing other heliports shows that there is a significant demand. The Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority believes that London needs at least two heliports. He believes that one should be near the City and that the other should be close to the West End. That is a view which he has formed in advance of the final decision of a working party which the authority has set up to consider the matter. I see no reason to suppose that its views will be inconsistent with the situation as it is seen by the authority.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton was right when he said that there is a chicken-and-egg situation. That is how the chairman of the authority sees the matter. He says, and I agree, that potential operators are unlikely to make a firm decision to acquire and operate helicopters until they know what use they will be able to make of them. Their main use will probably be from the centre of London to prominent parts of the United Kingdom, to the nearest parts of the European continent or to airports from which quick transfers can be made to fixed-wing aircraft for longer flights.
The potential demand is likely to be large once heliports are provided. There can be no doubt that the demand will grow. It is also true, as the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has said, that there are obstacles to be overcome. The principal obstacle is noise. I am slightly surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the number of complaints which he has 1850 received about night flights, According to the figures with which I have been supplied, there have been 40 night movements in the past five years through Battersea heliport. I should be surprised if they have generated a large number of complaints. The number of complaints which we receive about the night flights of aircraft over London bound for Heathrow is a great deal larger than the number of complaints received about the movement of helicopters. Many complaints are concerned with the alleged failure of pilots to keep to the correct routes rather than the noise they create.
There is some ground for hope. Helicopter noise arises much more from the rotors than from the engine. There are difficulties in finding ways of reducing the noise. Research work is being carried out by Westlands and at Southampton University to try to identify the sources of rotor noise. In the meantime, pilots are under instruction to maintain the maximum altitude compatible with air traffic control requirements. In view of the progress which has been made in the silencing of engines for much larger aircraft, it is fair to suggest that we may be able to look forward to progress being made in reducing the rotor noise of helicopters. It would be a mistake to conclude that progress is in sight or to write off the possibility of achieving something. We must bridge the gap.
We must also take safety into account. It is worth noting that the safety record of helicopters operating to and from Battersea is notable. In the past three years there must, by my calculations, have been at least 20,000 movements. During that time there have been only two accidents. Both accidents involved helicopters preparing for take-off. That is not a bad safety record. It is true that safety must be a prime consideration. I take the point that we must consider safety in terms of the height at which helicopters fly over London. That is a matter on which we must have the advice of the Chairman of the CAA and his experts. I shall ensure that the point is put to him and I shall reply to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North.
The Government's policy on the provision and development of airports is set out in the White Paper on Civil Aerodromes and Air Navigation Services published in 1961, which states the view that 1851 local authorities and other local interests are the best people to decide the needs and circumstances of their areas. This is a policy which has been followed by successive Governments. It has involved familiar planning procedures, and it places the onus on the Civil Aviation Authority—it appears in the White Paper on Civil Aviation Policy Guidance, Cmnd 4899 of 1972—to tell us what should be done. It would be premature for the Government to intervene unless and until that there is deadlock which justifies our doing so. All I can say is that this stage has not yet been reached.
I recognise that we need to get a move on in matters of this kind. We have the expectation of the report from the Civil Aviation Authority, which is due early next year, and I have meanwhile put it to the Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority that we should have the opportunity, on the submission of that report, to clarify two points which seem to me to be important. The first is whether there is any objection in principle on the part of the GLC to the location of one or more heliports in the central London area. It is difficult to believe that there could be any objection. I am sure that the quotation from the agenda papers, of which we have been reminded, represents an attitude of the GLC which commands general support in this House: that the helicopter is here, that it provides a service, and that room must be found for it in the nexus of facilities which a great city like London needs. It is well to establish that the GLC and the CAA see eye to eye on this matter.
Another point to clear up is to ask the Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority whether he will examine the criteria which the authority has applied to the provision of heliports. It seems to me that these criteria have been employed in such a way that people have inevitably looked along the banks of the Thames for heliport sites and that these are not necessarily the best places, because the fact that they are bounded by the Thames on one side means that for a radius of 180 degrees access is not of the best or fastest kind.
If it turns out that there are railway station sites or something of the kind which offer greater space and could be used as an alternative, this would widen the range of choice and would restore the 1852 position which existed previously when the Government were safeguarding part of the Nine Elms site as a possible heliport station—although that has been superseded by the allocation of the site to the Covent Garden Authority.
I have had to be brief as I have no wish to encroach further into the time allotted for the next debate, although we came under starter's orders rather late. I hope that from the studies which are being undertaken we shall get further information which will enable us to resolve what I regard as a matter of national importance. I recognise that there are legitimate claims of amenity on the part of local residents which cannot be overlooked or ignored, but I do not believe that it is impossible to find a way in which we can accommodate the legitimate interests of all concerned. I am certain that none of us would contemplate with indifference a situation in which Britain's capital city was denied helicopter facilities, and I certainly have no wish to see that situation come about.