HC Deb 24 July 1973 vol 860 cc1517-29

8.32 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I beg to move, That the Noise Insulation Regulations 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th July, be approved.

During this parliamentary Session we have made progress towards securing a better balance between the provision of important transportation developments which benefit the whole community and the protection of the environment and of individuals against the adverse effects which such developments can cause.

The Government's White Paper "Development and Compensation, Putting People First", published in October of last year, outlined a new approach to the planning of major public developments and the compensation to which people could be entitled.

Allied to this White Paper was the publication of the report of the Urban Motorways Committee "New Roads in Towns", the conclusions of which were generally accepted by the Government. Since then we have seen the Land Compensation Act which gives effect to the proposals in our White Paper and which was welcomed on both sides of the House and has now become law. These noise insulation regulations made under Section 20 of that Act and relating to noise from new or improved highways carry the process one stage further.

However, I would not like the regulations to be taken out of context. They must be seen as part of our total approach aimed at reducing noise and other forms of pollution at source; at separating people from pollution by environmental planning; and at alleviating nuisance by improved design and remedial action. The provision of sound insulation in the future is a form of remedial action which comes into play where the total planning and design approach has not proved sufficient in containing noise from highways. The final stage in the process is, of course, injurious affection compensation which is now provided for under Part of the Land Compensation Act 1973.

Irrespective of the future, the need for sound insulation certainly exists in relation to some schemes designed before the new Urban Motorways Committee approach took effect.

We cannot go back and provide sound insulation along all roads opened in the past; the cost with a level of entitlement at 68dB(A) would be about £1,000 million and considerably more if we had a lower noise level figure. What we have done is to take the exceptional step and go back to 17th October 1969, three years before the publication of our White Paper. This is the same retrospective period applied by the injurious affection provisions of Part I of the Land Compensation Act.

Thus, whenever a new road was opened or an existing road was altered on or after that date and the resultant traffic noise affecting dwellings and other residential accommodation exceeds a specified level, highway authorities will be able to offer sound insulation under Regulation 4. In relation to roads and new carriageways opened after 16th October 1972 authorities will be obliged to offer it tinder Regulation 3.

My Department will generally operate the discretionary power in relation to trunk roads opened between October 1969 and October 1972 as though that discretionary power was mandatory. I want to emphasise this because certain Press reports have suggested that we shall be taking no action along the M6 at Birmingham, for example. That is not correct. Consultants are already preparing the noise map that will identify those properties eligible for treatment in the Birmingham area. It is, of course, up to local authorities how they use the discretionary powers around these roads for which they are responsible. I turn now to the" specified level"—Regulation 2(1)—at which entitlement arises. The level we have adopted is 68dB(A) on the L10–18 hour—scale.

I do not want to go into great technical details but the L10–18 hour—index represents the average of the levels of noise exceeded for 10 per cent. of the time during each hour between 6 a.m. and midnight on any normal working day. This index has been shown to provide a meaningful correlation with social response and this noise level has the great advantage that it can usually be predicted. Thus it is possible to identify those dwellings that will be eligible and enable authorities to install sound insulation in time to mitigate construction nuisance.

Why have we adopted the 68 dB(A) level? The Noise Advisory Council recommended that existing residential development should not be subjected to more than 70 dB(A). It stressed, however, that this represented the limit of the acceptable. The Urban Motorways Committee supported this view.

In adopting the level of 68 dB(A) we have recognised those views. Furthermore, the regulations allow an authority to sound-insulate dwellings below this qualifying level if they are part of a building of which some other part is exposed to this level of noise. This will help to avoid leaving, for instance, one house in a terrace uninsulated because, strictly speaking, it was judged to be slightly under the qualifying noise level. A commonsense, flexible approach is needed.

The Government accept the recommendation of the Urban Motorways Committee that this level should be kept under review. We have instituted a comprehensive survey of public attitudes to noise and it may well be that when we have the results we shall think it right to make changes. At present, however, when there are many competing demands on limited resources for improved environmental quality, there is insufficient justification to prescribe a definitive standard lower than 68 dB(A).

Indeed, since traffic noise at the opening of a road can be 3 dB(A) below that experienced when the road is used to its design capacity, entitlement could arise when the actual level experienced is only 65 dB(A).

Schedule 1(4), which describes the technical approach to be used in predicting or measuring noise, also requires the calculations to be rounded up to the nearest whole decibel.

Schedule 2 to the regulations may appear complicated but it provides a package treatment for dwellings capable of reducing internal noise levels by about 35 dB(A) from that experienced outside. Since the apparent loudness of noise doubles every 10 dB(A), this is a significant reduction. Trials have been carried out in a flat kindly lent by Birmingham Corporation in which officials of my Department's Building Research Establishment have installed insulation to the specification outlined in this schedule and such an attenuation of 35 dB(A) was measured. To put it in a different way, the flat is about 20 to 25 metres from the M6 motorway and the effect of putting in this double glazing with ventilation, and so on, is equivalent to moving the flat to over 500 metres from it. That shows what a considerable reduction in noise this achieves.

Perhaps I should explain that, to be effective, sound insulation requires windows to be kept shut, and this will restrict airflow and influence indoor temperature. Hence, supplementary ventilation is necessary, but the ventilator units must not allow the noise to penetrate; otherwise, there is no benefit.

Manufacturers have been made aware of our proposals and at recent meetings with officials they have expressed a keen desire to produce the goods. I would add that, as the ventilator units must contain a filter, the worst effects of dust should be excluded. This could be particularly important during the construction stage of roads. While such ventilation will be sufficient for normal conditions, overheating might still result in southerly facing rooms. Research work has shown that the best way of reducing this is to insert venetian blinds between the panes of double glazing, which was done at Douglas House.

The Agrement Board will certify that the ventilator units meet the specifications and will seek assurances as to continued quality control. The specifications have been discussed with such bodies as the British Gas Corporation and have been approved by them.

The regulations prescribe the procedure and the time limits within which offers have to be made and accepted. The highway authority is required under Regulation 8 to offer sound insulation to owners and occupiers. I believe this is important.

Residents, whether owner-occupiers or tenants, do not have to find out how to claim sound insulation. They are offered it. Nor need they pay anything. The reasonable cost limits which will be applied under Regulation 11 and which can be adjusted to take account of current prices will enable the highway authority to provide the necessary insulation at its own expense. Residents could, however, make private arrangements to have the work carried out and claim grant. I expect the annual cost of insulation to be about £5 million with an additional nonrecurring expenditure of £10 million for schemes opened since October 1969. Local authority expenditure will be eligible for grant within the normal framework of the grant rules.

Regulation 6 prescribes that authorities shall produce a map or list identifying the dwellings which are to be treated, and I urge them to do this and make their offer wherever they can before construction commences. This will not only enable buildings to be insulated against construction noise, but the map would also help in assessing the impact of new highway development.

Regulation 5 provides a special power for authorities to insulate dwellings which will be severely affected for a substantial period of time by noise from construction works, even though this may not be maintained once the road comes into use. One local social survey conducted on behalf of the Urban Motorways Committee showed that nearly half of those questioned considered the construction period produced effects worse than those after the road was opened. I am sure that hon. Members, from their own experience, will agree with that. This power is an alternative to temporary reaccommodation or acquisition by agreement under Part II of the Land Compensation Act.

The regulations are intended to come into operation on 1st September, but we shall not wait till then to start work. Circulars and an explanatory booklet which will be made available to qualifying residents are in hand, and I mentioned earlier the preparatory calculations being undertaken in Birmingham that will enable an early start to be made in that area.

I have mentioned some of the most important features of the regulations. To the best of our knowledge, this scheme is unique in its extent and application. No other country imposes such obligations on its highway authorities. We are therefore breaking new ground and, as with all such innovations, only time will show whether changes are necessary. I have already stressed that the level of entitlement, the technical specifications in Schedule 1 and 2 and the cost levels will be kept under review. I believe that the regulations arc a major environmental step forward and will enable us to deal quickly and effectively with the cases needing priority attention.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

My hon. Friend the Minister has gone quite a long way to reassure me and the people in my constituency who are affected by the M6-M5 link. I thought that his halo was slipping when I read the reports in the local Press. We have given him rather saintly qualities. We thought he was a saviour in helping people who were experiencing noise nuisance after the new motorway was built.

I welcome my hon. Friend's assurance that the compensation provision still stands. The reason for the concern of local people is the report which appeared in the newspapers. They know that from October 1972 highway authorities were obliged to compensate them, but they were concerned about the three-year period from October 1969 to 1972. Local authorities have a discretion under the statutory instrument. However, we thought that it would be a great improvement if "may" in paragraph 4 on page 5 were altered to "will". In the circumstances, we are unable to amend an order and it was thus reported in the Birmingham Evening Mail as a discretion on the part of local authorities whether to pay this. That has caused great concern in the area. How badly the people in the district felt was shown when Mrs. Robinson, of Parkwood Croft, which is very close to the motorway, immediately wrote to the Prime Minister as follows: With the M6 only 53 feet from our front window I am sure that no one would want to buy our property. It is true that the Government have tried to help the noise problem by erecting a barrier to try to reduce it. We have heard from Keith Speed that this is supposed to have reduced the noise by eight decibels, but I would like to know from where these noise readings were taken, certainly not from our bedrooms which are on the same level as the motorway and are affected the most. Now another bomb shell has fallen on our lives. We have read in the Birmingham Mail that soundproofing measures for which we have pioneered and fought cannot affect us and we are to be excluded from the new regulations that come into force on September 1st. In her final paragraph Mrs. Robinson said: I implore you that when the new regulations are debated next week in the House of Commons please, please allow them to include us. That is a plea that affects many of the thrifty people in the area who cannot open their windows at night along the motorway because of the noise nuisance that penetrates their homes, even with the barriers. Mrs. Robinson makes the point in her letter to the Prime Minister that her children, who have sweltered in the warm summer we have had, have not been able to open the windows to cool down the rooms because of that nuisance.

In the circumstances, there should be no doubt about people's rights to compensation. The Minister agrees, and I am pleased to have his assurances, that these are practically mandatory in the regulations. These people are entitled to compensation and they should be considered. They are entitled because they are still being affected, despite the test barriers. Although we welcome the barriers in the area, the proximity to the houses in certain instances actually provides privacy to the houses. That factor was never considered when the barriers were erected. Only the noise level was considered.

Another side effect has been to stop papers from coming into the roads and front gardens. But the noise at times is almost as bad as it was previously. I welcome my hon. Friend's letter in which he told me recently about the way in which the Government were relying on reducing noise levels in my constituency. I am grateful that he should choose Perry Barr to be the area where the test barriers were put up as a forerunner for the rest of the nation. At the same time as in certain areas the Government have provided help in the gardens, the question must be asked: if people are entitled to the barriers, are they not also entitled to double glazing?

I have mentioned Parkwood Croft, but equally affected are parts of my constituency with houses along Grindleford Road, Hathersay Road and Thornbridge Avenue and many others. The people want double glazing not because they want to jump on the bandwagon but because it is important to the enjoyment of their homes. Again, as Mrs. Robinson said, the noise is at bedroom level. That level gets most of the noise. Although the barriers disperse noise at a lower level, it is not always taken over the facades of the bedrooms of the houses.

My hon. Friend spoke of 6 am till midnight as the testing period, but most of the complaints we receive concern the night. Will the Minister consider another formula that would apply at a lower level than 68 dB(A) from midnight till 6 am? Invariably, all the people in the area quote the magic hour of 4 am as the time when everyone living along the motorway seems to be awakened as though by a giant alarm clock when the motorway traffic speeds up again.

If the occupants do not like the new noises by which they are affected in their homes, and if that noise is below 68 dB(A), can they apply for compensation to move, and get it? Do they have to be pestered with a 68 dB(A) level? We in Birmingham thought that the level should be 65. I know the Minister put it at 70 originally but, although we were pleased to have a reduction of 2 dB(A), there is still a feeling that it should be down to 65 dB(A).

On occasions in the House, as we all know, the quality of noise can change, depending on who is making the noise and what sort of noise it is. When tests are taken, are they carried out at times when prevailing winds might be driving the noise into people's properties, or on other occasions when the wind is taking the noise in another direction and someone else is being bothered? Is the motorway noise to be tested during a rainy period—rain makes a difference—when the noise of tyres seems to reach a different pitch?

It is strange that in the still of the evening the noise seems to hang in an area and the types of vehicles using the motorway make a difference, despite the 68 dB(A) limit. If it is in the night when the vehicles provide this startling tone to wake one, there is then the problem of getting back to sleep when one is not in a drowsy state. All these factors should be considered.

If people's claims are turned down by the highway authorities, is there any right of appeal? Will an appeal be proposed? How long will it be before the efficiency of the proposals can be tested on behalf of the local residents? 1st September is the commencement date, but when do the workmen start moving in? That is what the people in the area want to know. If they are entitled, when will they have the men in to do the job? The matter is most urgent to those affected.

On page 8. under the heading Buildings to which these regulations apply the regulations specify dwellings, and other buildings used for residential purposes". A school in the area is badly affected. Do the regulations cover a school, or is it exempt? If it is exempt, will it be brought in under another form of regulation?

Paragraph 9(2), on page 11, says that work cannot be carried out on a room where there is installed any flueless combustion appliance other than a gas cooker, unless there will be in that room after completion of the insulation work an uninsulated window capable of being opened. Who provides the uninsulated window or, if it is not possible to put in an uninsulated window because of the noise factor affecting it, are the Government prepared to have some other form of heating put in? The motorway is the cause and, again, the onus should not be on the residents to prove it.

Paragraph 11 of the regulation states that the actual cost incurred by the claimant or the reasonable cost which would have been incurred by the highway authority". There are different standards in homes. If somebody has taken the trouble to install exceptionally good woodwork and fittings, is that cost to be ignored in bringing the double-glazing into tone with that cost, or will a reasonable figure be applied that leaves the resident to spend an extra amount to restore his home to the previous standard?

I am sorry to have given my hon. Friend such details and to appear as though I am carping. I am here to protect the interests of my constituents, and they are worried. We realise that there was no previous legislation, because we have been trying for this since the inception of the motorway. We have, however, welcomed the Government's proposals and the retrospective legislation which has given my hon. Friend such a saintly quality in the area. But those who were hopeful have now had cause for doubt. May I ask my hon. Friend whether he is really restoring their trust in him?

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Speed

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar (Mr. Kinsey) for the various questions he has asked. I know the considerable difficulties his constituents and other constituents in north and east Birmingham have had as a result of the M6 motorway and I know of the considerable amount of work my hon. Friend has done on behalf of his constituents in making constant and proper representations to myself and my right hon. Friends.

I recall a large meeting we had in my hon. Friend's constituency not long ago at which I explained the regulations. I hope I am now restored to the celestial station that my hon. Friend assigned to me earlier, because I have said on many occasions that, although there was the discretionary power extending back to October 1969—this will be maintained for local authorities—the Government, namely, the Department of the Environment as highway authority, regard this as mandatory for its schemes. I am sorry that there were people, including constituents of my hon. Friend, who were misled and obviously worried by inaccurate Press reports. If the Press had bothered to check with me, they would have obtained an answer very quickly at that time.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of barriers. I stress that the barriers in his constituency are experimental. Measurements have been taken from a number of different areas. This raises a problem because, as my hon. Friend knows, barriers do not attenuate sound in the same way as double glazing—nothing like as much; probably something between 8 and 12 decibels. Nevertheless, a barrier has the advantage, as my hon. Friend said, that it gives some privacy to certain houses. It induces lower noise levels in gardens, and this may be important where people want to sit, or children play.

On the other hand, with barriers there are the aesthetic problems. Not everybody likes the sight of a barrier, and this can be something people object to. There are maintenance problems which are greater than the problems of maintaining double glazing in houses. Therefore, it is inevitably a compromise and I visualise situations where a soundproof barrier is the answer, particularly where people regard sitting in the garden and the external environment as important.

I can understand the other situations where a soundproof barrier is not the answer. As my hon. Friend said, there are the problems of second, third or fourth storeys, because the higher one goes the less effective a soundproof barrier becomes. I therefore believe that we must look at every situation on its merits, and we will be guided greatly by the local authorities—and, indeed, by hon. Members—who are in the best position to know what the local residents want. In many cases the question of cost will not be critical. It may be more expensive in certain cases to have double-glazing, and in others it may be more expensive to have a soundproof barrier.

There is no provision at present for an appeal. Basically, everybody affected should be contacted and given an offer by the highway authority. Where my Department is the highway authority, it may often be a local authority acting as our agents.

If anyone believes that he has an entitlement and has not received an offer, he can question the authority saying, "I believe I am entitled". He would then have to be furnished with a written statement explaining why he was not entitled.

We have been in touch with the Council on Tribunals and other bodies on this question, and we shall be watching the situation to see how many cases might be disputed. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that these techniques are still at a relatively early stage and it is difficult to be hard and fast about the matter. After a reasonable period, we shall review the situation to see what, if anything, needs to be done. At present, anyone who does not receive an offer and feels that he is entitled to one should receive a written statement explaining why an offer has not been made.

We are now talking about residential property. The problems of schools, offices and other places are serious but they do not come within these regulations.

My hon. Friend mentioned problems concerning the 65 dB level which I know Birmingham wanted. I have pointed out that although we fix the level at 68, which is two below the Advisory Council's 70, and therefore the scheme is that much more costly, in practical terms this can mean 65, especially in the opening stages of a road scheme. In practical terms it might even mean 64.5 in certain circumstances, as we round up.

Bearing in mind the not inconsiderable costs which the regulations will involve, and the technical problems, I consider that the 68 dB level that we have fixed is a good compromise in all the circumstances. I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will feel that it will cover the situation.

My hon. Friend mentioned gas cookers, covered on page 11 of the regulations. These types of gas cooker are being phased out on conversion to North Sea gas.

He asked—it is part and parcel of the same problem how much money should be paid if someone wanted a better quality job than might be considered appropriate by the highway authority. If someone wishes to have an especially good job, for example, a particularly expensive form of window fitting, that person, under various limits that will be established, would be paid the cost that would be incurred by the local authority doing a job of reasonable quality for that house. If someone wishes to have deluxe fittings over and above that, he will have to make up the difference himself. I consider that to be not unreasonable, for there must be some yardstick. A similar yardstick has been applied to other schemes, for instance to airport problems.

My hon. Friend mentioned wind and rain and the whole subject of measurement. I know that Schedule 1 is complicated, but I ask him to read page 19.

He also referred to the vexed question, which has been mentioned to me in the Birmingham area, of the build-up of traffic from four o'clock in the morning onwards. All my expert advice, of which we have a great deal coming in, although we are still at the threshold of the technology in the subject, is that the present L10 scale and time limits I have given give the best answer in the circumstances.

I am not saying that we shall not have to change our schemes as the technology of acoustics develops, but I do not believe that my hon. Friend's constituents, or anyone else, will lose from the use of this L10 scale. It is closely detailed in the schedules.

I hope that I have covered the points raised, for they are of serious concern to my hon. Friend's constituents. We are working as fast as we can on the prediction map. We are in touch with the manufacturers. The regulations come into effect on 1st September and I hope that we may start getting hardware installed alongside the houses on the M6 in Birmingham before the end of the year. Much work, time and money are already being spent by my officials to that end.

When the regulations come into effect, I hope that by the end of the year we shall start to make an impact on the social problem posed in the West Midlands and other areas.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Noise Insulation Regulations 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th July, be approved.