HC Deb 20 March 1974 vol 870 cc1277-88

4.25 a.m.

Mr. Sydney Tierney (Birmingham, Yardley)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to address the House, even at this hour in the morning—although it is not a time I would have chosen to inflict a maiden speech upon anyone. Before turning to my subject, as the new Member for Birmingham, Yardley I wish to express my appreciation and that of my constituents for the hard work and conscientious service of my predecessors, the present hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) who represented the constituency from 1964 to 1970 and Mr. Derek Coombs, who represented it from 1970 until the end of the last Parliament.

It is now my privilege to represent Yardley and I will do my utmost fully to represent the people there. Yardley is a pleasant, mainly residential, constituency. It is a constituency which is said to have a nice social mix, usually providing an ideal barometer at election times because of its evenly balanced political make-up. It is claimed that the rest of the country votes as Yardley votes. I must say that I was a little disappointed at the way some parts of the country voted, but on this occasion I was delighted with the way Yardley responded.

My constituency is a dormitory area of Birmingham, with a high proportion of white-collar workers commuting daily to the city centre while other workers go off each day, in the main outside the constituency, to the Rover, Lucas and other works. Because of this situation public transport facilities and their continued improvement are of some importance to my constituents.

Yardley can claim at the opposite ends of its scale of values that it has a parish church which has just celebrated its thousandth year of existence and a public house which lays claim to having the largest bar in Britain. The constituency contains detached houses of some opulence, row after row of semi-detached houses in varying degrees of attractiveness and council house estates, both old and new.

Nevertheless, interspaced in and around the constituency are secluded pockets of Victorian houses, many of which are in a state of decay. There is a sizeable number of people living in bad conditions who need new housing. I could go on about the problems of housing and mortgage rates and rents and tell the House about the unlet office blocks in the Sheldon area of my constituency which are landmarks of no great beauty. They are towering advertisements for the vacant and faceless side of the speculators in our community who ignore the real priorities of life.

I must now turn to the main issue in my speech. Birmingham Airport is situated towards the edge of my constituency. Part of the Sheldon Ward lies quite close to the airport and to busy take-off and landing routes. Aircraft noise and pollution is a growing social problem in the area, hence my interest in the Supplementary Estimates to the Supply Estimates affecting civil aviation for the year ending 31st March.

Until the beginning of the Second World War there were few aircraft and those there were were comparatively low-powered and quiet. During the war, however, the number of military aircraft increased until few parts of Britain were unaffected by their noise. After the war civil aviation concentrated on a small number of airfields and began to develop fast. For some years complaints about noise had been received from people living near these airports. The number of complaints increased sharply with the introduction of the turbo-engined aircraft in 1958.

Under Subhead A.2, which deals with services in the United Kingdom involving other current expenditure, I note and welcome the fact that more money is being spent on airport planning studies. I assume that the policy is that prevention is better than cure. Planning and siting is of major importance, and a number of our airports which before the war accommodated weekend flyers and were suitable for that purpose are unsuitably placed as airport terminals and in consequence noise problems are aggravated in these areas.

The Committee on the Problems of Noise, commonly known as the Wilson Committee, presented its report to Parliament in July 1963. The committee also dealt with aircraft noise, and its up-to-date and comprehensive report made a major contribution to noise problems. It reported that after 1958 aircraft noise began to be a major problem. It also reported upon some of the technical problems and made certain recommendations.

I am not sufficiently well trained or qualified to go into the technical reasons about the source and volume increase in noise, except to say that, with more movements of bigger and more powerful aircraft, it generally increased. Turbo-jet engines generate noise of a character which is more unfamiliar and intrinsically more disturbing than that of propeller-driven aircraft. As might be expected, the number of complaints from the public has risen since 1958, with the greater number of complaints coming from populations living close to airports under busy take-off and landing routes. Most complaints concern take-off and landing noise.

In addition to annoying and disturbing people in their homes in the vicinity of airports, interfering with television reception and disrupting conversation and general social life, it also affects patients and staff in hospitals and disrupts teaching in schools. In my constituency there is a school under a flight path which suffers from interruption to such an extent that the school will have to be re-sited if the best interests of the children in the school are to be served.

Research and development work on aircraft noise problems is proceeding in Government establishements, as we are aware. I refer in this connection to Subhead A.2, payments for research and development. I note that there is an underspending due to delays in programme and late billing. I am not familiar with the details lying behind that explanation. May I be assured that it does not mean that less money eventually will be spent on research and development?

I readily support additional money being spent in this connection. A noise survey at Birmingham Airport, which is owned and operated by Birmingham Corporation, cost more than £40,000. The corporation has met the full cost through its public health committee. The survey was carried out by private consultants and would not have been done at all except for the public-spirited members of Birmingham City Council and its public health committee. More Government money ought to be allocated for these purposes to determine high-level noise areas, and the costs should not have to be met by the ratepayers.

The Birmingham survey established beyond doubt that a noise problem existed. It was clear from the report that some people were living in conditions where the noise exposure should not be tolerated. Over a period of time, the noise is such that there might be a risk of hearing damage. No amount of sound insulation would make life tolerable in the case of those living in the zone of highest noise exposure. These people are living in conditions which can be made tolerable only by sound insulation in their homes.

These findings could only have been made on a voluntary basis. There should be some responsible authority in the Department to insist that these tests be made in the interests of the general public, and they should be financed accordingly.

I now refer to Class IV, Vote 2. Under A.2(1) it states: The transfer of Noise Monitoring Units to the British Airports Authority has been postponed, some payments were carried over from 1972–73". Under paragraph (5), "Miscellaneous", it states: The main increase is to meet the continuing site costs of the Noise Monitoring Units because of the delay in transferring them to the British Airports Authority. The wording in paragraph (5) would indicate that the postponement in paragraph (1)—the transfer of Noise Monitoring Units to the British Airports Authority—is of a temporary nature. I should like to ask whether the transfer is intended and, if the answer is in the affirmative, whether it is an administrative move, a policy move, or both. Does the transfer of these units by the Department of Trade and Industry to the British Airports Authority, which controls five major airports, mean that the Department will not in future be directly concerned with noise problems and the use of noise monitoring units at airports other than those under the control of the British Airports Authority.

In my view, it will be necessary in future, as the problem increases, to enact legislation which will force airport authorities, other than the five tied to the British Airports Authority, to use noise monitoring units to check whether there is a noise nuisance in the vicinity of some airports. Otherwise, monitoring may not take place and any nuisance will go on unabated.

My final reference is to A.7: Services in the UK: capital equipment". Delivery of noise monitoring equipment has been delayed. Does that mean that, because of delays in delivery of equipment, it has not been paid for in the financial accounting period originally envisaged? Do I understand correctly that the units are now installed, that the one at Gatwick is fully operational under the control of the British Airports Authority, and that the one at Heathrow will be operational in a matter of a few weeks? Is the equipment of a standard that is considered as being totally automated—what might be termed as listening-watch equipment?

I pose these questions because I believe that any noise monitoring system dealing with monitoring extreme noise levels without modern equipment is falling short of requirements. It is necessary, where there is contravention by aircraft of the maximum noise levels permissible, that it should be picked up by the equipment as quickly as possible and that the culprit be dealt with straight away. I will support and approve the expenditure of money on bringing this type of equipment into use more quickly and on a more widespread basis so that all airports in the country can benefit from its use as and when required.

Aircraft noise and pollution is an area where a great deal needs to be done. If we are to prevent aircraft noise and pollution from being the social menace that it is, then much needs doing quickly. It is a difficult area in which to operate successfully, and the containment of the problem deserves the full support of the House.

4.39 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I am sure that the House would like me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Tierney) on his excellent maiden speech even at this early hour of the morning. He delivered his speech in a most competent manner and dealt in depth with his constituency. His constituents should be proud that he has so forcibly on their behalf put forward the argument about noise in Birmingham, Yardley. We look forward to hearing him again in the months ahead.

I address myself to Class IV, Vote 4, which refers to research and development contracts that have been issued by the Department of Trade and Industry. We read the sad statement: Requirements and progress substantially less than expected. I find that a most extraordinary statement, because over the years I have been urging that special research should be undertaken into the noise that comes from various woodworking machines and machinery in industry generally. Until now it has been thought that men in the furniture industry who retire deaf at the end of their working lives have reached that state because of their age. It is now being found that the noise levels in which they have worked for the best part of their lives have damaged their hearing. I think that the Department should spend whatever money it can in the interests of those whose hearing is being damaged.

There are two factors which workers have to contend with when operating woodworking machines. First, these machines operate at about 12,000 revolutions per minute. That in itself produces a high-pitched whine in excess of 80 to 90 decibels. Superimposed upon that there is the noise of putting the timber into the machine. The two factors combine to produce a noise level well in excess of 80 to 90 decibels, and this is clearly damaging to those in the industry. I hope that the Department will ensure that there is an on-going research programme to try to find a means of ensuring that machinery either manufactured here or imported from abroad is properly designed to reduce noise levels.

It is insufficient to observe that the use of ear muffs reduces the effect of noise. In the furniture industry, the men working at these machines use the noise as part of their skill. For instance, if a piece of timber is in any way faulty, or has knots or grains that are likely to cause trouble, the change in noise as it passes through the machine tells the man in charge that he has to take speedy action. The change in noise is an extra safety precaution for him. If he wears ear muffs to protect himself from the noise, he is not able to detect any change in the noise level and he is likely to be injured because he has failed to note that the timber ought to be specially handled.

The accident rate in this industry is tragically higher than in other industries, and that illustrates the need for special care and research. Therefore, it is very sad to read in the Supplementary Estimates for 1973–74 that the Department was unable or unwilling to spend its money to determine industrial contracts with industry to research into the effects of noise.

I brought to the attention of the previous Government, and no doubt I shall do the same with the present Govern- ment, the dangers of polyurethane foam. These dangers are manifest, yet Departments have refused to take the matter seriously. I have asked for increased Government funds to be spent on research to find a safe polyurethane foam. Absurdly enough, one firm has spent £500,000 on such research. If it is successful, anyone using the foam would have to pay royalties. Fires are caused by this material and people are killed, yet we might end up having to pay royalties to prevent these tragedies. The Department has plenty of opportunity to invest funds in industrial contracts to find answers to these problems, yet all they can report is that they have saved £40,000 on a £94,000 Estimate in this way.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his appointment. Although he has been in office only a short time, I hope that he will be able to assure me that this money will be spent on research to ensure that workers are not afflicted with deafness when they retire.

4.48 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Tierney), on his maiden speech. He certainly appears to have gone into the subject with care. I am sure that the House will hear from him again in future, although I hope at a more agreeable hour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) spoke with considerable knowledge about noise nuisance in factories, particularly furniture factories, on which he is an expert. This is a matter to which he has addressed his mind for sonic time, but I hope that he will forgive me if I do not go into the subject in depth, because it falls more within the ambit of the Department of Industry. We will note carefully what my hon. Friend said and the information will be transmitted to my right hon. Friend.

I know that my hon. Friend's observations are justified. He and I are neighbours in London. We have worked together over a long period and on this type of debate before. I feel rather as though Flanagan and Allen had split up on this occasion. It is a great pity in some respects and is one of the disadvantages of appearing on the Front Bench. However, I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about my shedding a certain amount of maidenly virtue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yardley dealt primarily with the difficulties of his constituency in its close proximity to Elmdon airport, an airport with which I am somewhat familiar from having spent a large part of my less mature life travelling through it in my courting days. In those days Elmdon did not represent any difficulty for the surrounding inhabitants, because it was a very small airport. Today it is increasing in scope all the time.

My hon. Friend will realise that Elmdon is an airport in respect of which my Department has no responsibility. It is run by Birmingham Corporation and we have not designated it under Section 29 of the Civil Aviation Act as an airport for which the Department of Trade would have direct responsibilities as regards noise abatement.

There seems to have been no demand for the designation of Birmingham airport under that section. Noise monitoring is only part of the responsibilities that would fall on the Department of Trade if it were so designated. Therefore, if Birmingham Corporation at any time felt that it was necessary for the Department of Trade to assume this responsibility I am certain that it would call upon us to do so. At the moment, although we certainly watch the situation carefully and would offer any guidance and help that is possible, the airport is strictly within control and responsibility of Birmingham Corporation and the information I have been given gives me no reason to suppose that Birmingham Corporation is not assuming and carrying out those responsibilities properly.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important points in relation to the airport and noise problems. As regards existing noise levels, we are aware that this is an increasing problem. The pestilence of noise, even though it may not be on the scale of noise at London Airport, concerns people in the Yardley area, particularly at Garrett's Green, Kitts Green, Tile Cross and Sheldon. We must keep the matter in perspective, however, and the greater part of these areas is outside the level of disturbance which would qualify for sound proofing at airports for which such grants are paid. I am also advised that Kitts Green itself is badly affected by noise from the nearby railway.

Future noise levels will depend entirely on future traffic at the airport. The Civil Aviation Authority is considering the Midlands airport study which was commissioned a little time ago and which covers Birmingham and East Midlands. A further airport study has been commissioned which deals with Central England. Those two studies will have to be viewed together. The consultants expect a report on the latter study within the next few weeks and the Civil Aviation Authority will then make its recommendations in due course, so we have to consider both studies before the authority is able to make any definite recommendations.

The question of soundproofing in Birmingham arises but, again, that is not a matter for which this Department is responsible. The Birmingham Corporation commissioned a report by the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at Southampton University on environmental noise at Birmingham Airport and that is being considered, although I am informed that, again, it is considered to be somewhat alarmist—unnecessarily so in some of its observations.

The question of noise abatement at Birmingham Airport follows procedures adopted at most United Kingdom airports with power abated climb-out with a modified form of minimum noise routings, and restrictions are placed on training flights, which are not allowed between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., and on ground running.

Finally, we have not received many complaints about Elmdon. None has come in recent years from the Yardley area, although this debate may have the effect of provoking some. The main source of complaints has been the surrounding area.

My hon. Friend asked what research and development we are undertaking in relation to the reduction of aircraft noise. This, too, is primarily the responsibility of others than the Department of Trade. There is a major research establishment run at Pyestock by the Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive and where civil aviation work is required. Some work is done at Pyestock for the Aerospace Assessment and Research Division of the Department of Industry. The Department of Trade keeps a watching brief on any developments that may lead to a reduction of aircraft noise.

Our rôle, therefore, is substantially that of determining whether any successful research has been undertaken and whether it is likely to have any practical application following consultation, and it may on some occasions be necessary to make those changes mandatory.

The other matter to which I want to allude, arising out of my hon. Friend's speech, is the sort of monitoring that is done at airports other than Birmingham. At Heathrow and Gatwick this is done at the request of the Department of Trade. At Luton and Manchester it is done at the request of the local authorities, which are responsible for the airports. One of the things that emerge from the Estimate is that delays have been encountered in installing new monitoring equipment. That has concerned my hon. Friend. I know, from conversations that I have had with him. I want to put the matter in its correct perspective. For many years it has been the intention to install fully automatic systems at Heathrow and Gatwick to replace the mobile and semi-automatic equipment which has been there since the early 1960s.

The fully automatic equipment did not become available until 1971. A contract was given for the supply of a 13-point system for Heathrow in 1972, and its installation is proceeding as rapidly as possible. The equipment was delivered virtually on time, but there have since been difficulties in negotiating for the 13 sites on which the microphones will stand. These difficulties have virtually been resolved—six microphones are now in operation and the remaining seven will come into use shortly. There was no difficulty regarding the monitoring of noise during this period, because the older system remained fully operational and so there was no gap in the monitoring.

Almost all jet planes taking off from Heathrow are monitored, the figure for monitoring being roughly 98 per cent. Therefore, the delay in installing the new system has in no way reduced the effectiveness of noise monitoring at Heathrow. A similar automatic system for four microphones is already installed at Gatwick and is now operating in parallel with the older mobile equipment in order to prove its acceptability.

My hon. Friend asked whether the equipment used at Heathrow and Gatwick would set the standard for installations at other airports. The Department of Trade and Industry has no immediate plans for further installations at other designated airports, which are Stansted and Prestwick. Edinburgh is also a BAA operated airport, but is not designated at present. Should owners of other airports wish to install noise monitoring equipment the Department and the British Airports Authority will be able to give them the benefit of its considerable expertise.

I think I have covered most of the points raised by my hon. Friend, but if there are any other matters affecting his constituency which may give him concern I am sure he will not hesitate to get in touch with me, or write to the Department. I hope that he will consider that the Department will use every possible means to ensure that his constituency interests are fully considered at all times.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and I hope that the House will have the benefit of hearing him on many future occasions.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and immediately committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to the Order of the House this day; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill he now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order 93 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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