HC Deb 27 July 1979 vol 971 cc1345-55

3.29 p.m.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

First, I apologise to the Minister. Instead of frolicking in the sea at Frinton or walking in Epping Forest, or whatever the burghers of Chingford do on such a glorious afternoon, he must be here listening to the problems of airport noise at Manchester. He brought the problem somewhat on himself because during a meeting of the Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c., in reply to a question by me on this matter, he said: I am not saying that the climate around Manchester will get worse. I am saying that I am not promising that it will get any better."—[Official Report, Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c., 11 July 1979; c. 14.] That might have been a prudent meteorological comment for the Minister to make, but as a comment about airport noise it will be disturbing to my constituents and to the constituents in the surrounding areas such as those of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Normanton).

I am not an expert, as the Minister is, about the aircraft industry, airports and flying. When I did a lot of flying as international secretary of the Labour Party, I worked on the assumption that the chap up front knew a lot more about it than I did and that he had just as much interest as I had in getting the plane up and down safely. However, we are not talking about pilots' skills; we are talking about noise. Noise affects everyone, and the layman is as much a professional on noise as is the expert.

We are worried about the fact that Manchester airport is set on a period of expansion. I make clear that I and many of the local authorities, trade unions and trade and industry generally in the Stockport area do not oppose the policy of expansion. We appreciate that the airport authority is progressive and forward-looking. The development plans that have been issued for the end of the century show imagination in linking road and rail transport. The Minister could well spend his time in looking at the expansion of an airport like Manchester to take more passengers and traffic than in wondering where the third London airport should be situated.

Therefore, we are not against the expansion of the airport. We see it as a centre for attracting new technology, jobs and new industries. However, it is unfair that individuals and individual communities should be asked to pay an excessive price in terms of their local environment for facilities that benefit the whole region.

For that reasons, I ask for the Minister's comments today. I know that he could reply sharply and shortly that it is a matter for the airport authority and the local councils and that consultative bodies should be involved. But he must be aware of the widespread feeling that noise abatement measures are less beneficial in many respects in the areas around Manchester than they are near other large airports. If that is his judgment as well as the judgment of many local experts, he cannot push the matter aside as something to be justified and solved locally. He has a direct ministerial responsibility and I hope that, either by using the powers vested in him by Parliament or by persuasion—whichever is the more effective in his judgment—he will look at the problem of airport noise around Manchester.

It is felt that the present Manchester soundproofing scheme, in terms of the area that it covers, the amount of grant and the standard of soundproofing, is not as generous as that offered to British Airports Authority airports. The noise monitoring scheme gives an inadequate and incomplete picture of aircraft noise in the area and there is insufficient encouragement to airline operators to consider methods of reducing landing noise. Manchester is lagging far behind other airports, including those for which the Minister has more direct responsibility, on the issue of night flights. I understand that both Heathrow and Gatwick airports are hoping to phase out night flights almost completely during the 1980s. Manchester airport's approach is much vaguer.

I understand the problems that are involved, particularly in a time of energy crisis, in airline operators having to ground planes completely for many hours because of a ban on night flying. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that night flying creates among the most disturbing of airport noise and causes most problems for the local community.

The three authorities around the airport approached the Minister's predecessor last year and asked him to take direct action under the Aviation Act 1971, but the Minister decided not to do so. That may still be the advice given to the Minister, but several more months have elapsed during which little progress has been made. It involves finding the right balance in expanding the airport, obtaining benefits from having a major international airport in the region, and ensuring that local individuals do not suffer excessively.

I believe that there should be a national standard in respect of airport noise. It is ridiculous that the standard of assistance depends on which authority is receiving it. We all know what noise is, and it is no comfort to the individual who is affected to be told that if he lived near Health-row rather than in or near Stockport he would be more generously treated. The Minister should take powers, if he does not already possess them, to set a standard in respect of airport noise.

We must also consider the availability of grants. Perhaps the Minister could also insist on national standards in that respect, too. He kindly informed me that the Manchester scheme had already enjoyed a 75 per cent. uptake. I must be fair to the Manchester authority, because it backed one of the pioneering schemes in assisting people affected by airport noise. When people appreciate that the same problem is being treated in different ways in varying parts of the country, it is bound to cause distress, envy and a certain amount of bickering.

Is it not time to adopt a national approach to the problem of night flying? Could the Minister offer guidance to airport authorities, and indeed take powers himself to regulate such flying? Night flying probably causes more resentment than any other aspect of airport noise.

I wish to deal with the subject of techniques involving quiet approaches by aircraft. I believe that such techniques were experimented with at Heathrow and Gatwick and the Civil Aviation Authority published its findings. Have any similar experiments been tried at Manchester, and, if so, with what success? This is not an attempt to snipe at the airport authority or to talk away the benefits to the region flowing from the existence of a major airport.

The advantages that would accrue to an area such as Stockport, which wishes to be a centre for high technology and exports, with major international travel links, must be considered. Local community leaders are certainly behind the expansion of the airport. Ambitions in respect of the 1980s and 1990s, including rail and motorway links, will ensure that it is a forward-looking airport authority. However, ominous statistics point to at least a doubling in the number of passengers by the 1990s. Furthermore, there will be a great deal more air freight, and presumably many more flights in general.

I know that the Minister sets great store by the fact that the new generation of jets will be quieter and the older generation is being phased out. Those factors will help. If the Minister cannot look to new technological breakthroughs in new and quieter engines, I believe that he must adopt a national approach to see where regional airports fall short of the requisite standards set by the CAA. He should seek to bring about a national pattern.

I know that the hon. Member for Cheadle and a number of other hon. Members in the area face similar complaints and that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I know, too, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester. Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) has a considerable interest in the airport, not least in the effect of aircraft noise on the ground as well as when landing. I take a special interest in this issue because, according to my information, 80 per cent. of the landing procedures of aircraft flying into Manchester take place over Stockport.

There will be a great deal of interest in what the Minister has to say on the subject. I trust that he will deal with how there can be a levelling-up of help to those affected by aircraft noise. Perhaps we might also hear how he thinks we can tackle the problems posed by quieter landings, better landing procedures and a wiser use of existing technology.

3.41 p.m.

Mr. Tom Normanton (Cheadle)

I join in the representations made by the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally), my neighbour in geographical terms, and endorse strongly the points of view that he has put forward. I am certain that not only his views but the highly constructive manner in which he has expressed them will be welcomed in the wider area of the Manchester conurbation, which is affected by aircraft noise and which, incidentally, is benefited by such excellent air connections.

Turning to the question of sound insulation, I have made frequent representations to the Manchester authority which owns and controls the airport and which is responsible for administering the sound insulation scheme. If I have one criticism to make, it is that these grants are too frequently administered with a degree of inflexibility. I hope that, following this debate, the authority will be a little less inflexible.

The question of flexibility is especially important as it relates to schools. There are local authority and privately operated schools in the area. The nearest is the Jewish school, which is right under the flight path. If there were some means which departmental assistance could be given to make reasonable provision for soundproofing, that would be most useful.

My third point is a point of principle rather than detail. I have said in my constituency and to the local authorities generally that far too often planning approval has been given for the erection of private buildings or schools or other establishments without giving proper attention to the impact of aircraft noise upon such buildings. The livelihood of many people who live in my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies depends upon the airport. They knew what they were doing in taking up homes in the area. There are, however, many people, especially the elderly and the sick, who are in a vulnerable position and are acutely conscious of the impact of aircraft noise upon their lives, particularly at night.

Although this debate relates to Manchester airport and its impact on Stockport, South Wythenshawe, Cheadle and other immediate areas, such as Hazel Grove, I feel sure that there are lessons to be drawn from our situation which could be embodied in a national planning policy for application at local authority level.

I come to my last comment. I am sure that it would be desirable to draw up national standards. They are drawn up, in fact. However, I should hate to think that the last resort was for Manchester airport to be taken into a national airports authority. The airport is unique in terms of its initiative, enterprise and its vital recognition of the importance which is attached to a major international airport. I hope that in the next year or two the Minister will produce some general guidelines about how airports should be operated, given their environmental impact, because it may be that the application of general guidelines of that kind will avoid making Manchester one of our national airports as a last resort.

In that spirit, I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply to the debate because so many of my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Stockport, South appreciate that their lives and livelihood depend upon Manchester airport.

3.46 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Norman Tebbit)

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply briefly to some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheedle (Mr. Normanton). However, I want first to thank them both for the way in which they put forward their arguments, and I want especially to say how pleased I was to hear from both of them their support for the airport at Manchester and for its expansion into what I believe it should be, which is a truly comprehensive international airport having a full range of services—intercontinental, regional and local services.

It was because I had that in my mind during the debate to which the hon. Member for Stockport, South referred that I sat firmly on the fence when I was asked whether I expected the noise climate there to improve or to worsen. It is not easy to say. It depends very much on the rate of traffic growth as opposed to the rate of the introduction of quieter aircraft, and neither of those is easy to forecast.

However, we can say positively that the noisier aircraft on the British register will be forbidden to fly after 1 January 1986. Between now and then, the pattern of noise around Manchester airport will vary according to the rate of traffic growth and the rate of the introduction of these quieter aircraft.

I must confess that as a Londoner I was slightly amused—almost saddened—to hear the suggestion that somehow Manchester was lagging behind all that we were doing in London. There was a time when Manchester had that bounce of self-confidence to suggest that it was London which always waited to see what Manchester was doing and then limply followed. I do not know whether this state of affairs has anything to do with a certain newspaper becoming The Guardian as opposed to the Manchester Guardian, but it seems odd to me that Manchester was asking me, a southern Minister, to become involved in dealing with problems the solution of which was really within its own hands.

The Government take the view that, wherever possible, the responsibility for noise abatement measures should remain with the owners and managers of airports. To be really effective, those measures have to be tailored to the nature and scale of the operations at an individual airport and its siting in relation to nearby centres of population. Every airport is different. Every airport's operations are different. Its siting is different from that of every other airport.

We have designated the airports at Heathrow and Gatwick under the Civil Aviation Act, but they are particularly sensitive because of the volume of traffic that they take and the fact that at Heathrow, in particular, so much traffic has to approach or take off over crowded urban areas. In addition, those are British Airports Authority airports, so that the buck must stop on the desk of the Minister in the Department that sponsors the BAA. To that extent, it is right that hon. Members should be able to come to me with complaints about the BAA.

The Government are therefore reluctant to designate noise abatement purposes under section 29 of the Civil Aviation Act unless they have evidence to suggest that the relevant authority has been grossly neglecting its duties in that respect. That has not been suggested in the debate and I have no reason to believe that it is the case at Manchester International. Therefore, I do not propose to intervene to designate the airport. I do not believe that Manchester wants Whitehall to impose regulations upon it.

I understand that the noise abatement measures in force at Manchester are similar to those at Heathrow and Gatwick. Fairly stringent take-off procedures are laid down to minimise the number of people affected by engine noise and there are limits on the noise that aircraft are permitted to make at certain noise monitoring points—110 PNdB perceived noise decibels during the day and 102 PNdB at night. Those are the same restrictions as are in force at Heathrow and Gatwick.

There are also restrictions on training flights by jet aircraft, and airlines are requested to keep ground noise to a minimum, especially during the night. Minimum noise routes have been worked out by the air traffic service in consultation with the airport authority to take account of the density of population in the area, the navigational aids and the operational capability of the traffic using the airport.

I assure the House, from my experience, that pilots will adhere to those rules whenever possible because they realise that it is in their interests not to create needless noise and community hostility to an airport.

The airport has also taken a lead in introducing a system of rebates on landing charges for the relatively quiet jet aircraft. I hope that that will provide airlines using the airport with an incentive to accelerate the use of quieter types of jets.

I also understand that the airport authority imposes a quota on night jet flights, though they are in abeyance anyway, except on Saturdays, because of runway repairs. Surely that is also a matter for local decision rather than for imposition from Whitehall.

I am aware of other airports that are involved with the movement of mail at night. It would be wrong of me to impose restrictions across the United Kingdom that would harm local interests that want the mail flights into their airports in the general interest of their commerce and particularly in cases where the approach paths to the airports are not over areas that are sensitive to noise.

I know that there have been a number of criticisms in Manchester about the terms of the noise insulation grants scheme, but there are also criticisms of the scheme from Gatwick and Heathrow. If comparisons are made with London, one can get into a terrible muddle because those living around Heathrow have a greater volume of traffic to endure than do those living in Manchester.

Mr. Carol Mather (Lords Commissioner of the Treasury)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend is a constant visitor to my office on that subject and a constant correspondent.

I understand that the Manchester grant scheme has been improved and extended on a number of occasions since its inception in 1972. Since the airport has not been designated under the 1971 Act, and since the scheme is wholly under the control of Manchester corporation, which provides the funding, I must ask the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle to refer their criticisms to the Manchester authority rather than to me, possibly through the channel of the airport consultative committee, which has been set up under section 8 of the Civil Aviation Act 1968 to act as a forum for the discussion of matters of this kind.

There was also the question raised by the hon. Gentleman—who was kind enough to refer to it before the debate—about the nature of other noise abatement procedures that might be used by aircraft. I think that he was referring particularly to the continuous descent approach and the low-power, low-drag techniques now in use at London. I am told that they are not yet in use at Manchester airport. I am also told—this may disappoint the hon. Gentleman—that their introduction would have little effect on the noise climate in the Stockport area. That is because the benefits gained are at the earlier stages of the approach, above 1,500 feet or 2,000 feet.

If I may rely on my own experience for a moment, I should say that it is the ambition of every pilot worth his salt, and certainly of every airline operator worth his salt, in these days when fuel is so expensive, not to make approaches, or to fly the aircraft, with a combination of high drag caused by the lowering of the flaps and the undercarriage unnecessarily early, that being overcome by the application of lots of power. Therefore, the techniques are basically ones in which a low power setting is made and the speed of the aircraft is controlled by variation of the drag, down to the last possible moment compatible with safety and reasonable operational requirements.

That means that by the time one is back down to 1,500ft. or 2,000ft. one must be in a virtually standard approach configuration. I understand that aircraft in general would be clearing Stockport at a height of about 2,000 ft. Therefore, I fear that it would not bring much help to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. That is no reason why the technique should not be adopted to bring relief to others, but this matter is perhaps best raised locally, because it affects the air traffic control techniques that are in use, as it is predominantly affected by the amount of traffic at the airports. I hope that that does not disappoint the hon. Gentleman too much.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the problems that arise from planning and the issue of planning consents in areas that are within the noise footprints of airports. The Department of the Environment already has guidelines that discourage such residential development close to airports. They are not mandatory, and I think that the Department would probably not wish to make them so, although of course I cannot speak for another Department.

Once again, it seems to me that if one accepts that the circumstances around each airport are different from those of other airports, it is only right that we should leave the maximum discretion to the local people concerned.

I am sorry to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle that he has sometimes found that the Manchester local authority is inflexible. It encourages me as a Minister to find that people come to me and say "My local authority is inflexible. You seem to be much more understanding and knowledgeable. Will you come and solve our problem for us?" But I am not sure that I should for long be regarded as so much more flexible and so much more reasonable if I took the powers to do so. I think that it would not be long before hon. Members were complaining, through their local authorities, that that dreadful Minister in Whitehall was being totally inflexible and unreasonable and imposing on them conditions that were suitable for other parts of the country but not theirs.

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that there is competition arising from the fact that Manchester is not a British Airports Authority airport, and that it offers a comparison with the performance of other airports nationally.

I thank both hon. Members for the way in which they have raised these matters. I assure them that I shall keep an eye on the overall noise climate in the United Kingdom so far as I can, but I am not willing to designate Manchester airport for noise. I believe that local people may well know best.

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.