HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1092-9 11.36 am
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the problem of aircraft and helicopter noise. This is of great concern to thousands of my constituents. No one who lacks the experience of living under the noise shadow of a major airport such as Heathrow should ever dream of belittling the impact on those who live nearby. In the hurly-burly of modern life, people long for peace and quiet in their own homes. Aircraft noise can ruin people's quiet enjoyment of their houses and gardens. That is especially true in summer when people are in their gardens or are more likely to open their windows. Aircraft noise interferes with the work of schools, offices, hospitals and, on Sundays, of churches. It can have an impact on private conversations, including telephone conversations, on people's private lives and on their enjoyment of music.

Some people do not mind aircraft noise very much, but to a major and significant proportion it is extremely annoying. Experiments carried out by the consultant psychiatrist at the West Middlesex hospital have proved that it can even lead to mental illness.

People can look to courts of law for protection against other forms of noise nuisance, but in the Civil Aviation Act 1949 Parliament expressly ruled out that protection in the case of aircraft and helicopter noise. That being so, people can do no other than look to the Government and Parliament for that protection against the nuisance of noise which in other cases is enshrined in English law so that people are entitled to expect the quiet enjoyment of their own houses. The Government therefore have a special duty to have regard to the impact of aircraft noise on householders.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

All that my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. People in my own constituency suffer from all the annoyances that he has described. Noise induces illnesses other than mental illness. Furthermore, because of the heavy use of Heathrow and the growing use of Northolt airport there is very heavy traffic on the roads. People cannot use the roads effectively and they suffer additional noise pollution from the roads.

Mr. Jessel

That is all true. My hon. Friend has been very active in connection with the environment in Ealing and the noise from aircraft and road traffic.

Unlike airline companies and airport authorities, householders who live under the flight paths cannot afford to employ expensive lobbyists or public relations firms. That, too, means that the Government have a duty to pay additional regard to the views of those hon. Members who represent people living under the flight paths. I hope that the Minister will confirm, on behalf of the Government, that he and the Secretary of State should always keep in the forefront of their minds a distinct and determined resolve to safeguard the interests of those who live below the flight paths and will confirm that those interests will always be upheld by the Government.

Over the years hon. Members with constituencies close to Heathrow have campaigned ceaselessly to curb the curse of aircraft noise. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is also my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground), my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins), and my hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) and for Ealing, North. My late colleague Mr. Martin Stevens, as hon. Member for Fulham, was always assiduous in his efforts not only to contain aircraft noise but to mitigate the terrible road traffic effects along Cromwell road. Cromwell road, which passes through Fulham, is the main radial route between central London and Heathrow airport. It is greatly affected by the growth of traffic that has been generated by the airport.

We have all tried to contain airport traffic and the size of Heathrow, to make aircraft engines quieter and to cut night flights. Several of the hon. Members whom I mentioned are Ministers in other Departments or Whips who, by convention, do not speak on these matters on the Floor of the House. However, they have made their views known behind the scenes consistently and with great force. Together we have had some effect. Aircraft engines are slowly becoming quieter through the certification system and in the 1970s most of the night flights were banned—although the number has started to creep up again, which gives my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes great concern. I hope this will be stopped.

Last year the Government decided, against the advice of their inspector, to refuse planning permission for a fifth terminal at Heathrow. That courageous decision was widely applauded throughout west London and showed that the Government put peace, quiet and the health of the people above commercial interests. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can confirm that the Government do not intend to waver on that position.

Next, I turn to the helicopter route between Heathrow and Gatwick. The noise of helicopters is unpleasant, whirring and penetrating, and many of my constituents find it thoroughly offensive and irritating. We would be willing to suppress our feelings if that helicopter route were somehow essential to the defence of the nation, or crucial to the fundamental wealth and prosperity of our country, but it is not.

Each year that route would be used by only 90,000 passengers of the 47 million who pass through the southeastern airports of Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted. That is one in 500, and is only about one in 40 even of the annual growth in the number of passengers through airports in the south-east. It is intolerable to suggest that the peace and quiet of tens of thousands of people living, working, enjoying their gardens and going about their daily lives below should be systematically interrupted to save 20 people 20 minutes each. That cannot be allowed. It must be stopped permanently.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

is my hon. Friend aware that that service generates about £24 million for the airlines concerned, and constitutes only 20 per cent. of the helicopter traffic that operates in the area? Does he agree that the prosperous south-east owes much of its prosperity to the existence of sophisticated air transport facilities? Is he aware that my constituents in the hard-pressed midlands are accepting a motorway in the national interest, and will take a dim view if this national asset were stopped?

Mr. Jessel

There are many motorways in the midlands and the north which do a great deal towards the prosperity of the midlands and the north, and which are an essential part of the infrastructure required to generate employment in the provinces, which all hon. Members wish to see. I do not believe that the helicopter route generates a profit of £24 million. Is that sum a profit or turnover?

Mr. Howarth

The £24 million is revenue—turnover.

Mr. Jessel

In that case the route does not make £24 million in profit, as substantial costs must be involved. The profit must be far less than £24 million. Indeed, I imagine that it is only £1 million or £2 million. It is wholly unreasonable every day to expect tens of thousands of people to endure that horrible noise to generate £1 million or £2 million of profit for an airline. Moreover, I cannot see that it is doing anything whatever for the people of the midlands. On the contrary, it is attracting more activity to the south-east.

The Government must take note of the strong feelings. People will be furious if the Secretary of State fails to hold to the extremely wise, sensible decision that he announced to the House in June 1984, that four months after the opening of the south-west section of the M25, which was to link Heathrow and Gatwick, these helicopter flights would be stopped.

This February my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State together with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State were kind enough to see a delegation led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne and including my hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell, for Esher, for Woking (Mr. Onslow), for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) and me, on that matter so that we could put to them our deep concern on behalf of our constituents. My constituents in Hampton and the Hampton Hill area would be affected by the helicopter flight path.

The Secretary of State was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, as there has recently been a public inquiry. However, it was conducted by a biased body because the Civil Aviation Authority exists for aviation and is unfitted to carry out an impartial inquiry. My right hon. Friend could only listen to us, could make no comment, and did not bat an eyelid, properly, apparently impervious to our onslaught. I am sure that he and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State must have taken note of the strong case that we put to them.

Our case was that the decision in June 1984 to stop helicopter flights four months after the opening of the relevant section of the M25 should be sustained, and that the flights should not be reintroduced. That section of the M25 was opened in October 1985 and the flights stopped in February 1986. That decision was right at the time. Nothing has happened since to change its rightness. It remains right today.

On 11 November 1985 I asked the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he had made of the longterm benefits of the M25 circular motorway round London. He replied: The M25 will provide a more convenient, quicker and safer route round London for through traffic. It will give easier access to ports and airports … and will relieve communities in London and the south-east of through traffic, noise and congestion."—[Official Report, 11 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 297.] Thus, the Secretary of State stated that part of the purpose of the M25 is to relieve people of noise. He did not say the noise of motor vehicles only, but noise. Noise includes aircraft and helicopter noise. Therefore, the huge public investment in the M25 will be partly wasted if it is not fully used to reduce the impact of noise, including helicopter noise, on my constituents and those of other hon. Members who live between Heathrow and Gatwick.

The distance between Heathrow and Gatwick is only 40 miles. Express buses operate at most times of the day and can make the journey in 40 minutes. Sometimes the M25 is crowded, but 98 per cent. of the buses complete the journey in less than 60 minutes. There are five buses an hour, that is one every 12 minutes, so the average waiting time is six minutes. Therefore, the average time of the journey, including waiting time, is just under one hour. A helicopter takes 20 minutes, the gap between them would be 40 minutes, so the average waiting time would be 20 minutes. Including the waiting time for the helicopter, passengers would take on average 40 to 45 minutes for the journey. The whole thing is nonsense. Passengers will save only 10 or 15 minutes. They could brag to their business colleagues or to their children that they had been in a helicopter, but the real benefit is quite negligible. There is no justification for the disturbance this would cause, and I hope the Secretary of State will give short shrift to the impertinent application to renew the service.

11.51 am
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for allowing me a couple of minutes to make four or five brief points. It is typical of his dedication that, having attracted the good fortune of an Adjournment debate, he should choose a subject of great sensitivity, one that is perhaps of the highest importance for people living in the borough of Richmond upon Thames. Many of the problems that my hon. Friend mentioned are experienced by people throughout the borough and the House will know that there is no matter of greater concern to my constituents. Indeed, it was the subject of my maiden speech and has been the subject of four further speeches since then.

I will not repeat what my hon. Friend has said. I agree thoroughly with every word that he has uttered. This morning in my house in Barnes I was woken up by aircraft noise merely because last night was somewhat milder than many of the nights we have had of late. I forecast the misery that many of my constituents will suffer throughout the summer—to dare to open a window at night will mean lost sleep.

My five points are these. First of all, there is now serious bunching of night flights. The numbers of night flights is ever-increasing, there is a de facto reduction in the hours of restriction and when Concorde comes over early in the morning, people find it difficult to get back to sleep and are all the more conscious of those flights.

In his letter of 27 January my hon. Friend the Minister said: On the 5th of December last year after the arrival of Concorde at 4.14 in the morning there were 16 further landings before the end of the night restrictions period at 6.30 hours. He went on to say: It is not at all unusual for a number of other aircraft to arrive at Heathrow between 4 a.m. and 6.30 hours. Indeed, between these hours 15 aeroplanes landed on the 3rd December. 12 on the 2nd December, 11 on the 6th December, and 15 on the 8th December. That is the Minister's own admission of the fact that the restriction on night flights has failed. Secondly, the number of flights in all has increased. We know that the Government had a commitment to the 285,000 air traffic movements limit at Heathrow. They dropped that because the Liberals, Labour and certain Conservatives voted against the Bill in Parliament. However, the Government were committed to that ATM policy on environmental grounds. Once the Bill had been defeated, they ditched that policy because of political problems over Stansted. They had the policy to start with and for that reason they should continue with it. Air traffic movements have now increased close to 300,000 and the figure is getting near to the danger limit of 310,000.

Thirdly, what has happened to the use of alternate runways? I should like my hon. Friend to look at that. Fourthly, there is the problem of helicopters. My constituency is not particularly affected by the Heathrow-Gatwick link, but it would be greatly affected by any link between the City of London and Heathrow. That link would cross Barnes and Kew, and I warn my hon. Friend that if he puts forward any proposal for a helicopter link between the City of London and Heathrow, he will be opposed not only by the people of Richmond and Barnes and Twickenham but by people in all the constituencies west of the City.

My last point is that on the demise of the GLC the aircraft noise-line will go. I urge my hon. Friend to seek every possible way of getting the noise-line back. An example of its effectiveness is that between July 1984 and October 1985, 1,404 calls were made on that line. Most of them had to do with late night or early morning flights. In the battle against aircraft noise it is vital—if my hon. Friend wants to remove the emotion and what is sometimes looked upon as unreasonable belief—that there are accurate data about night flights. That noise-line produced accurate data, and perhaps more than any other service of the GLC my constituents will miss that facility—unless the scientific services branch is replaced elsewhere. I beg my hon. Friend to look at night flights. I have been to see him with representatives from HACAN, the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise to discuss these matters. I beg my hon. Friend to consider his views yet again.

11.54 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Michael Spicer)

First of all, I should like to direct the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) to section 76 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. That section does not exclude all liability of aircraft operators for trespass and nuisance caused by aircraft in flight. The exemption applies only to aircraft flying at a reasonable height and complying with all the air navigation rules. Successive Governments have for many years taken the view that the problems posed by aircraft noise are in general best dealt with by taking and enforcing all practicable measures to ensure that the disturbance caused is minimised, bearing in mind the proper demands of the civil aviation industry.

A special point I should like to make in response to my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham and for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) who spoke about the general responsibilities of the Government, is that I fully recognise that a Government as committed as we are to the success and expansion of aviation must, perhaps more than any other Government, be aware of and be prepared to respond to the anxieties in the public mind about aircraft noise. One of our priorities must be to tackle the problem at source, to determine which aircraft we shall allow to operate in the United Kingdom and for how long. As my hon. Friends will know, non-noise-certificated jet aeroplanes on the United Kingdom register were banned on 1 January, a full year ahead of most other European countries. We are committed to a similar ban on all such foreign registered aeroplanes from 1 January 1988.

Internationally, we are playing an important part in looking for a way to phase out the so-called chapter two jet aeroplanes, and I am pleased with the co-operation that we have received from the industry, even though it could have cost implications for some airlines. Noise standards generally will be reviewed from time to time and I shall take whatever steps are necessary, either domestically or internationally, to ensure that the controls are as stringent as possible, bearing in mind that they have to be technically feasible and economically reasonable.

Helicopters have long been a source of disturbance to some people and my hon. Friends talked about that. Helicopters have so far been able to operate without standards to govern them. International agreement is essential, and I am pleased to say that ICAO has now issued specific standards that we will adopt in the next few months. I am sure these will be environmentally beneficial and will be welcomed by my hon. Friends.

Regrettably, noise standards do not of themselves totally solve the problem. People, including those in my hon. Friends' constituencies, will continue to experience some discomfort from aircraft noise, even after we have done what we can through noise standards. Their burden can and must be eased by the implementation not only of noise standards but of operational measures such as quiet take-off and approach procedures.

At the airports designated under section 80 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted—the first of which applies to the constituencies of my hon. Friends—the Secretary of State and I have direct noise abatement responsibility. This responsibility will not be changed in any way by the privatisation of the British Airports Authority. It is essential that noise abatement measures are thoroughly reappraised from time to time. That is why the Government have embarked on important reviews about our responsibilities at designated airports. In answer to my hon. Friends, I can say that these reviews include noise monitoring, night restrictions, noise insulation and noise measurement.

All these reviews are progressing well. As my hon. Friends know, last month I embarked on a major, national consultation exercise to assist me in deciding, in the context of noise measurement, whether we should change from the NNI—the noise and number index—to LEQ as an index of aircraft noise at the designated airports. I am approaching this review with a completely open mind; my main concern, like I am sure that of my hon. Friends, is that we choose the right index and that we use the index which is most suitable and which commands public confidence. I have allowed six months for the consultation phase of the exercise and I look forward to considering all views before reaching any decisions.

Our noise index exercise is firmly based on research. The same is true of our other measures—night restrictions, for example. The last review, in 1981, of our night restrictions policy was based on the conclusions of a three-year study into the relationship between aircraft noise and sleep disturbance. A further study to validate or to assess changes since the original study has recently been completed and consultation with interested parties will of course play an important determinant of what we decide.

I am also engaged in a thorough review of the monitoring of noise and track keeping, in which both of my hon. Friends have taken a great interest. I want to be sure that the machinery for doing this is adequate and that we are able to retrieve the information in a form which enables us to ensure compliance by airlines with whatever rules we lay down.

Another important aspect of our approach to the problem of aircraft noise is the role of, and the scope for, consultation. I firmly believe that full consultation and public debate are essential components in the development of the right noise abatement measures—those which strike the right balance between conflicting interests. Poor consultation leads to hostility and confrontation. I can assure my hon. Friends that the present arrangement for consultation will remain unaltered by the privatisation of the BAA airports.

I turn now to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends about the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter link, which is known as the Airlink. Some measure of the different views upon this has been demonstrated by the interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). In accordance with a direction given in 1984 by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and reaffirmed by a further direction last November, the present Airlink service terminated on 7 February. This was four months after the opening of the Wisley-Reigate stretch of the M25.

British Caledonian applied, in June 1985, to the Civil Aviation Authority to vary its licence so it could continue the Airlink service along new routes and at revised altitudes. My right hon. Friend directed the CAA that, if it decided to grant the application, the Airlink service should not fly along the new routes and altitudes until the matter had been referred to him and he had taken the final decision. The CAA announced on 4 February 1986 that it had granted British Caledonian's application and had referred the matter to the Secretary of State under section 17 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982.

My right hon. Friend and I have been considering the CAA's decision, together with all the evidence submitted to the hearing and the transcript of the proceedings——

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

The Minister will be aware that British Caledonian Helicopters is based in my constituency. In his considerations, I hope that he will take account of the fact that Airlink is crucial to the profitability of British Caledonian Helicopters and that a refusal to continue with it would put at risk 170 jobs that are based in Aberdeen.

Mr. Spicer

That intervention will be noted.

Mr. Greenway

It is absolutely typical of Liberals to pay no attention to the problems of local people. We shall remember that in Ealing, North and Ealing generally. We know now that Liberals want the helicopter link. There is considerable resentment in the area over which the helicopter link would operate that no inquiry has been allowed, and I have asked the Ombudsman to consider this.

Mr. Spicer

These brief interventions are further signs of the great disparity of views that exist on this issue. We have received many representations, including many from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we are considering all of these extremely carefully. I shall note the comments that have been made during the debate.

Clearly, this is a very important and sensitive issue. My right hon. Friend and I are well aware of the strength of feeling that has been expressed, both by those in favour of the Airlink as well as those opposed to it. It is right that we should weigh all the arguments very carefully before coming to our decision. My right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement on this matter within a few weeks. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment any further at this stage other than to say that I have listened carefully to what has been said on both sides of the argument.

I hope that I have said enough to indicate the Government's deep awareness of the problems that are created by aircraft noise. We shall always be receptive to positive and realistic suggestions of measures which can achieve a significant improvement, whether they are made by my hon. Friends or by others. I am grateful, personally, to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham for raising this matter as it has given me an opportunity to respond fully on behalf of the Government.