HC Deb 26 February 1988 vol 128 cc624-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maclean.]

2.33 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

The issue that I raise for today's Adjournment debate is in no way political, yet it affects people who live in the constituencies of many hon. Members. It certainly affects the area in which I live and which I represent, in south-west London. I stress that it is a problem that worsens year by year. Indeed, people's complaints increase year by year. While one can complain about day flying and the noise and disturbances from which hundreds and thousands of people suffer, one has to accept that there will be day-time flying. However, I suggest that night flying is another issue, and one on which action could and must be taken.

We hear a great deal about people's rights. That must always be the concern and priority of the House. I put it to the Minister that night aircraft noise is a violation of people's rights, yet many suffer during the day and night. I have sought to keep myself updated on Government policy in statements on this issue. The overwhelming view is that there is a great deal of talk but little reaction to control this problem.

A recent statement on quotas by the Department of Transport says that the number of night flights will be increased. People may say, "Oh yes, but by quieter aircraft." That is little comfort to people who already suffer from aircraft noise. At the airports inquiries in the period 1981-83, the inspector, Mr. Graham Eyre QC, said: Because of the dense population under the flight paths at Heathrow a substantial number of people are unjustifiably affected by night noise. I strongly recommend that a total ban, save for emergencies, should be introduced as a matter of urgency. What was thought necessary then is certainly necessary now, and will be fully reported by residents and many hon. Members. The Minister's reply to me this week on aircraft movements over the past five years clearly makes that point — increases at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted occur year by year.

In recent weeks, we have heard of the near misses by aircraft, and they are causing deep concern. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that issue. The ever-increasing problem we face is the density of air traffic movement in the south of England. I and many other people believe that it will be only a matter of time, because of this issue and its dangers, before a call for more night flying is made. I ask the Minister to give a clear undertaking that any demands along those lines will receive no support from his Department.

It is of increasing concern that talk is getting under way on the need for a fifth terminal at Heathrow. The claim about need can easily be made on the grounds of pressure. Will it be rejected? Again I ask the Minister for a clear statement. Once there were to be only three terminals at Heathrow — we now have four. An article on a statement made within the past few days by Sir Norman Payne, the British Airports Authority chairman, quoted him and said: 'We are starting to look at the expansion of Heathrow and the need for a fifth terminal.' A new terminal would boost capacity at Heathrow by 15m passengers to around 53m. I suggest that, if there were to be any allowance for further developments at Heathrow, it would be at the cost of suffering by the residents who live in that area.

What is to he the future development at Gatwick airport? I am aware of the existing 40-year agreement, but we all know that such agreements can be overturned. There is deep concern in the minds of many people that such an agreement could be overturned. Without doubt, the overriding fear is that, on either development, more night flights will be allowed. I ask the Minister for a clear statement on both issues.

Why does there appear to be no clear Government policy on, or indeed encouragement of, much greater development of provincial airports? Several areas would welcome that. Not only would that reduce the air traffic density, but it would reduce the number of night flights in the south. We often hear what I say is an excuse that people would not want to fly to such provincial airports, but that has never been tested. We now have a modern inter-city rail service, and for many people who use Gatwick or Heathrow, travelling expenses would be less if they could use a provincial airport. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister why no further encouragement is given to that type of development.

A recent statement on monitoring night noise is confusing. It states: Noise of departing aircraft will continue to be monitored continuously. Why only departing aircraft? Why is there no monitoring of landing aircraft? The statement continues: The night noise climate will be monitored each summer. Why not all year round? Night noise occurs all year round and causes disturbances all year round. A further issue that has not been fully considered is the noise levels of cargo flights when leaving airports. I hope, if not during this debate then subsequently, to hear from the Department about surveys and its thinking on cargo flight movements.

We hear a great deal in the reports from the Department of Transport about quieter aircraft, and we welcome that, yet over 28 per cent. of the air traffic movements in 1986–87 at Gatwick involved the noisier 111 aircraft. There are still too many air traffic movements by noisy aircraft which cause misery to many people during the day and night. I reject the policy contained in the airports policy White Paper of 1985 which states: Policy on night noise is firmly based on research into the relationship between aircraft noise and sleep disturbance and … this should continue to be the basis for decisions. I, and I am sure many others, would say that, once woken, that is it; there is no going back to sleep. Where is the concern for those people? The Minister will be aware of the anxiety about delayed departures. Despite assurances on quotas, they continue to occur. Under pressure from airlines, noisy aircraft are allowed to continue under this grouping. Such actions do nothing to build public confidence in Government policy.

The record is there for everyone to check. The daytime noise climate is undoubtedly worsening in the south as traffic increases, and the Department's predictions on this issue have been wrong. Many think, sadly, that it will be wrong again on noise levels of night flights, and the public will suffer as they have suffered for many years.

I recently asked about noise insulation grants, and there is undoubtedly an urgent need for them. The qualification for eligibility for grant must be updated. The figures that the Minister gave me earlier this week show that traffic has increased considerably, and the criteria based on figures for 1980 are now out of date. It is unbelievable that insulation grants are not given to schools or hospitals.

Aircraft noise has existed for a long time. I am sure that hundreds of thousands of people agree with me that it is getting worse. Flight movements are increasing and there is pressure for more night flights. Many people believe that flights should be monitored in summer and winter. Many believe that the infringement levels must be reviewed and that we need a clear statement from the Department on future development in the south and in relation to regional airports.

What discussion is there in the European Community? If the Minister cannot tell me today, perhaps he will write to me. We need much more joint action on the control of noise, night flying and group limitations. The EC transport and environment committees could play a major role in co-ordinating policy. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what his Department and the EC are doing.

We live in a modern, scientific age of great development. I refuse to accept that hundreds of thousands of people must continue to suffer such torment if they live near major airports. If the Government acted, they would have overwhelming support in the House and in the country.

Only the Government — not individuals or any Member of the House—can take action to improve the position. The issue is important to many people.

2.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

The House will he grateful to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for introducing the debate. Aviation has been on the parliamentary agenda more often than most people expected during the past few weeks, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will regard it as helpful if I give the House some information that the Civil Aviation Authority published today in relation to a recent non-incident at Heathrow.

In a press notice, the CAA said that the captain of an Air Canada aeroplane which was thought to be slightly high and fast abandoned his approach. The CAA considered that to be good airmanship since a pilot should be completely satisfied before completing a landing. Air traffic control at Heathrow confirmed that there was no aircraft on the runway, and that the previous landing aircraft had already cleared it. The Air Canada aeroplane was never lower than 1,000 ft and was a mile out when the go-around was initiated.

The hon. Gentleman spoke mainly about night noise, but he also mentioned daytime disturbance and the development of airports away from London and the south-east. On the latter point, investment in regional airports has grown dramatically, as has their use. The Government want that to continue. There is no purpose in dragging people down to Heathrow or Gatwick unnecessarily when their aviation needs could be met in Birmingham, Manchester, Scotland and elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. Perhaps I can give him some of the answers now, and then, as he kindly suggested, if there are further points to take up, I shall deal with them in correspondence.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the possibility of a fifth terminal at Heathrow. The 1985 White Paper said that the Government could not make a commitment at that stage, but would keep such matters under review. That remains so. A new terminal would need planning permission. The White Paper also said that the release of the Perry Oaks sludge works site for the airport was highly desirable.

The hon. Gentleman asked about delayed departures. I understand that the number of delayed departures allowed for in the summer of 1987 was 60 each at Heathrow and Gatwick. The number of delayed departures that took place was two thirds of that figure, so that was better than people had expected.

The Government have continually taken a deep interest in the subject of night flying. As a Government, we are committed to the expansion of aviation, which is good for jobs in the aviation industry. About 67,000 people are employed at Heathrow and Gatwick. If there was any threat to that employment, hon. Members on both sides of the House would be very concerned.

We must also be prepared to respond to anxieties among the public about aircraft noise. People's anxiety about the effects on sleep of night flying are and will always remain high on the list of priorities. That is why, on 10 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced new restrictions on night flights at Heathrow and Gatwick from 1 April 1988, for five years. Those restrictions are broadly in line with the proposals published in November last year for night restrictions at the two airports. My right hon. Friend set out his objectives. The aim is to improve the night noise climate around the two airports without imposing unnecessary restrictions on the airline industry.

I should like to explain the Government's policy on noise control at airports. Local problems are best solved at that level. At all airports, we expect the owners or operators to reduce, as far as is reasonable and practicable, the disturbance caused by their operations. The Government have assumed direct responsibility for noise control at the designated airports— Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead. The hon. Gentlman said that the most effective way of tackling aircraft noise is to reduce it at its source. If we had silent aircraft, we should not have a noise problem. We must move within the realms of the possible and practicable.

Successive Governments have recognised that one of the most effective ways of reducing aircraft noise is to encourage airlines to operate the quietest available aircraft. The operation of non-noise-certified aircraft on the United Kingdom register was banned from 1 January 1986, one year ahead of most other European countries. That ban was extended to foreign-registered jets from 1 January this year. That was the first permissible date under the international agreement. The banning of non-noise-certificated aircraft from the United Kingdom has had a dramatic effect on the noise climate around our airports. That is demonstrated best by the improvement in the daytime noise climate around Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world.

The 35 noise and number index contour is generally accepted to be the onset of annoyance for the average community. The number of people around Heathrow living within that contour has sharply reduced. It was 2 million in 1976 and was less than 700,000 in 1986, the most recent year for which figures are available. I recognise that both the hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine are outside that contour.

Most developed countries with aviation interests agree that the next logical step forward would be to ban the operation of the next noisiest group of jets, the so-called chapter 2 aircraft. Several studies are taking place into the most appropriate way of introducing such a ban, while taking into account the legitimate interests of the aviation industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked that Britain should take a leading role in that. I confirm that we are playing a major role in the studies now being undertaken by the European Civil Aviation Conference, the European Community and the International Civil Aviation Conference.

Unfortunately, noise standards do not themselves solve the problem. People, including some in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, will continue to experience some discomfort. Their discomfort can and must be eased by the implementation of operational measures at Heathrow and Gatwick, including the use of quieter approach and departure procedures, the use of special departure routes, called noise preferential routes, maximum noise limits on departure and, most importantly, restrictions on the type and number of aircraft that can operate during the night period.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the same attention that is given to take-offs should be given to landings. Aircraft make the most noise when they are taking off, so that deserves priority attention, although we should not ignore the noise associated with landing.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's announcement of the new night restrictions policy is the culmination of a long process which was announced in 1981. We then reviewed restrictions at Heathrow and Gatwick and set new quotas which ran until March this year. The Government said that when most of the noisier movements at night had been phased out, there would be a further review. The process of phasing out the noisier movements was completed in March last year.

In 1986, comments were sought on night flights, and reports of research into aircraft noise and sleep disturbance were commissioned by the Department of Transport. The consultation papers, "Night Flights at Heathrow" and "Night Flights at Gatwick", reported the conclusions of the review and announced proposals for future night restrictions at those two airports. More than 250 responses were received.

When announcing his policy, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave all the views that were expressed in the submissions careful consideration. We were, and remain, mindful of people's reasonable expectation of a good night's sleep. I often wish that the party managers in the House had the same regard for our sleep.

At Gatwick, the Secretary of State is determined that night noise should be further reduced during the next five years. The new night quotas will mean a quickly reducing number of flights by the less quiet aircraft in favour of more flights by quieter, modern aircraft. At Heathrow, the number of night flights allowed will be limited to about their present level, thus preventing any increase in disturbance.

Take-offs in the small hours are particularly disturbing so, during that period, except for a few aircraft which are unavoidably delayed, take-offs only by modern, quieter aircraft will be allowed. That should achieve a considerable improvement in the noise climate during the most sensitive period.

These modern, quiet aircraft, which we call night noise group C, will be used more by day than at night, especially at Gatwick. That will help the daytime noise climate as well. That will be welcome news to the hon. Gentleman. The requirements for that category of aircraft are even more stringent than the International Civil Aviation Organisation's so-called chapter 3 standards, which are for aircraft with later and quieter high bypass ratio engines.

We shall continue to monitor the night noise climate and the noise made by individual aircraft against the maximum night noise limit, which is less than the daytime noise limit. We are prepared to consider whether additional monitoring is necessary to verify the reduced disturbance caused by quieter, modern aircraft. We think that it is important that local people have confidence in noise monitoring. We intend to conduct monitoring openly.

In the proposals, we emphasise that we set great store by the process of consultation and the functions of the airport consultative committees. Nominees of local authorities sit on such committees. We shall invite the committees to nominate representatives of local people to sit with representatives of the aviation industry on an advisory committee to consider all aspects of night noise monitoring.

At Gatwick, we expect two years' monitoring to show that the disturbance at night is getting better rather than worse. If that is the case, we shall revise the quotas. That will not he necessary at Heathrow, because we are cutting the quotas there, so the disturbance will be less.

Despite all that has been done to mitigate aircraft noise, there will still be some people close to major airports who continue to be disturbed by aircraft. For such people, noise insulation grants were made available. The first scheme was introduced at Heathrow in 1966 and at Gatwick in 1973. The most recent schemes, which were introduced in 1980, ended in 1985. We understand that several other airports have noise insulation grant schemes.

As was promised in the 1985 airport policy White Paper, the 1980 Heathrow and Gatwick schemes have been reviewed. The review suggested that there were small areas outside the scheme boundary at each airport which should be included in the scheme retrospectively. We are discussing with the British Airports Authority the suggested small adjustments to the scheme boundary, and we shall make an announcement when the discussions are completed. Any additional grants will be paid, as before, by the BAA. There will be no change to the qualification for eligibility, the description of dwellings, the specification of work to be done or the residential qualifications date.

Airport operators are free to purchase properties adjacent or near to the airport boundary that are severely affected by aircraft noise. In January 1987, the BAA's Heathrow and Gatwick airport companies announced voluntary schemes to purchase noise-blighted properties near the two airports. The schemes are still open and have more time to run.

At Stansted, we shall supplement noise abatement measures as the airport develops. In the short term, present night restrictions will continue. A provisional departure route structure will be introduced on 7 April this year. We shall continue to consult on the final route structure. We are also committed to introducing a new noise insulation scheme when the airport throughput reaches 2 million passengers a year. The present throughput is half that number.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman has done the House a service because concerns need to be brought to the attention of the Government and the authorities and information to the attention of those affected, who want to know the prospects for the future. I hope that my remarks will have given them confidence that matters are getting better and will continue to do so — without restricting unnecessarily the growth of aviation. I hope that I have shown that as our airports have become busier we have become more mindful of the needs of those who live near them. The House can rest assured that the Government are most unlikely to take any action that would make life more unpleasant for those who live around our airports.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock.