HC Deb 24 May 1990 vol 173 cc483-90 2.59 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to mention the fact that a consortium of business companies wants to construct a heliport in the very heart of London—on a platform over the River Thames next to Cannon street station, halfway between St. Paul's and Southwark cathedrals, both of which ought to be havens of peace and quiet. The provost of Southwark cathedral wrote to me yesterday to say that Southwark cathedral is bang opposite the proposed site. Bang is the word. He says that his daily programme of services, concerts and conferences would be severely damaged by the noise.

Noise is the central issue. The applicants want permission at the outset for 25,000 flights per year, which is an average of over 70 per day. Twin-engined helicopters would be used, which produce more noise than single-engined helicopters, but it is not just a matter of volume measured in decibels—the character of the sound is also important. The rotor blades of helicopters make a most unpleasant high-pitched whirring sound, so that for any given volume, in both pitch and tone there is a type of vibration which is different from the noise made by winged aircraft. That noise can penetrate walls and air conditioning systems as well as windows, so double glazing is not the entire answer. It will disturb and reduce the efficiency of people working in offices. It will spoil their enjoyment of the Thames and its walkways when they are on their lunch breaks and it will affect the views of St. Paul's cathedral. The proposal is an utter disgrace to the otherwise normal and sensible people who are promoting it. It is uncivilised and wrong. It should be shot down hard, and shot down quickly.

I am concerned not only about my constituents who work in the City but because some of the helicopters might overfly Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons and Whitton on their way to Heathrow. That would destroy people's quiet enjoyment of their homes and gardens.

I have campaigned for years against aircraft noise and am well aware of the Government's record in this field. No Minister has done more about aircraft noise in relation to the environment than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, first as Secretary of State for Transport and later as Secretary of State for the Environment. Following strong representations from hon. Members affected by Heathrow, he refused planning permission for the fifth terminal there, stopped the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link and curtailed the number of night flights allowed at Heathrow—a decision subsequently endorsed by subsequent Secretaries of State for Transport, my right hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson).

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply to the debate, can confirm that the present Secretary of State for the Environment will be just as robust in protecting my constituents and people who work in central London from the consequences of unpleasant noise as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he held that post. If so, he should prove it when he decides on the application for the heliport in question. He will have to take the decision because he has now called it in.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport that in 1984 the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), said in a debate on civil aviation: Noise can be a potent destroyer of the quality of life. The Government care about the environment … Helicopters seem to have a special pitch of vibrating noise … in the light of the environmental disturbance caused by the service"— he was talking about the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter service— we could not justify allowing it to continue in operation … we must give due weight to environmental considerations in dealing with such cases."—[Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 655.] Of course, that followed the completion of the M25 motorway, which linked Heathrow and Gatwick. Now that a fast train is to run from Heathrow to Paddington, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm—I gave him notice of this question—that it remains Government policy to uphold the principles set out by the former Minister in 1984.

The decision is to be made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Because of my right hon. Friend's quasi-judicial responsibilities, I realise that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on the planning merits as that would anticipate any decision that my right hon. Friend might take. However, I ask him to confirm that he will take note of all the points raised in the debate, not only because they will come out at the public inquiry, but because there is considerable parliamentary opinion on this matter. That is not surprising as the Select and Standing Committee Rooms of both Houses face the Thames and risk being disturbed by the noise of helicopters flying along the river to a heliport in the Pool of London.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 753, which has been signed by 23 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. Although, in essence, it asked for the decision on the planning application to be called in, which has since happened, it also expressed views and attitudes on the planning merits, such as the environment, the noise, the views of St. Paul's, public transport safety on the adjacent railway at Cannon street station and safety on the river and for residents throughout London. There is thus considerable parliamentary opinion, which I hope the Department will take into account when weighing up the relevant planning aspects as on planning grounds it is obliged to do.

The site for the heliport falls within the constituency of the City of London and Westminster, South, which is represented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is precluded from speaking in the debate because if he did he would be deemed to be giving advice to another Minister on a departmental matter falling within the ambit of that second Minister. However, I am aware that he has visited the site and it is open to him to put the various views of his constituents to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The site is on the edge of the City of London. Although the Secretary of State's decision to call in the planning decision means that the Government will make the final decision, the Corporation of London will still have an important role in the forthcoming planning inquiry. I understand that members of the corporation are likely to be divided on the matter, both in the planning committee and in the full corporation. If so, I hope that any division will be reported to the inquiry and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The Corporation of London will not be taking an executive decision as a planning authority—it will merely advise, and if that advice is divided, it makes sense for that fact to be conveyed to those making the decision.

The application is opposed by the following boroughs: Southwark, which faces the site, Richmond upon Thames, which includes my constituency, Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets and the City of Westminster. I hope that my hon. Friend will note that those five local authorities have different political complexions.

The application is also opposed by six City livery companies, numerous residents' associations and several important companies which have offices in the vicinity where many people do important work. For example, British Telecom has its international nerve centre nearby. It would be a great pity if its work were jeopardised either by noise or by the risk of a crash. Barclays de Zoete Wedd would also be affected. Here I must declare an interest as I am on the list of the shareholders of Barclays bank, although my interest is not beneficial but as a trustee of a trust. It has many people who do important and useful work. Speyhawk could also be affected. That company is well known to me because 15 years ago its headquarters were in Twickenham and the quality of its work enjoys tremendous respect. It would be shocking if what it is doing to develop Cannon street were marred by thousands of helicopters flying over Cannon street station. Today I received a message from the chairman of Speyhawk, Mr. Trevor Osborne, who said: A heliport in this location would be environmentally damaging and contrary to the tremendous improvements to the character of this riverside location which have taken place in recent years and are taking place even now. He went on to say: The area around the proposed site has rapidly become a financial centre of considerable commercial importance which could be spoilt by the nuisance of an inappropriate development". The site is next to Cannon street station and I must draw attention to the safety risks. Helicopters are becoming less safe. A report in Flight International for the week 7–13 February 1990 quotes the Civil Aviation Authority as saying: The encouraging [helicopter-safety] trend of the past couple of years has now been reversed. The number of helicopter crashes is unfortunately tending to increase and it would be batty to have a heliport next to a main commuter railway station where a crashing helicopter might derail a train or even drop on a platform crowded with commuters.

It would be bad to set a precedent to build out into the River Thames. English Heritage and the Services Committee of the House had some strong words to say on a recent planning application for some floating pontoons with shops alongside Westminster pier, jutting out just to the north of Westminster bridge and facing County Hall. Their advice was taken by the Secretary of State for the Environment following the planning inquiry and planning permission was refused. Platforms and other works jutting out into the Thames would create a bad precedent. Furthermore, it would be bad for the work of the House to have large numbers of helicopters going by.

There are only two arguments in favour of the proposal—the usual commercial one, and the fact that each trip would save a few business tycoons about half an hour.

I hope that the public inquiry will scrutinise with the utmost scepticism the argument that a heliport would benefit the City of London as a financial centre. The noise would cut the efficiency of people working in offices nearby. No other European city has a central heliport—unless one counts the heliport at Issy, which is as far from the commercial centre of Paris as the existing Battersea heliport is from the City of London.

I happen to know a number of successful business men as well as some who are unsuccessful. Some dash about to offices and plants in different places, while others are the quiet type of millionaires who work from one point. Most tend to be sensible and reasonable people who take carefully measured decisions. That is especially true of the more successful among them. In general, they do not need or want to disturb thousands of people on the ground just to save themselves half-an-hour's travelling time. It is the second-rate businesss men—the grade 2 and grade 3 busines men—who are much more likely to rush about like scalded rabbits and would want to brag to their children, or possibly to their girl friends, that they have been up in a helicopter. The demand may be there, but the need is not.

It is for the Government to decide what is right. Usually, the Secretary of State for the Environment can accept the advice of his planning inspectors, but sometimes he does not. If my hon. Friend the Minister has time, perhaps he will tell me the percentage of cases falling into each of those categories. I can give three prominent examples of an Environment Secretary refusing to accept the advice of inspectors following planning inquiries.

The first concerns the fifth terminal at Heathrow, where a public inquiry lasted two years. The inspector—a distinguished barrister—recommended that a fifth terminal be constructed. I am glad that the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), chose to heed the advice of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Heathrow area rather than that of the inspector, and refused permission for the scheme to go ahead. My right hon. Friend made that decision on planning grounds, giving different weights to the various arguments from those assigned by the inspector.

The second case was the extension to the National gallery. After the Prince of Wales had described the proposed scheme as a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend", the then Secretary of State refused planning consent.

The third case was the reverse. The planning inspector had recommended refusal, as had Richmond borough council, of the scheme to construct a Sainsbury superstore which is to open to the public on Tuesday 29 May. That planning decision placed in the hands of a local charity, Hampton Fuel Allotments Trust, the sum of £21 million for the land, so what had been a relatively small village charity suddenly has an income of £1.5 million per year for the benefit of my constituents. I believe that most of my constituents are glad about that decision, just as they are about those relating to Heathrow and the National gallery.

Very often, when a Secretary of State for the Environment refuses the advice of planning inspectors, his decision is right not only politically but in terms of value judgments and planning considerations. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has in the forefront of his mind the fact that, whatever a planning inspector recommends, he is no more than an adviser—albeit a distinguished adviser. Ultimately it is for the Secretary of State to reach a judgment, and it would be wrong for him ever to sacrifice his judgment to that of a planning inspector.

I hope that when the planning inquiry takes place it will not be too long before the inspector reports to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will consider the matter carefully, and that he will refuse planning permisson for this frightful application.

3.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

I can respond immediately to the last matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) brought to my attention. I have the details that he requested. The chief inspector's report for the year ending March 1989 shows that the Secretary of State did not accept the inspector's recommendations in nine cases out of 100. My hon. Friend was therefore accurate when he mentioned the principle that the honorary advice received from inspectors following inquiries is further considered by the Secretary of State, who has to determine the outcome of any such appeal and does not need to accept that advice automatically. Nevertheless, the inspectorate is of first-rate quality and we are fortunate to have people with such first-rate minds applying themselves to problems which are often complex.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham on winning his place in the ballot. As he said, the planning application for a heliport alongside Cannon street railway bridge was called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 22 March, and a public inquiry is to be held before one of his inspectors, starting on 2 October.

The City of London Heliport Ltd. (CLH), a consortium which includes BAA, Hanson, Midland bank, Trafalgar House and the Carroll group of companies, submitted a planning application to the City of London on 12 December for a heliport. The proposal is to locate the heliport on the north bank of the Thames between London bridge and Cannon street railway bridge. The heliport would be cantilevered out over the river, and the deck would be slightly above the level of London and Cannon street bridges. The application provides for a maximum of 25,000 movements per annum, equating to approximately 91 a day. The application is accompanied by an environmental impact assessment, which covers such issues as noise, safety, water quality and cultural heritage.

The proposed heliport would be restricted to certain twin-engined helicopters, as my hon. Friend has pointed out. That is to ensure that, should a helicopter suffer an engine failure, it will be more able to land safely. That is required to satisfy the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority in respect of an elevated heliport such as CLH.

Mr. Jessel

Does that not imply that there is a conflict between safety and noise abatement? To make the heliport safer, helicopters will have to have an extra engine which will make them more noisy. One way or another, the public will suffer—either from more noise or from less safety.

Mr. Moynihan

I make no qualitative judgment—it is for the inspector to consider noise and the important issue of safety.

At present the Department has received 223 representations, including 10 from local authorities. They are split fairly evenly between those in favour and those against. It appears that the arguments have fined down to the important questions that my hon. Friend has raised—noise and safety, versus need for the heliport. That is borne out by the representations received so far.

In the first instance, the application was made to the corporation of the City. The Government's policy is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of the local planning authority unless it is necessary to do so, to be very selective about calling in cases for the Secretary of State to decide, and generally to call in applications only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved—for example, those which in the Department's opinion could have side effects beyond their immediate locality, could give rise to substantial regional or national controversy, might conflict with national policy on important matters, or could involve interests of national security or of foreign Governments.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided that this was such a case, and that he should take the decision himself after a public inquiry. He will consider all planning aspects of the proposed development, and he has said that on the information so far available the following matters appear likely to be relevant to his consideration of the application: first, the provisions of the local plan adopted on 12 January 1989 so far as material to the application; secondly, the effects of noise and pollution arising from the proposed development; thirdly, the suitability of the site for the proposed development; fourthly, the effect of the development on the character of the area; and, fifthly, the likely effect of the development on traffic movement in nearby streets. Clearly, the important issue of safety is relevant to some of those considerations.

The inquiry will be held at the City of London Corporation Guildhall at 10 am on Tuesday 2 October 1990. The inspector will be Mr. Brundel. The inquiry will provide the opportunity for all those concerned to put their views to the inspector, and the best course is to attend or to be represented there. Interested persons may give evidence at the discretion of the inspector. Those wishing to give evidence are advised to attend on the first morning of the inquiry to assist the inspector in determining the order of appearance.

A pre-inquiry meeting is to be held at the same venue at 10 am on Tuesday 31 July. The purpose of the meeting is to help the parties prepare for the actual inquiry and so enable the proceedings to be conducted as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It will also help the parties to concentrate on the main issues in dispute, saving time and expense for all concerned. It is not for the purpose of hearing evidence, which is for the inquiry itself.

The Government recognise the need to balance environmental concerns with aviation interests.

My hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot comment on the merits of the case. As he rightly stated, that might prejudice my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role. However, on the most important point I can say that his views will be carefully noted by both my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) have the consent of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel)?

Mr. Jessel

If there is time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have further points to put to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Is the hon. Member for Twickenham objecting to the hon. Member for Chichester?

Mr. Jessel

I am not objecting, but I thought—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Toby Jessel.

Mr. Jessel

My hon. Friend the Minister has not so far had time to answer one of the points that I put to him. I should be grateful if he would find the time to do so, as we have approximately three and three quarter minutes left.

I gave my hon. Friend the Minister notice of this matter by telephoning his private secretary or another official in the Department of the Environment who was in touch with his private secretary this morning. I refer to an extract from the debate on civil aviation as reported in the Official Report of 22 June 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) was the then Minister who replied to the debate. As I said 20 minutes ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West said: Noise can be a potent destroyer of the quality of life. The Government care about the environment … Helicopters seem to have a special pitch of vibrating noise … In the light of the environmental disturbance caused by the service we could not justify allowing it to continue in operation … we must give due weight to environmental considerations in dealing with such cases.—[Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 655.] The official to whom I spoke assured me that it would be possible for the Department of the Environment to locate a copy of the Official Report of 22 June 1984 and place it before my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not know whether that happened. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say whether the sentiments in the speech by the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West, remain Government policy? It is crucial to this matter. The Minister can comment without prejudicing the Secretary of State's decision at the public inquiry. It is merely an expression of Government policy, but it is important for me to know. I feel that I have the right, on behalf of my constituents, to ask whether the notion of not allowing the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link to continue because of the exceptional environmental disturbance of helicopter noise remains Government policy.

Mr. Moynihan

I have not seen that speech, but I will respond to my hon. Friend and ensure that he has a detailed answer in writing. If it is not directly relevant in terms of pre-empting or prejudging the specific issue to be considered by the inquiry, the reply will made available to him in the usual manner through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

3.30 pm
Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

In the dying moments of the debate, may I, with the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), say a few words in favour of the proposals? I should regret it if the opinion were to be put about that the House was universally against them. There are strong arguments why a heliport is essential for the City of London to retain its pre-eminent position as a financial centre, and I hope that British Telecom—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order, Before I put the question, I express the hope that all hon. Members and those who serve us will have an enjoyable and relaxing recess.

It being half-past Three o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order [ 11 May] and the Resolution [23 May] till Tuesday 5 June.