HC Deb 27 May 1993 vol 225 cc1054-64 11.45 am
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of night flights at Heathrow. This is part of a wider problem of aircraft noise. Aircraft noise is a curse and a pestilence. It ruins people's quiet enjoyment of their homes, especially in spring and summer, when they are more likely to have a larger proportion of their windows open. It interferes with people's private lives, with their telephone conversations and with their opportunity to listen to records or to television. It spoils their pleasure in their gardens; it interrupts the work of schools, hospitals, churches and offices. It can even interfere with people's sleep at night. That is the main subject of my debate.

It must be said that there are some people who do not mind aircraft noise very much. But to a large proportion of the people living around Heathrow—perhaps 1 million people—it is a considerable nuisance. To many people it is a major nuisance. To some it causes actual suffering and even mental ill health, as has been shown in research by the West Middlesex University hospital. That is especially true of night noise disturbance.

There are already 1,000 flights per day at Heathrow, so that at times aircraft come over every two minutes. It is not enough to say, as British Airways and the airports authority do, that there should be "no increase" in noise. The present noise level is unacceptable. My constituents and others around Heathrow require a substantial and permanent reduction in the volume of noise. It is not enough to say, as the consultation document says, that the noise problem should merely get no worse.

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 to Parliament for protection against the nuisance of noise which, in other cases, is enshrined in English law. The Government, therefore, have a special duty to have regard to the impact of aircraft noise on householders, as does Parliament.

There is no subject on which I have had more letters from my constituents who are resident in Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons and Whitton. But it is not confined to my constituency. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) and many other hon. Members in west London will bear out what I say. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), a Minister from another Department who therefore will not speak in this debate but who is here today, is also lending his support by being present. He has his own channels by which he can make his views known, and I have not the slightest doubt that he has already done so with considerable force. His concern is shared by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), the Minister for Housing, Planning and Construction, and by all right hon. and hon. Conservative Members who are present.

The Conservative Government's record in the field of aircraft noise has so far been really rather good. In 1985, the late Lord Ridley, then Secretary of State, refused planning permission for a fifth terminal at Heathrow. When the M25 motorway was built, he stopped the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link as some of us had asked. Over the years, some—I repeat, some—quieter aircraft engines have been brought in and, up until now, the Government have curbed any increase in the number of night flights. Lord Ridley and Lord Parkinson as Secretaries of State for Transport did so, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). All of them consistently refused to increase the quota for night flights above the average of 16 per night for the summer

In the face of enormous commercial pressure, those Secretaries of State were absolutely right to be firm, resolute and strict in protecting the people on the western side of London from any increase in night flights. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London, who will reply to the debate, will reassure me that the present Secretary of State will not weaken and will be equally strong in protecting the people. If he does not, I for one will take an extremely dim view and so, I believe, will my right hon. and hon. Friends and large numbers of people in all the constituencies on the western side of London.

The peace, the quiet and the health of millions of people must be placed above commercial interests. It is absolutely intolerable to contemplate that thousands and thousands of people might be woken up at night for the convenience of a few hundred travellers in aeroplanes above. My constituents simply will not accept it. They are angry at the very thought of it. What they want is a total ban on all night flights except in emergencies. I hope that the Government will listen carefully, pay heed to what my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are saying and take a robust view. After all, there are only 16 night flights per night now and even if that number were doubled, with 1,000 flights every day, it would only increase the total number of flights through Heathrow by 1.5 per cent. Yet it would be doubling the number at night.

If people wake up for any reason in the middle of night, perhaps because they have overeaten and are suffering from indigestion or because they want to go round the corner, they then go to bed again. They may have been worrying about something and then, just as they are drowsing off to sleep, an aeroplane—a so-called "quiet" aeroplane—comes over. That will wake them up again and they may not be able to get back to sleep for an hour or so. If they have read that the Government have allowed an increase in the number of night flights, they will blame the Government for the fact that they cannot get to sleep—and that will be a perfectly reasonable assumption for them to make.

Millions of people throughout the country suffer from the effects of aircraft noise, but none suffer more than those on the west side of London. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be absolutely firm in resisting any increase in the number of night flights. Indeed, I hope that there will be a total ban on all night flights except in emergencies.

11.55 am
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) are hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall be brief. I am grateful to you for calling me, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for securing the debate, which is extremely valuable—indeed, crucial—to the people of west London.

In referring to the interests of the people of west London, I shall bear my own constituents most particularly in mind. I am sorry to say that air pollution in Ealing is among the most serious in the country. Ealing is a beautiful place and is rightly known as the queen of the suburbs. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful to my hon. Friends. Air pollution is serious in Ealing mainly because aircraft flying overhead pollute the atmosphere and because of the huge amounts of traffic that are sucked through my constituency because of its proximity to the airport, from which people want to catch aircraft to fly to various parts of the world. Add to that air pollution the serious noise pollution from which my constituents suffer by day—and which they could suffer by night—and the House will see why I am so keen to support my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent constituencies in west London.

At present there is an almost universal ban on night flights and it is important that that should not be relaxed in any way. The Local Authorities Aircraft Noise Council, which represents all local councils in the areas surrounding Heathrow, is firmly opposed to any relaxation of the ban, but the consultation paper recently issued by the Department of Transport implies that, as most aircraft are now quieter, a relaxation of the present restrictions on night flights would be justified. It is certainly true that the latest generation of aircraft are considerably quieter than the earlier jets, and successive Conservative Governments must take credit for that. With the strong support of its members, the European Commission, too, has been heavily involved in persuading manufacturers to introduce quieter planes—indeed, that is one of the good things that the Commission has done.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that people would be seriously disturbed at night if the present night flight ban were relaxed in any way, and such a relaxation would bring justifiable fury to my constituency. Why should the people of west London be disturbed in this way? The House will understand why I am so keen for the night flight ban to be retained. If there is anyone in the land who takes seriously the suggestion in the White Paper that people may not be disturbed by certain aircraft, I should like to meet him. I do not think that anyone who studies the question in any depth can take seriously the argument that aircraft can be made so quiet that they will not disturb people at night. That simply can never be true. However quiet aircraft become, people will always be disturbed by them. It is bad enough for that to happen by day, but it would be totally unacceptable for it to happen at night. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham in respect of a relaxation of the ban on night flights.

11.59 am
Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter today. He has been absolutely tireless in his pursuit of this issue in the nigh on 20 years that he has represented his constituency.

Mr. Jessel

Twenty three years.

Mr. Mellor

Well, there you are.

My hon. Friend pursues this matter not through a fixation with the issue, but because his constituents demand it. It would be absolutely impossible for him and for some of us to represent our constituencies if we did not take the view that we do, so all-pervasive is the concern about the issue. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London will be aware of that.

It is significant that we have gathered here this morning, not the usual lonely vigil of the initiator of the Adjournment debate, the Minister and the poor old Whip, but several other hon. Members because this is such a significant and substantial matter. It is particularly noteworthy that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) is present. Although he is a Minister and unable to speak in this debate, I know that he passionately believes that enough is enough in respect of Heathrow airport. That is the cause that we advance today.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London—this is not empty piety on my part because I am not terribly good at empty piety—that I pay him a genuine tribute because this very week he has announced an extremely politically sensitive decision in my constituency when he rejected plans to expand the A3 beyond the Robin Hood roundabout although being under great pressure from the roads lobby to do that.

My hon. Friend the Minister decided to reject the scheme because he knows full well that the political controversy which the scheme would engender does not make the project worth while. It is therefore a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister in the Chamber today because I am sure that the same considerations will weigh heavily with him when he broods on this particular matter.

I believe that our case can be stated simply. Heathrow airport is one of the great airports of the world. Whatever the extent of the suffering that it causes to local communities represented by my hon. Friends who are here today, and by others who cannot be here, we all recognise the pressures on my hon. Friend the Minister from the airline companies, the British Airports Authority and others to ensure that Heathrow keeps that competitive edge.

I recall Douglas Jay once telling me how Heathrow was set up. One afternoon towards the end of the war, a few civil servants decided that that marshy place on the wrong side of London should be Heathrow airport. How very differently things are done today, when we can spend 30 years deciding, through endless public inquiries, whether something should be built.

Mr. Jessel

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those civil servants in that room after the war, who took that decision without reference to Parliament, could never have foreseen the massive growth in demand for air travel or the development of noisy jet engines?

Mr. Mellor

I suppose that if they foresaw anything I would probably be a good deal less cynical about the whole process of decision making. Let us assume that they thought about things carefully, even if that assumption is misguided.

The plain fact is that Heathrow exists. It is a great airport. We all use it and I have nothing against its excellent facilities. However, the communities of southwest London suffer intolerably because of the airport. The appropriate way to consider aircraft policy is to say that we all have the benefits of air travel and we should all share the suffering. We cannot have more suffering lumped on to the communities around Heathrow when Stansted was supposed to be London's third airport, although there is precious little sign of that, when there is Gatwick and when the regional airports are getting down on their knees to beg for more business.

Night flights are a thorough nuisance. I live happily—or not as the case may be—in that part of my constituency that is overflown by aircraft coming in, so I am not raising an academic matter in the House. Every morning, I get it. If my humble home were big enough, any number of civil servants from the Department of Transport could come and share that night-time vigil so as to be acquainted with what it is like.

I do not want to take up time that we do not have. It is clear that the Government, under pressure from the industry, are floating a proposition that is not acceptable or saleable and will have to be rejected. The proposition is that there is such a thing as a quiet or non-intrusive aircraft. That is nonsense. There are, however, quieter aircraft. I am grateful for the efforts that Governments have made over the years to prohibit the noisy clapped-out old 707s of emergent African dictatorships from coming into Heathrow. That has all been stopped—and a jolly good thing too.

The mere fact that some aircraft are quieter than others does not mean that we live in the world of the quiet aircraft. There is no such thing as a quiet aircraft. The assumption which underpins the document produced by the Department of Transport is that, if further pressure is exerted on noisy aircraft, our communities will accept that two or three quiet aircraft are worth one noisy aircraft, and even erect a statue in the centre of Putney, Richmond or Twickenham to the beneficent Secretary of State for Transport who has given them three times as many quiet planes. That is nonsense and it would be helpful, especially in the Government's present state, if that nonsense were realised before rather than after any blood needs to be shed. On that basis, I make this genial speech today.

12.6 pm

Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for securing this debate and the speeches that have been made. The key point for my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind is that in no way has the case been made for any change in the present situation. A ridiculous and thin piece of research has been done into sleep patterns. If the Department wants to do something proper in that area, it could revisit that whole question and do a proper study over a long period. But nowhere to my knowledge has the commercial case been made by any of the airlines for any relaxation in the current regime. It would be interesting to speculate that, if the British Airports Authority believed that relaxation in the regulations was an absolute sine qua non before they began the procedure for terminal 5, they would not be spending tens of millions of pounds going through application and planning procedures for that development and all of the surface access that is needed.

Hon. Members whose constituents are most seriously affected by the proposals want to see at least the maintenance of the existing regime. We would like to see monitoring equipment for landings put sensibly into position. In the past, the emphasis has been on monitoring take-offs, not landings. A lot of research needs to be done so that the Government can be satisfied that any proposals that they may bring forward in the future could possibly command an element of acceptance. These proposals would command no support whatever in our constituencies.

I echo the appeal of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) that in the present state of affairs it might be wise for the Government to take the sagacious view of spending a little more time cogitating and working out what would be acceptable, bearing in mind the fundamental point that quality of life is important to our constituents and should be weighed at least equally with the commercial development of the airport.

12.9 pm

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) on raising an issue of vital importance to anyone who lives in the west of London. It affects my constituents as much as those of all my hon. Friends who are present and many who would have liked to be here today to debate this important issue.

My constituency is slightly further from Heathrow than other constituencies, but that is not to underestimate the disturbance caused by flights to and from the airport. The disturbance is serious. I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friends this morning. My constituents are worried about the proposals, especially the proposal to increase the number of night flights into Heathrow.

It is clear that sleep patterns are seriously disturbed by night flights. They are disturbed by the current number of night flights. To suggest that quieter aeroplanes disturb less is perhaps true if windows are double glazed and it is not the summer months when windows are left open. Through great parts of the year, my constituents like to sleep with their windows open. They like to benefit from the fresh air and enjoy the pleasures of bird song in the early morning.

A quiet plane going over in a background of relative silence in London at night is as disturbing to the sleep of my constituents as a noisy plane going over. Whatever the cause, if people are woken from their sleep, especially in the early hours of the morning, they find it difficult to go back to sleep again. So the suggestion that many more quieter planes equal one noisy plane is so ludicrous as to have brought into question the basis upon which the consideration document issued by the Department of Transport was produced. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will therefore review that document and consider whether it would be appropriate to reject its suggestions. I hope that he will also reconsider night flights into and out of Heathrow. As my hon. Friends have said, our constituents are perhaps prepared to tolerate the status quo, but that does not mean that the status quo is acceptable.

Ideally, the current number of night flights into Heathrow, especially early morning flights, would be reduced. As has already been said, the expansion of Heathrow is unnecessary, given the alternative airports into which those flights could go. I should like the Department of Transport to give that serious consideration. I should also like the overall study to include overflying of our constituents by helicopters. Helicopter flights are a particular problem in my constituency, as in any constituency along the River Thames. Helicopter flights are as much a nuisance—indeed, sometimes more of a nuisance—as other flights. They are controlled, but they are not controlled as effectively as they should be.

A great deal more could be said on this subject. I do not want to take up any more time because I want to give my hon. Friend the Minister ample time to answer the real anxieties of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends and to explain exactly how he intends to ensure that my constituents get a good night's sleep.

12.13 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) on securing the debate. I have been left in no doubt whatever about the strength of feeling among my right hon. and hon. Friends on this important issue.

If it is not too churlish, I should like to make one point at the start of my reply. We had excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham, for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie). My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) is also in his place. Sadly, that is it. With the honourable exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who has an interest in this matter as well as being a member of the Government Whips Office, not one Labour or Liberal Member is in the Chamber to discuss this important issue. I have heard about pavement politics, particularly from some Liberal councillors who make so much of their interest in such politics in some parts of the city, so why is it that not one of their representatives was able to be present for this important debate?

Mr. Mellor

Had I thought that I had a minute or two longer in which to speak, I might have dilated on the point which my hon. Friend has properly raised. It is even worse than my hon. Friend suggests, as those of us with long memories will know. The late Stephen Ross, whose death saddened me because he was a nice man, although I did not agree with everything he said, helped to prevent the passage of an aviation Bill that we attempted to get through the House. That Bill was designed to restrict the number of flights into and out of Heathrow, but it was aborted because of the efforts of Liberal and Labour Members and, sadly, one or two Conservative Back Benchers. The Liberals speak with a forked tongue on this matter because they say one thing in Parliament while trying to assert other things in the affected communities, where they try to pretend that they are on the side of those who are concerned about the Heathrow expansion.

Mr. Norris

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that information. Let us not dwell on that rather sad aspect of the debate, but let us concentrate on the substantive issue.

I should set in context what the consultation exercise is all about. Five objectives lie behind the new proposals. First, they are designed to revise and update the current restrictions to take into account the types of aircraft that are flying today—or, if I may say so, tonight—and to encourage airlines to choose the quietest possible types of aircraft for their operations. That is the most important principle. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney is right, of course, that there is no such thing as a silent aircraft, but he was generous enough to acknowledge that technical progress has been made. It is therefore obviously important that, whatever regulations might be appropriate in the future, we should take into account that technical progress.

It is also important to bear in mind that the need for the consultation exercise stems from the fact that, unless new restrictions are in place, the existing ones will lapse at the end of the summer season—technically, on 24 October. It is therefore important that that exercise should take place.

The second purpose of the new proposals is to introduce common principles for arrangements for night restrictions at the three major London airports. The third objective is to honour our commitment in the 1985 White Paper, "Airports Policy", to establish further night restrictions at Stansted. The fourth important objective is to continue to protect local communities from excessive aircraft noise levels at night. The fifth objective is to ensure that the competitive influences affecting United Kingdom airports and airlines and the wider employment and economic implications are taken into account. That is the background to the consultation exercise.

My colleagues who are present are experienced Members of the House and I am sure that they will understand what I am about to say. The underlying objective must be to try to strike a reasonable balance between the needs of the commercial operators at Heathrow and the needs and concerns of those who live around the airport and who are anxious about its operations.

Let us be in no doubt that Heathrow is a major national asset. It continues to be the largest international airport in the world. In the past 12 months it has catered for more than 45 million passengers. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as the workplace for some 50,000 people directly and for at least 20,000 others indirectly in terms of facilitating passenger, freight and postal services.

I believe that not only hon. Members but the vast majority of people, not just in London but in the United Kingdom, accept that Heathrow is of immense strategic importance to the nation. Against that has to be balanced the needs of the local community and the need to protect it from the excesses of night flying beyond the limit of that which is tolerable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North started with the correct observation that noise is a pollutant. It is as much a pollutant as any pollutant. The purpose of the proposals is to encourage quieter aircraft, and that encourages those aircraft that are more fuel efficient and produce less particulant emission. Therefore, there is that incidental benefit to be derived from a better night noise regime.

Mr. Jessel

No one questions the tremendous importance of Heathrow to Britain, to our national economy, to trade, industry, tourism and to London's position in the world. All of that is practically self-evident. But why cannot the work of the large number of people whose employment depends upon it be concentrated, as far as possible, by day and not at all by night?

Mr. Norris

I was about to come to that precise point, which is obviously germane to the debate. Let us start with the straightforward proposition that I believe my hon. Friends will accept, which is that the vast majority of flights take place during day-time hours. We are talking very much about flights on the margin. The new proposed definition of night time runs from 11 pm until 7 am and the new quota system from 11.30 pm to 6 am.

The purpose of that—the difference between the definition of night time and the quota regime—is to allow a buffer during which no noisy aircraft can be scheduled and therefore eliminate the risk that aircraft which would otherwise be scheduled close to the point at which the night quota regime came into effect might, for operational reasons, stray into the night quota regime, thus vitiating the purpose of having a quota regime in place. That is a sensible move. Harmonisation on the question of hours makes a great deal of sense.

I am clear that we should be sure that those movements which are allowed to operate at night are justified in terms of their strategic and economic importance to Heathrow. My hon. Friend makes the perfectly fair point that we should apply some fairly stringent tests to any proposals for night flying.

I am mindful of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton on sleep research. I appreciate that neither he nor others in the House may have treated that work with the seriousness that it deserves. The research has been carried out by teams led by Professor Jim Horne from Loughborough university and others from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Southampton under the overall direction of Dr. John Ollerhead of the Civil Aviation Authority's department of safety, environment and engineering. It is a creditable piece of research into a most difficult subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham is right. One may wake up in the middle of the night because, as in my hon. Friend's case, one is suffering from dyspepsia. My other right hon. and hon. Friends may do so because, as they are all distinguished chaps, they are worried about the possibility of the telephone ringing the next morning—particularly on a day such as this—or of it not ringing, which might cause even more sleeplessness. Whatever the reason, it is difficult to get back to sleep, and in those circumstances even so-called quiet aircraft can be an absolute bane. I spend my week in central London, as do most right hon. and hon. Members, so I have some experience of night aircraft noise, although I cannot claim that it is particularly upsetting.

Mr. Harry Greenway

It is an important part of our case that some people are such light sleepers that they wake up at the slightest sound, be it aircraft noise or anything else. We cannot put the whole of west London on sleeping pills.

Mr. Norris

I believe that my hon. Friend is supporting me. If I am wrong, I apologise—but it would be characteristic of him, as a generous hon. Friend. to be supportive.

Some people are extremely light sleepers and almost anything will wake them, but it would be unreasonable to take measures to control such an important activity as international flights into our major airport on the basis that every person in this city must be guaranteed uninterrupted slumber. I look forward to the day when every resident of the metropolis enjoys an uninterrupted night's slumber, but I doubt that I shall live to see it.

It is important not to confuse annoyance with disburbance. We all get annoyed at different things. The research had the serious purpose of distinguishing between annoyance and disturbance. There is a threshold at which a person is awoken from his or her normal sleep pattern. When that level of noise is reached, we are in important territory that is quite different from the sort of background noise that is part of every major city.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney represents a most attractive part of London, but it is not immune from other noises—if only that associated with the festivities and general merrymaking that my right hon. and learned Friend has done so much to promote in his years as Putney's Member of Parliament.

I will conclude with a serious point. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends accept that it is a question of striking the right balance. I make it clear that the proposal is not something new in terms of permitting night flying but relates to extending the controls over night flying which currently exist to protect residents. It is perfectly open to right hon. and hon. Members to complain that that control is currently not sufficiently stringent. I undertake to hear their comments in mind very carefully —but the Government, in acting responsibly, must bear in mind the balance of advantage which must lie between Heathrow's promotion as a vital part of our economic, tourism and business infrastructure and the rights and needs of local residents.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is most concerned about the representations that he received. I will certainly study them closely to ensure that proper weight is placed on all the arguments that my right hon. and hon. Friends adduced. They have left me in no doubt about the importance that they attach to the issue. Let us hope that, when the new arrangements are finalised, we shall strike the desired balance, benefiting all interested parties—enabling Heathrow to take its rightful place as the world's premier international airport, and allowing our constituents to enjoy a reasonable night's sleep.

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