HC Deb 28 October 1997 vol 299 cc809-16

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

10 pm

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know that this Adjournment debate is about a subject close to your heart, as you have an interest in Stansted airport. I look forward to hearing the Minister for Transport in London respond to the debate, clarifying Government policy in this area.

I have spent much of the past three years espousing the cause of sustainable development as set out in the Rio treaty. I was particularly pleased to see that the consultation paper for the Greater London authority defines the key function as: sustainable development, giving all Londoners an improved and lasting quality of life, combining environmental, economic and social goals". I read under the proposals for an integrated transport strategy for London that there is a need for action to take forward London-wide measures to reduce air traffic pollution. In that context, I speak tonight on behalf of my constituents and all those who suffer noise pollution both in south-west London and on the approaches to Heathrow. There are now more than 1,200 flights a day into Heathrow and, despite efforts such as runway alternation—which I applaud—many of those flights bear down in a cone of appalling noise across swathes of central Putney, Sheen, Richmond, Isleworth, Hounslow and on into the airport. When the northern runway is used, Fulham, Barnes, Kew, Brentford and Hounslow are affected.

Two years ago, the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) told the House that the aircraft instrument landing system required a precise line of approach, which was undeviating in the hardship that it delivered to residents below. The microwave landing system, which offers a variation of approach, has still not been advanced in the two years since the previous debate. Thus, there has been no improvement. There are noise limits only for departing aircraft and not for incoming aircraft—an oversight which has prevailed for years, despite assurances about a change.

Night flights continue to plague the sleep of the people of Putney and elsewhere. Why have such flights not been banned? In respect of the last consultation, a constituent wrote: Our three-year-old son comes into our bedroom at 4 am terrified by the noise of the large jets screaming overhead in the middle of the quiet night. Another constituent counted 39 aircraft coming in over his house between 4.30 am and 8 am on a Sunday—when Sunday restrictions should have made that impossible. Why cannot the departure times of flights from the far east be rescheduled so that they arrive at Heathrow at a suitable time?

Putney suffers doubly as it is also under the flight path for helicopters that use the Battersea heliport. Routes H10, H3 and H7 converge over Putney common, and thus all helicopters from the north, west and south fly over Putney and Fulham at very low levels. The noise can be excruciating. I, of course, exclude the need for helicopters to bring badly injured patients to Queen Mary?s university hospital regional burns unit, a unit which I am fighting to retain at that hospital.

It is widely accepted that one way to reduce aircraft noise is to limit that noise at source. International agreement is essential, and I welcome the International Civil Aviation Organisation?s phasing out of the noisier chapter 2 aircraft by 2002. I also welcome the checks instituted by the Civil Aviation Authority, leading to the grounding of aircraft if they do not meet the necessary standards.

As the Minister is aware, Cranfield university in Bedford recently undertook a series of experiments on a digital, pneumatic actuator, and I am pleased that the Department of Trade and Industry, British Airways and the British Airports Authority are working together in sponsoring the device that claims to eliminate most noise. Aircraft construction companies will need to adapt aircraft engines to control carbon dioxide emissions to ensure that the Kyoto agreements against global warming are not breached. It is important that noise pollution is tackled at the same time as air pollution is dealt with. Developments such as that which I have outlined are the way forward for an innovative Britain, finding solutions to problems.

This debate is particularly urgent because of the events of 16 October. On that day, Miss Elizabeth Duthie of the aviation environmental division of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions told the terminal 5 planning inquiry: Government now believes that a continuing improvement (in aircraft noise) cannot be guaranteed indefinitely"— a statement that appears to signify a change to the previous policy, which was to do everything possible to ensure that the noise climate improves. Alarm has spread through west London, especially as the inspector for the terminal 5 planning inquiry—Roy Vandemeer—believes that the Government have moved the goalposts. That will materially affect his work on the inquiry.

In July, Miss Duthie said: night flights cause negligible sleep disturbance". I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to spend the night at the home of one of my constituents in Putney to discover how wrong that statement is.

We thus have a catalogue of woe, and an environmental and social disaster. Of course, there are economic gains in employment and wealth creation, thanks to the superb success of BAA and Heathrow Airport Ltd. and the many airlines and companies involved with the workings of the airport. Heathrow is the stepping stone to Europe for the rest of the world and is a world-class industry in its own right. I am not suggesting anything that would harm that success story but, in the spirit of local Agenda 21, for which I lead in London, all the stakeholders—businesses, local government and local people—need to plan for the sustainable development of the airport. That must mean that the social and environmental damage currently inflicted must be reduced.

The need to work with the community is doubly important with the terminal 5 inquiry. Local people and I see terminal 5 as an environmental disaster, yet business states that it is essential for the continued pre-eminence of Heathrow. The battle line has been drawn up for three years—the Minister will have to decide, although I am not expecting her to express a view this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) has passed to me the response of his local residents association to the consultation by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the integrated transport policy. The association puts forward the concept of airport environmental limits. I commend the document as a way forward which will enable BAA and local residents associations to sit down and work out, within the framework of the Greater London authority, a future for Heathrow.

The hon. Members for Windsor and for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) have asked to be allowed to intervene to support my argument. I have agreed that they should do so to emphasise the cross-party concern about the matters that I have outlined.

I ask the Minister to come to the rescue of the people of Putney and of all those suffering from aircraft noise on the Heathrow flight path by agreeing to the following points.

First, let the people decide about noise limits. In my response to the Greater London authority consultation, I strongly recommend that the authority and the mayor, not the Government, should decide about noise limits, just as they will decide about other London transport issues. The United States Government do not make decisions about JFK airport in New York; local government does. That is also the case for noise controls for all other United Kingdom airports, except Gatwick and Stansted. Only the mayor of London can bring together all the stakeholders involved. I look forward to the new consultation period on noise limits. I shall recommend stiff limits from 1998.

Secondly, let there be noise limits on incoming as well as departing aircraft and proper fines for miscreants, not the £500 fine currently levied.

Thirdly, let there be a ban on night flights between 11.30 pm and 6 am. That works elsewhere, so why not here? Consultation is due to start shortly. I ask that that should be an option that the people can vote on.

Fourthly, let controls cover all aircraft—small as well as large—including helicopters. Often smaller aircraft—and certainly helicopters—are noisier and fly lower.

Fifthly, I commend the Cranfield research project into noise reductions in aircraft engines. Noise pollution should be discussed together with air pollution controls at Kyoto. It is a worldwide problem.

Sixthly, let there be an unequivocal statement this evening that the Government are determined to reduce noise pollution on the Heathrow approaches, repudiating the views expressed by Elizabeth Duthie of the aviation environmental division. Let there be a target for reductions between now and 2010.

I was proud to be at the United Nations on 23 June to hear the Prime Minister make such a strong commitment to sustainable development and to a 20 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. The people of south-west London want a similar commitment on aircraft noise. They have suffered long enough.

10.11 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) for allowing me to add briefly to his remarks. I agree that landing rather than take-off is now the significant problem. Unlike those living in west London, those who live in my constituency to the west of the airport have no alternation of runways. When the misery occurs, it is constant rather than infrequent.

The hon. Gentleman put the case for a ban on night flights very well for his constituents and I agree most strongly with him on that. I have said this before in the House and I shall go on saying it until the Government listen; it is essential that my constituents get the good night's sleep to which they are entitled. That can be achieved in Windsor only if there is a total ban on night flights. As the hon. Gentleman has said, that is done in other parts of the world. It is high time it was done here.

10.12 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I thank the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) for allowing me to speak. I am interested in the effects of noise on health. I live in my Richmond Park constituency, where we have had an escalating noise problem over the past 20 years. I am particularly concerned about health issues because I was a doctor in the health service before my election to Parliament.

There is an enormous, accumulating mountain of evidence on the effects of noise on people's health. Evidence on noise is being given to the terminal 5 inquiry. Paper after paper has shown how people suffer sleep deprivation because of aircraft noise—which has already been mentioned—and how people with mental health problems or heart problems are badly affected by aircraft noise. Their conditions may not be caused by aircraft noise, but they can be made significantly worse by it.

There has been a recent survey of attainment levels, particularly in terms of the reading ages of children living around large airports, which was initiated by people in Frankfurt. When it was planned to build a new airport, the people there decided to test a large cohort of several hundred children to find out what their reading age was while the old airport was in operation. They found that the reading age of those children was six months below average. The people involved had the good sense, once the airport had moved to its new site, to retest the same group of children and they discovered that their reading ages had returned to normal within a year of the noise being removed.

As well as affecting the population's health, aircraft noise affects the attainment of children in our schools, and the problem could get worse. I have been in schools in my constituency where, in the course of a lesson, teachers have repeatedly had to stop completely while an aircraft has gone overhead. The lesson is disrupted until the noise subsides.

I do not suggest that the problem is overwhelming at the moment. Twenty years ago, however, we doubted the evidence that was emerging on the link between smoking and lung cancer. That is how medical evidence emerges. The evidence that is emerging on the effects of noise on health and on children's attainment in schools around airports is at a similar stage to the evidence on smoking and lung cancer 20 years ago. We do not want in 20 years' time to have gone down that road and to have discovered that aircraft noise really is dangerous and that we should have acted earlier.

I urge the Government to look seriously into the problem and to take measures, as the hon. Member for Putney suggested, to do something about the problem before it is too late.

10.16 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and on affording the House the opportunity to discuss the important issue of aircraft noise around Heathrow. I also congratulate him on his generosity in affording time to the hon. Members for Windsor (Mr. Trend) and for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) for them to present cogently, albeit briefly, their concerns on behalf of their constituents.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, Heathrow airport is an important national and European asset. It is the largest international airport in the world and in 1996, it handled almost 56 million passengers and 1 million tonnes of freight. In terms of value of trade handled, it is Britain's largest port. It is no less important to the local economy, providing 50,000 direct jobs and a further 26,000 in support services. It contributes directly to the prosperity of west London, which includes my hon. Friend's famous and historic constituency, and to the prosperity of neighbouring counties.

The airport also has a major environmental impact on the surrounding areas and on those living under its principal arrival and departure routes, an impact most of us tend to overlook when we go on holiday or travel abroad on business. The main impact comes from aircraft noise and the Government acknowledge that it is a cause of annoyance to many people and of more serious concern—indeed, distress—to some.

The Government intend to tackle aircraft noise in two ways. First, we will seek further reductions in noise at source through international negotiation and agreement. Secondly, we will set a framework for the control and mitigation of operational noise around airports.

The Government will do everything practicable to ensure that the noise climate around Heathrow continues to improve. There has been a substantial improvement in the noise climate around the airport over the past two decades and the improvement is expected to continue for the remaining years of the phase-out of chapter 2 aircraft. The noise climate thereafter is now expected to be much more favourable than was expected before the phase-out was agreed in 1990. As I hope all hon. Members will agree, that was a real achievement.

This success makes the securing of further improvement all the more challenging. After chapter 2 phase-out, we cannot be sure of achieving continuing improvements year on year, every year. However, the Government are determined to take all practicable steps to prevent a deterioration in the noise climate around the airport after the phase-out of chapter 2 aircraft is completed. Indeed, I restate our policy that we will continue our efforts to do everything practicable to improve the noise climate over time. In giving that assurance to the communities around Heathrow, the Government recognise that additional regulatory measures may become necessary to achieve the target.

In the longer term, we can expect further improvements from the retirement of Concorde and from incremental improvements in technology which, together, should more than offset the trend to larger aircraft.

Our aim, like that of successive Governments since the impact of aircraft noise became a cause for concern, is to strike a balance between the considerable economic benefits of the airport and the effect on the communities around it.

It is widely recognised that many factors other than the level of noise itself influence sensitivity to aircraft noise. For my hon. Friend's constituents, the alignment of Heathrow's two main runways means that during westerly operations, which occur for about 70 to 75 per cent. of the time in an average year, they are overflown by landing aircraft on final approach.

Increasingly there are claims that the noise of landing aircraft is worse than the noise of aircraft taking off—a point made cogently by my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, greater strides have been made in reducing take-off noise. Those who live in the south of my hon. Friend's constituency would probably say that take-off noise remained the bigger problem. Aircraft taking off use considerably more power than those landing, but because modern aircraft generally climb more quickly than earlier generations of jet aircraft, their noise is now attenuated more quickly by altitude. Also, because there are more take-off routes, the number of aircraft flying each one is fewer. For people living under the arrival routes, by contrast, the steady succession of aircraft flying over them may contribute to their annoyance.

For technical and safety reasons, aircraft usually take off and land into the wind. At Heathrow, because the prevailing winds are from the south-west, the airport must operate in a westerly direction for most of the time. Furthermore, landing aircraft have to be aligned with the runway and are usually established on the instrument landing system by about nine miles from touchdown. They will usually have descended to an altitude of about 2,500 ft by this point.

The distance of nine miles from touchdown means that most landing aircraft using the southern runway have to overfly my hon. Friend?s constituents. When the airport is busy, which it is for much of the day, aircraft will often join the ILS further east over Battersea, Brixton or Lewisham. When the northern runway is in use, landing aircraft will join that ILS from anywhere between Barnes and Greenwich. What cannot be varied is the final approach track of landing aircraft, which must be aligned with the centre line of the landing runway. A curved final approach is not possible.

For a long time, Heathrow has operated a system of westerly preference. The system has been in place since 1962 and is primarily a noise mitigation measure. Its purpose is to reduce the number of aircraft taking off to the east over west London, and so the numbers of people affected by take-off noise are reduced.

Historically, take-off noise has been the greater concern, but because of the improving climb performance of modern aircraft, the system of westerly preference is kept under review. The Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee and Heathrow Airport Ltd. carried out their own evaluation of westerly preference last year and their findings indicated that it continues to have the overall beneficial effect of reducing the numbers of people living within the 57 dB(A) Leq noise contour. This noise contour is the one widely accepted as being closely correlated with the onset of community annoyance from aircraft noise during the day. Aircraft taking off from Heathrow are required to follow noise preferential routes. They were designed as far as possible to avoid the most populated areas. Pilots are required to follow NPRs until they reach an altitude of 4,000 ft. The one NPR routed over my hon. Friend's constituency passes to the south and is used during easterly operations only. That is for about 25 per cent. of the time during an average year. Track-keeping by pilots using that route is of a high standard.

Comparable fixed routes for landing aircraft are not possible before aircraft join the ILS and align themselves with the runway. That is because air traffic controllers require operational flexibility in order to maintain safe separation between landing aircraft. As a result, landing aircraft follow a wide swathe of tracks which are determined tactically by air traffic controllers until each aircraft joins the ILS for the runway in use. They must then follow the international standard rate of descent of 3 deg to touchdown. The resulting concentration of landing traffic on final approach over the last eight to 13 miles to touchdown is unavoidable. My hon. Friend referred to MLS—the microwave landing system. Even if that is introduced in the future and replaces ILS, it is not expected to change the requirement.

Wherever practicable, pilots are required to apply noise-reduction procedures known as continuous descent approach and low power, low drag. The aim is to keep the aircraft in a clean configuration for as long as possible to reduce the amount of noise reaching the ground. That means not lowering the undercarriage or using flaps until absolutely necessary and maintaining engine power at low levels consistent with safety.

During day time operations, aircraft join the final approach glide slope at a minimum altitude of 2,500 ft about eight to nine miles from touchdown. As I said, that is a minimum joining point. During busy periods, aircraft will join further east at higher altitudes. There is a trial in progress, which was started approximately two years ago, whereby aircraft are required to join two to three miles further east at not less than 3,000 ft between 4 am and 6 am. The purpose is to reduce disturbance from early morning arrivals by having them join the ILS glidepath at a higher altitude. The procedure should benefit not only my hon. Friend?s constituents but those of the hon. Members for Windsor and for Richmond Park. I recognise however that it has less support from other communities. An assessment of the trial is under way.

Runway alternation during westerly operations has been operated at Heathrow between 7 am and 11 pm since 1972. One runway is used until 3 pm each day when landing traffic is switched to the other runway. The runway used also alternates on a weekly basis so that communities in west London benefit on alternate weeks from quiet periods in the evenings. It benefits most those who live under the last eight miles of the approach tracks.

Runway alternation was not extended into the night period in the 1970s in order primarily to provide opportunities for essential maintenance of the runways and associated equipment such as the ILS. A second trial of night-time runway alternation has however been running for some months and was provisionally brought to a close on Sunday 26 October. The results of the trial and the associated local opinion surveys are about to be evaluated—initially by the Heathrow Airport consultative committee and Heathrow Airport Ltd., who jointly initiated the first trial last winter. I hope to receive their report later this year. I will study it carefully before reaching a decision on any permanent arrangements. However, the initial feedback on night-time runway alternation indicates that it has generally been positively received.

Such initiatives and others are part of the continuing programme of research and studies which the Government undertake to develop measures for the mitigation of noise impacts around designated airports. HAL also undertakes studies through HACC and other groups. Safety must be an overriding consideration, but in a balanced approach, all important factors must be taken into consideration. We have a full programme. As well as consulting on the night restrictions, I hope shortly to consult on departure noise limits and to announce the results of the night-noise contours study.

Most night flights at Heathrow are early morning long-haul services arriving after 4 am. A ban on night flights at Heathrow was given serious consideration in 1976–77. It was decided after consultation to allow night operations to continue while taking steps to ensure that eventually all such operations were carried out by quieter types of aircraft. That has happened, and the noisiest types are no longer allowed to operate. Night movements at Heathrow have been regulated by successive Governments since 1962; their numbers are strictly limited.

It has been the practice for many years to review the night-flying restrictions at Heathrow from time to time—usually every five years. Just such a review is due to start early next year. It will consider the restrictions to be applied for the five years from October 1998 onwards. I hope to issue a consultation paper before the end of the year. I acknowledge that disturbance to sleep is a problem and the measures taken to alleviate it are important.

Weight for weight, modern jet aircraft are approximately a quarter as noisy as the first generation of jets, and half as noisy as the second generation—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.