HC Deb 24 July 1998 vol 316 cc1407-14

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

1.29 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

The House will know from earlier debates my concern that Heathrow, while being a great asset to the country as a whole and to the south-east in particular, should be a good and responsible neighbour to those communities that surround it. Both west London and east Berkshire suffer greatly from the airport's environmental pollution, especially in terms of noise. The Government are consulting on the matter, and that exercise will take a significant move forward while the House is in recess.

I am very grateful to be able to raise my concerns before the House rises, and before one proposal in particular develops momentum and we are told that we had left it too late to object. The particular proposal is that there might be a change in runway preferential use at night. I shall return to that later.

My speech may seem complex, but it is necessarily so. It is not an emotional public relations exercise, but an attempt to convince the Minister and the House that we in Windsor face increased hazards to our health and well-being. First, however, I need to make a series of general but connected points.

The Minister for Transport in London will know that I have long advocated a total ban on night flights at Heathrow, and that remains my position. My constituents—indeed, all those who live around the airport—are entitled to a good night's sleep untroubled by the planes thundering in overhead. Other countries and other airports simply do not allow their people to be subjected to such abuse. It is a matter of priorities, and mine is the people in my constituency. The Government' s priority should be the people who live all round the area, and not the carriers and the minuscule number of passengers who land at night.

This afternoon, I want to address what can and should be done in the period, which I hope will be brief, before the Government become persuaded of a total ban on night flights. First, the Government need to be absolutely clear that the main problem nowadays with Heathrow, for the great majority of those troubled by aircraft noise, comes from landings, not from take-offs. This in some measure reflects past successes in curbing take-off noise, and that should be recognised. However, I still find people, even those who are closely associated with the airport, who do not realise that the debate has moved on. Nowadays, landings are the big problem, especially for Windsor and the surrounding area.

Secondly, there is much misunderstanding about the effects of the process of runway alternation at Heathrow. That is also important from Windsor's point of view. I know that the Minister understands how these things work very well, but, for the benefit of those who may not, I should explain that, at any given moment, planes take off and land in the same direction. The direction of plane movement is determined by the direction of the wind. Planes both take off and land into the wind.

Heathrow has two main runways, so when planes are taking off to the west on, say, the southern runway, they land to the west on the northern runway. At regular intervals, while the movement of planes remains to the west, landings switch from one runway to the other, so that planes take off on the northern runway and land on the southern. This affords the residents of west London relief from the noise of landing aircraft. I am pleased for them that they get this relief.

However, the same is not true when the movement of flights is towards the east. That is because of the so-called "Cranford agreement," which means that planes cannot take off on the northern runway towards the east—over Cranford.

When I last brought this matter to the attention of the House, I was able to demonstrate that there is in fact no such agreement. The Minister at the time was Steven Norris, and he had notice that I was going to raise the matter. His officials no doubt searched the former Department of Transport from the attic to the basement, and no agreement was found. The Minister told the House that there was no such agreement.

Before the debate, I alerted the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen)—who represents Cranford—that I would mention the matter again today. Now is not the time to go into it in great detail, but I hope to return to the arrangement—which I take to be a political fix from the past—at some later time.

The so-called Cranford agreement means that, as planes cannot take off on the northern runway towards the east, they have to use the southern runway all the time. That in turn means that all planes landing from the west have to land on the northern runway, the approach to which lines up precisely over Windsor. When aircraft movement is to the east, the planes come in low and noisy over Windsor, Datchett, Horton and other communities in my constituency and others.

Once we have understood that, we can dispel the misunderstanding that east Berkshire somehow has it easy because fewer planes land from the west than land from over London. Roughly 30 per cent. of daytime arrivals come in over Windsor, with 70 per cent. landing over west London. However, because there is no runway alternation, when the planes are landing to the east, the whole 30 per cent. of the landings take place over Windsor. When the wind changes direction and the plans land from over London, no one area is affected for the full 70 per cent. of the time.

Due to alternation, two communities in west London are affected roughly 35 per cent. of the time each. The difference between landing from the east and west is not really 70:30 per cent. If one thinks of the three communities involved—two on one side of the airport and on one the other—the difference is really 35:35:30 per cent. Far from being the lucky partner, Windsor's position is closely comparable to that of the two areas in west London also affected by landing noise.

I come to my third point. I have told the House before that Windsor has done badly from the modern electronic landing system at Heathrow, which now brings in planes with monotonous precision right over our heads—although I recognise that there is a safety gain. I also recognise that, in general, marginal improvements are made year on year in reducing aircraft noise. Those of us who follow these matters closely are grateful for that—even for minor incremental improvements. However, such benefits as may have come to Windsor in the past 10 years have been more than offset by the modern inflexible landing system which I have described.

The fourth point is that we in east Berkshire know without looking out of the window or at a weather vane when we are in for it—by that, I mean when the plans will come crashing in over our heads. In summer and winter, the same weather system that, happily, drives us out of doors infuriatingly drives the planes right over our heads. The west winds bring clouds and rain, but when the wind is in the east, the weather is usually fine and clear. On hot summer evenings—when people like to sit in their gardens or sleep with their windows wide open—and on those marvellous, clear, crisp winter days when people wish to get out of their houses and enjoy a respite from the winter gloom, we in east Berkshire get the full landing treatment, thanks to Heathrow.

I hope that I have shown that the problems created by aircraft landing over east Berkshire are severe, and deserve to be better understood and recognised. That brings me to the pressing matter of runway preferential use at night. As part of their consultation exercise, the Government put forward the idea that current runway preferential use could be reconsidered. British Airways recently put out a press release, stating that there should be a review of runway preferential use at night and that that should test the benefits and feasibility of a switch to 'easterly preference'. I find such a proposal completely unacceptable.

I hope that the Government will not be influenced by BA, or by others, to consider a change in preferences. Windsor is not the lucky partner in daytime landing—it experiences roughly the same misery from landing noise as any other community. That has become worse due to the modern technology used for landings, and it is always bad when the weather is at its best.

Windsor's position would become substantially worse if night preferences were changed. The percentages of flights landing from the east and west at night differ from the daytime figures, largely because of a natural difference in ambient wind levels. Recent figures from the Department show that, between 4 am and 6 am, there is a five-knot westerly preference, which means that the split is roughly 85 per cent. of flights landing over London and 15 per cent. over Windsor. Thankfully, that is better than the daytime figures.

The Government, however, are considering options on having no preference or a five-knot easterly preference for those hours. If the no-preference option came in, my constituents would be subjected to an increase from 15 to 40 per cent. of all night flights. With a five-knot easterly preference, the current 15 per cent. would increase to 80 per cent. or more.

We are told that only 16 flights are permitted to land between 4 am and 6 am, but I fear that the figure is often higher. The Minister will understand that I am using a rough and ready calculus, but, accepting the figure of 15 per cent. for the moment, under the present arrangement, two and a half planes-worth would land over Windsor in those two hours, when we should all be asleep. That would go up to six and a half planes-worth if there was no preference, or to 13 planes a night under the easterly preference. The Minister should think about what that would mean for my constituents.

I cannot vouch for the figures being absolutely precise, but hon. Members should imagine what it would be like if my constituents were woken roughly half a dozen or a dozen times a night instead of twice. It would be monstrous. The present position does not suit anyone around Heathrow, but there is a rough balance of misery between west London and east Berkshire.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that night flights do not affect only the people in his area, but are a huge issue in other parts of London, especially south and south-west London, where large public meetings have been held about this problem? Unless there is real danger, flights should not be allowed to land during the night.

Mr. Trend

I agree entirely—I favour a total ban on night flights. There is a balance of misery between people on my side and the hon. Lady's side of the airport, and both constituencies experience noise problems because we are so close to it, but it would be dangerous and difficult for my constituents if the balance were upset. A switch in night flight preferences would throw the balance out most appallingly; even a rise to 40 per cent. of night flights would bring uproar from the people of Windsor, and I would happily lead them.

Many other communities on our side of the airport would also be affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has asked me to associate her with the views that I am expressing. I know how concerned she is for the interests of her constituents who are affected by aircraft noise. I have also been asked to register the great concern of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and willingly do so. She has told me that any change in night landing preferences would be utterly unacceptable.

I spent some time in the Department, at a more modest level than the Minister, as a parliamentary private secretary at the old Department of Transport. One lesson I learned was that the Government get no credit for improving noise conditions, whether in the air or on the roads. But when noise gets worse, the Government get it in the neck. If the noise gets substantially worse in east Berkshire as a result of any change in preferences, the Minister will have a serious problem on her hands.

The balance of misery is a delicate one. There is nothing to be gained from destroying it, but much to lose. I accept that the airport works hard to improve conditions generally around Heathrow, and the Government can claim that there has been progressive improvement without creating such a dramatic disturbance as would follow a change in night preferences.

The MPs of east Berkshire do not want a change in preference. Our constituents would not tolerate it. Neither do we want to have the no-preference option and then be told that we were lucky not to have had easterly preferences imposed on us. The present position is bad enough, and I implore the Minister not to make it worse. To change night preferences would be unreasonable and unjust.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) on securing the debate, and on the persistence and dedication that he has brought to this topic over the many years that he has given such doughty service to the House and to his constituents. I thank him for his generosity in allowing an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and for assuring the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) share his concerns, not least on the issue of runway preferential use and its alteration.

The issue is noise disturbance suffered not only by the constituents of the hon. Member for Windsor, but by the many thousands, possibly millions, of people who live in and around London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said.

As the House will be aware, a preliminary consultation paper on night restrictions on aircraft movements at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted was issued on 27 February. That consultation invited views on all aspects of the present regime, and closed on 29 May. We are now considering all the responses, and will take them into account in drawing up proposals for the next night restrictions regime. We hope to publish those proposals by the end of September. There will be a further consultation before the decisions on the next night restrictions regime for the three airports are taken.

The present night restrictions regime for those airports was established with effect from 24 October 1993. It proved to be contentious, and was subject to lengthy judicial review proceedings. Litigation in the United Kingdom courts came to an end in 1996, but a case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. I am sure that the House will accept that it would be improper for me to comment on that.

The present night restrictions specify a night period of 11 pm to 7 am during which the noisiest types of aircraft may not be scheduled to land or take off. In addition, from 11.30 pm to 6 am—the night quota period—aircraft movements are restricted by a movements limit and a noise quota, which are both set for a season. The noise quota is a supplementary measure designed to encourage the use of quieter aircraft. Aircraft count against the noise quota according to their noise "quota count" classification.

The quota count system is based on aircraft noise certification data. Aircraft are classified separately for landing and taking off by reference to data that are collected according to internationally agreed conditions and standards. The movements limits and noise quotas are set for the season as a whole; they are not subdivided across the hours of the night or between types of services, and airlines may operate services as they wish within the limits and quota available.

There are two seasons: the summer season—which equates to the period of British summer time as fixed by the Summer Time Act 1972—and the winter season, which is the rest of the year. Each summer season is about seven months long, and each winter season approximately five months. At Heathrow, last winter there were 2,446 movements which counted against the night movements limit of 2,550. In noise quota terms, they amounted to 3,858.5—a somewhat bizarre statistic—against the noise quota of 5,000.

In the 1997 summer season, there were 2,755 movements which counted against the movements limit of 3,250, amounting to 4,274.5 against the noise quota of 7,000. There were also some movements by aircraft that are exempt from the restrictions, because they are so small and quiet, some given dispensations in circumstances permitted under the present arrangements, and some emergencies, which are automatically exempted from the night restrictions.

Of more immediate relevance to the hon. Gentleman is the trial of runway alternation at night for landing aircraft that has been carried out by Heathrow Airport Ltd. at the request of the airport consultative committee. The results were presented to the consultative committee in April, but no formal recommendation has yet been made to the Department. The approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions would be required before runway alternation at night could be extended into the night period on a permanent basis, and may require additional consultation by the Department. We intend to take the subject forward in our second stage consultation paper on night restrictions.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, a westerly preference has been operated at Heathrow since 1962, with aircraft operating towards the west when there is a light easterly tailwind. The purpose is to reduce noise disturbance from departing aircraft taking off over the more densely populated areas to the east of the airport. It also means that landings over Windsor are reduced.

In 1996, work commissioned by the Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee confirmed that, during the day, there remains an overall environmental benefit from continued use of a westerly preference. However, at night, because almost all flights at Heathrow are arrivals in the early morning, the requirement to operate a westerly preference means that those aircraft are being routed over the more densely populated area of London than is strictly necessary, and it is right that it should be reviewed.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My hon. Friend will be aware that, as Heathrow is in my constituency, the proximity of many of my constituents to Heathrow airport means that alternation is irrelevant. During the period of disturbance between 4 and 6 am every night, the noise is of such intensity that their sleep is disturbed and their entire environment is ruined. That is why I support the call by the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) for a total night ban, which is the only way to resolve the matter, as has been demonstrated in the report published this week by HACAN—the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise.

Ms Jackson

My hon. Friend has highlighted a point that was made earlier by the hon. Member for Windsor and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall—that noise disturbance from aircraft is not limited to those who live particularly near the three airports in question, albeit I acknowledge that my hon. Friend's constituency is very close to Heathrow. The issue of bans was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall. There has never been a ban on night flights, although it has been discussed in the past.

Initial analysis of the 4 am to 6 am period by my Department, and recently reported to the Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee, shows that, with the current arrangement of a westerly preference, the airport operates on westerlies for about 87 per cent. of the time. With no preference, westerly operations would account for about 60 per cent. of the time on average—easterly operations accounting for the other 40 per cent.—and with an easterly preference operated, the proportion of easterly operations would rise to about 84 per cent. in the 4 am to 6 am period.

I stress that we have not taken a view on the merits or otherwise of the different possible runway preferences, and no decisions have been reached. There will be full public consultation. More work is needed, particularly on the noise impact of the various options on local communities. We also intend to invite views on modifying the operation of westerly preference at Heathrow at night in the second-stage paper of the current night restrictions consultation.

Mr. Trend

The Minister referred to trials in which planes are brought in at night from the west, of which I was aware. I have spoken about the need for a balance, and about hon. Members receiving no thanks for improving the balance but receiving considerable odium if it gets worse.

If the airport went to an easterly preference, even with alternation allowing both runways to land planes from the west because of low traffic, there would, instead of 80 per cent. landing over Windsor—a rise from the current 15 per cent.—be 40 per cent. landing over Windsor, which is 25 per cent. more than now, and 40 per cent. landing over St. Leonard's Hill to the south of Windsor, which currently experiences no substantial night disturbance. That would mean two angry communities. I implore the Minister to consider the balance of misery. It is unsatisfactory at present, but to disturb it would cause more trouble.

Ms Jackson

I can only repeat what I have said already. There has been no formal presentation to the Department on those trials, so we are not able to take a view. There is no possibility of any kind of change in the areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred without the most thorough public consultation.

We shall invite views on the possibility of modifying the operation of westerly preference in the second-stage paper of the current night restrictions consultation. The hon. Gentleman commented on British Airways' recent announcement in a press release on night-time operations that it supported a review of runway preferential use at night—not alternation—with a clear implication that it favoured an easterly preference. BA is entitled to its views, but we shall consult on the second night restrictions paper, which is due out the end of September.

The hon. Gentleman referred to aircraft landing at Heathrow in the very early morning, from about 4.30 am onwards. That reference is understandable, as such flights constitute the majority of night flights, at present, at Heathrow. They fly across Windsor when the wind is from the east, and they fly across central London when the wind is from the west. I am aware of complaints from both sides of the airport, as well as from all shades of the political spectrum.

The whole pattern of scheduling movements, particularly flights from the Asia-Pacific region, is a significant factor in the present pattern of early morning arrivals. The night curfew at Hong Kong Kai Tak contributed to that, but it was far from the only reason. We do not expect the pattern of movements to change radically, now that the new airport at Chep Lap Kok has opened.

There are very few departures at Heathrow during the night quota period, but some flights take off before our restrictions come into force, and land at sensitive times at other international airports. Any change to night restrictions at London airports that would have significant effects on intercontinental scheduling might have knock-on implications for some of our daytime traffic. We have specifically invited comments on that in our preliminary consultation paper on night restrictions.

We fully accept that aircraft noise, both by night and by day, is a contentious subject. Unfortunately, despite the great improvements made over the past 30 years, it is likely to remain so.

As I announced on 27 February, we are commissioning further research, initially on a trial basis, into the impact of aircraft noise at night. We are particularly interested in the scope for researching sleep prevention—that is, delay in getting to sleep at night—and the difficulties of not being able to get back to sleep again after being awakened in the early morning, However, we must not underestimate the complexities of such research, or the length of time that it may take.

It must also be acknowledged, as the hon. Member for Windsor has stated, that Heathrow airport is a major national asset. It occupies a position of central importance in international trade and communication in Europe, and in the UK's economy.

Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe, and the busiest international airport in the world. In 1997, it handled nearly 58 million passengers, with 35 per cent. using the airport as an interchange point. It is used by more than 90 airlines, serving 180 destinations world wide. It is the UK's largest port in terms of value of trade handled, and it provides 56,000 direct jobs and a further 26,000 indirectly in support services: jobs that benefit people who live around the airport, as well as contributing to the prosperity of the country as a whole.

Successive Governments have consistently recognised the need to ensure that people who live near Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are not exposed to excessive levels of aircraft at night. This Government equally recognise that need. We believe that it is both right and necessary to set restrictions on night flights at those airports, and, in doing so, to preserve a balance between environmental and aviation interests.

I thank the hon. Member for Windsor for giving us the opportunity to consider these issues and to help us, in conjunction with all the responses that we have received to the preliminary consultation, to determine the formal proposals that we shall put to consultation in the autumn.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Two o'clock.