HC Deb 21 March 2000 vol 346 cc953-60

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

10.1 pm

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the Dispatch Box for what I understand is his third Adjournment debate of the day. That will be good for the CV, if not one for the records. I am sure that he is the master of all the subjects in question.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring back to the House a matter of the greatest concern to my constituents. Many people who live in and around Windsor work at Heathrow airport and for the airlines. Many constituents use the airport for business and leisure travel. We are not anti-airport, but we do have a fundamental objection to the night flights which come over us and the west of London. We want to enjoy good neighbourly relations with the airport, and that is simply impossible so long as we are woken up night after night by the planes thundering by overhead.

I believe it is high time the Government introduced a complete ban on night flights into Heathrow. Other airports all over the world have done so, so why cannot we? Other Governments have ordered their priorities so that the citizen's wish to sleep well at night is, rightly, put before the commercial convenience of airlines. Why cannot we do the same?

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is not one way of dealing with the commercial considerations of airlines and the need of our constituents in Slough and Windsor for a peaceful night's sleep to accept the case for the development of terminal 5, at the price of ending the night flights?

Mr. Trend

The Under-Secretary will know that many people's views on the proposed new terminal 5 are profoundly and unfavourably influenced by the continued obstinacy of successive Governments on night flights. Why should the airport be allowed to expand, with all that might follow, when the Government still compel Heathrow to be such a bad night-time neighbour?

The Under-Secretary will know also that a case will shortly go before the European Court of Human Rights concerning how the decisions are made. At Strasbourg, the Government will have to argue their case in a degree of detail that we cannot go into on an occasion such as this. The Under-Secretary may know that local authorities have a good track record of judicial review over night flights. My local authority, the Royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, has already said that it will seek to challenge any new proposal through the judicial process if necessary.

Does the Under-Secretary not see that the Government bring all this trouble on their own head because, when dealing with night flights into Heathrow, we are still living almost in the days of Crichel Down, rather than contemporary Britain? The man in Whitehall apparently still knows best, but will not tell us why. His sleep-deprivation studies demonstrate any ludicrous proposition that is advanced.

In the absence of other evidence, we must assume that the Government's position is that economic arguments in favour of night flights are convincing, important and should prevail. But what are these arguments? The airport has publicly stated that night flights are not central to its commercial interests, so it must be the airlines. What is at stake for them commercially? I would be much obliged if the Minister tried to answer that question tonight.

Typically at the moment, there are around 15 or so flights a night. Can the Minister tell us, roughly, how he evaluates the economic benefit of these services? How does he calculate the cost of the fundamental disruption to people's lives? Has the Minister ever attempted the roughest casting off of commercial interest, which I expect is minimal, against the human misery that I and my constituents experience every night those planes are allowed to land over our heads, or the cost to the country as a whole of what follows from that mass sleeplessness?

I am sure that a time will come when some Government will realise their proper responsibilities to the people who live around the airport, but meanwhile we have to accept—like it or not—that we are engaged in yet another round of consultation over night flights, a round that has been dragged out to an almost cruel extent. The delay, far from being seen as an act of fairness of the part of the Government, has had the effect of drawing out anxieties and fears to an intense degree in all the communities that live around Heathrow—what one might call misery blight.

The Minister will know that those who live to the west of the airport have already expressed a clear preference for the status quo. That response shows that the strength of feeling on the night flight issue is especially strong in the communities to the west of the airport. Indeed, I cautioned the Minister's predecessor that the odium that the Government would incur from people who live west of the airport for any change in landing preferences would far outweigh any thanks they might receive from those who live to the east.

The Government have tried to present their position as fair, on the grounds of the numbers affected by noise, but that is a false position. Far from there having been an in-built bias in favour of those who live to the west of the airport, the reverse has always been the case. In fact, the difference in scale of the numbers has already been accounted for. The original reason why there was any preference at all was because the noise of aircraft taking off was substantially worse than that of landing. That meant that a benefit was built in for those who lived to the east of the airport and that was the reason for the so-called Cranford agreement. Because of some welcome developments in technology, take-offs are no longer the major problem. Noise from landings is now the major problem. The Government's attitude seems to be that because people on the west side of the airport had the worst of it in the old days, they might as well have the worst of it now that landings are the big issue. I do not understand how or why that is fair.

With the decision already announced at the close of the second part of the tripartite consultation process, to introduce runway alternation for night landings that take place from the west, the Minister will appreciate that the Government have already doubled the area that will be affected on our side of the airport. It gets worse. The deadline has just passed for the third stage of the current consultation on night flights into Heathrow. No attention was paid in that consultation process to the great majority who want an end to night flights or to retain the status quo. My constituents have already been told that the misery of night flights will be extended to two flight paths rather than one, and now they have been asked how much misery they want.

The choice is between roughly three times or more than four times as much noise as at present. My constituents have told me that that is Hobson's choice and that they do not want to be cast in the role of Hobson. Moreover, there is a growing suspicion that in the closing stages of the consultation process, the Government are attempting to set those who live on one side of the airport against those who live on the other.

If one asks the people who live to the east of the airport if they want less noise, of course they will say, "Yes, thank you very much." If they are asked how much less noise they want, they will say: the greatest amount available. However, my constituents have not been given that easy choice. Many of them are inclined to demand that the status quo be retained. I have tried to put it to them that we have a powerful Government who can do as they please. If they wish to inflict added misery on us, that is what they can do.

I have put it to my constituents that if the Government are offering a choice between two evils, the sensible thing to do is to opt for the lesser evil. However, many people to the west of the airport are not prepared to accept that argument. They are so angry with the whole process and the way in which it has been handled that I expect many of them will cut through all the technical jargon in the highly complex consultation paper—which was a disgrace in itself—and reiterate their view that all scheduled night flights should be ended or at least that the status quo should be maintained.

I hope that the Minister will understand the predicament for those of us who live to the west of the airport with respect to the choice that we have been given. I hope also that he will treat seriously those who are not inclined to play the Government's game. We see a trap, and we do not want to walk blindly into it.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the worst happens and the Government use their undoubted powers vastly to increase the night noise over Windsor and its surrounding area. What will happen next? People who have bought houses and moved into Windsor and the surrounding area are aware that they are close to Heathrow airport. Indeed, they are much closer than many other people think. My constituency comes within a mile of the airport's boundary. I cannot imagine anybody moving into the area in recent years who did not know that. People are realistic and they weigh the pros and cons and make up their minds on sensible grounds. However, I believe that they will not take lightly a substantial worsening of the circumstances that will be brought about by the Government's diktat.

Surely those days have passed. Why should people put up with such a situation? The quality of their lives will be diminished and the value of their property may well suffer. Quite reasonably, they will seek redress, and where will they seek it? After 18 months of campaigning on the issue locally, I am sure that the great majority of those who live around the airport understand that the decision belongs entirely to the Government, not to the airport. They will therefore be banging on the Government's door.

Furthermore, my local borough points out that, with road traffic, it is a requirement in law that noise mitigation be available to properties that are subjected to an increase of 1 decibel or more above a predetermined limit as a result of alterations to the highway. Should we not expect consistency with that policy from the Government in respect of changes that are made to the night flights regime; or will someone have to slog his way through the courts to test the position, especially as the proposed increase in night flights over Windsor is substantially worse than that covered by road traffic law?

I ask the Minister whether it is fair suddenly and greatly to increase noise and nuisance for any part of our population? I teased an earlier Minister with the prospect of setting up a loudspeaker van outside his house and relaying the noise of planes landing at the same time and at the same volume as night flights over Windsor. Rather humorously, I thought, I was told that that would be impossible. When I asked why, I was told that it would be against the law. That is precisely my point. If it is against the law in another part of the country, why should it not be so for my constituents?

As a civilised country, we should not allow one interest to affect to such a degree the basic rights of the people as a whole. If the Minister told BA tomorrow that it must rearrange the few planes affected by a night flight ban, it would no doubt protest, grumble and then quickly find a way of coping and rearranging its schedules. If the hon. Gentleman did that, he would at a stroke become a hero to the hundreds of thousands of people who live round the airport. These people believe that they have a right to a good night's sleep. Does he not believe that all the people on both sides of the airport who are afflicted by dreadful noise in the middle of the night have a right to a good night's sleep?

The Minister must believe me. When aircraft are flying during the day, it is sometimes impossible to hear what someone is saying on the other side of the room. He must believe me also when I say that when one is woken up in the middle of the night, it is extremely difficult to go back to sleep because of the continuing noise of the aircraft. I think that I can speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying that our constituents deserve, and have a right to, a good night's sleep.

10.14 pm
Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

This is the fourth debate that we have had on this subject this Parliament. The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) spoke on it in 1998, and I have done so in 1997 and 1999. I unite with his strong and strident call for a ban on all night flights. It is about time that the Government stood up to the airline industry. The 16 flights could be reallocated to times after 6 o'clock, and I do not understand why there has been delay year after year.

In the brief time allowed to me, I shall support the proposed changes in relation to the preferential use of Heathrow's runways at night. It is time for fairness and justice on both sides of the debate. I have pointed out to the House before that 64,000 people live under the runway approach on the easterly preference, and that 580,000 live under the runway on the westerly approach. The latter include my constituents in Putney. The figures are from the House of Commons Library, but I believe that they grossly underestimate the numbers of people involved, given that millions of people in central and east London are also affected by the flights.

The consultation process closed on 17 March. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say tonight that he will alleviate the misery suffered by people living to the east of the airport. I remind him that only 11 per cent. of flights come in over Windsor, whereas 89 per cent. of them come in over Putney.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr.Chris Mullin)

The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) put his case very powerfully. I understand the frustration that he and his constituents feel. My flat in Lambeth—which I readily acknowledge is miles away from Windsor—is also directly under the flight path. Although that causes me no special problem, I know that sleeping with the window open means that I wake up, and that I can hear every night flight coming over. I know that the problem is much worse for people in constituencies such as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and for people in the constituency of the hon. Member for Windsor.

The hon. Member for Windsor was generous enough to say that the policy in dispute was espoused by successive Governments. However, as his speech progressed, I began to think that he was suggesting to his constituents in Windsor that it was only the present Government who were responsible. He was right to say that the policy had drifted for years under successive Governments—the policy to be reviewed in the court case to which he referred was made in 1993. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman pursued previous Governments on this important issue as rigorously as he pursues the present Government.

The hon. Gentleman said that his constituents would prefer the status quo. I completely understand why people in Putney and Windsor would want a total ban on night flights, but that may not be possible, as I shall say in a moment. If a ban is not possible, it seems only right that the pain should be reasonably shared. I notice that the burden of the consultations that have been carried out is that that view coincides with public opinion on the matter.

In his short contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney cited relevant figures from the Library. I do not believe that people living on one side of the airport can be exempt from 90 per cent. of the pain while larger numbers of people living on the other side are obliged to live with it. I say that even at the risk of forgoing the privilege of being a hero in Windsor: I have enjoyed my 15 seconds of fame and I know that it is very fleeting.

I turn now to the ban on night flights and to the consultation process referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney. The consultation document entitled "Proposals for Changes to the Preferential Use of Heathrow's Runways at Night" was issued on 23 November. The consultation process ended last Friday. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that the process of studying the approximately 6,000 responses has barely started. I am not in a position to say what the outcome will be, although I assure hon. Members that all responses will be carefully considered before a decision is reached.

The Government undertook the consultation in response to calls for fairer and more equitable arrangements. That process began in 1996, when the Heathrow airport consultative committee carried out a review of the westerly preference, which has operated at Heathrow since the 1960s. It provides for westerly operations to continue, day and night, when there is a light following wind. Its purpose is to reduce the number of occasions when aircraft take off in an easterly direction over the more densely populated areas east of the airport, where noise preferential departure routes cannot be designed to avoid built-up areas. To the west of the airport, over the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the departure routes pass between the main built-up areas. The airport consultative committee also undertook two trials of runway alternation at night, in 1996 and 1997.

The consultative committee reported its findings to my Department, and it was decided to consult widely on the many and complex issues raised. Ten options for possible changes to the preferential use of Heathrow's runways at night were set out in part 2 of the Government's second stage consultation paper issued in November 1998. Some 2,803 responses were received. Most respondents were concerned to have the least possible number of flights overflying their particular areas, which is understandable, and most—by a ratio of 16:1—supported the introduction of runway alternation at night.

Given that clear response, the Government were able to enter into early discussions with BAA plc, leading to the introduction of runway alternation at night on 19 December. However, the responses to the 1998 consultation on the options for modifying the directional preference at night did not provide a clear basis for reaching a final decision at that stage. People expressed strong views east and west of the airport—just as happened this evening. There was, however, recognition among many of the representative bodies that the current arrangements were not fair and equitable, and that they could be improved. The Government share that view, as I said in my written answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney last November.

The underlying message in the responses to the November 1998 consultation was that fair and equitable arrangements were considered more important than alternatives that would reduce disturbance to the absolute minimum in terms of the population affected. For this reason, we decided not to take forward various options, such as introducing a 5-knot easterly preference at night, and using the southern runway only during easterly operations.

When the westerly preference was introduced in 1962, and for many years afterwards, night-time departures at Heathrow were significant enough to warrant its operation at night. In 1971, some 43 per cent. of night movements were departures; today, the figure is only 4 per cent. We consider that it no longer makes sense from a noise amelioration point of view, and is incompatible with our broad aim of reducing the impact of the airport on the local environment, deliberately to increase the number of occasions on which early morning arrivals need to overfly the most densely populated areas east of the airport by maintaining the westerly preference at night. We made that view clear in the latest consultation paper.

During a typical year under the present arrangements, about 89 per cent. of arrivals between 4 am and 6 am overfly the built-up areas of London to land in a westerly direction. Around 11 per cent. land in the other direction over Windsor. It was no surprise to us that many respondents considered that unfair. The population distribution under the final approach paths, east and west of the airport, is described in the latest consultation paper. By far the greatest number—the ratio is 9:1—live east of the airport. The present arrangements clearly fail to recognise that.

A Government who failed to recognise these fundamentals would be failing in their duty to minimise the nuisance caused by aircraft noise for all communities around the airport. We have therefore invited views on two proposals. The first is to suspend the westerly preference at night after the last departure until the first departure the next morning. Over the long term, that would be likely to result in 64 per cent. westerly operations and 36 per cent. easterly operations.

Secondly, for the same period of the night, it is proposed to put in place a fixed weekly rotation between easterly and westerly operations subject to overriding weather conditions, which would be likely to result in about 53 per cent. westerly operations and 47 per cent. easterly operations over the long term. Either option would be much fairer that the present arrangements.

Night flights formed the substance of the speech by the hon. Member for Windsor. As he made clear, many people want a complete ban, for reasons that I readily understand, and as people made clear in their responses to the 1998 consultations. We carefully examined the arguments for and against such a ban, and I continue to review them. As previous Governments had, we found a need to strike a balance between protecting local communities from excessive aircraft noise at night and providing for air services to operate at night where they benefit users and the local, regional and national economy.

The Government's decision not to introduce a ban was announced on 10 June last year, and the new arrangements came into effect in October. Noise quotas for Heathrow were reduced by up to 20 per cent. Important long-haul services to and from Heathrow need either to land or take off at night at one or other end of their journeys. Many departures from Heathrow are required to take off before the start of our night restrictions and arrive during the night at their destinations. Whether they land here during the night, or land or take off at night at the other end of their journey, they make an important contribution to the economy and help to ensure that London maintains direct daily links with countries that produce 90 per cent. of the world's gross domestic product.

The case for night flights was examined in 1998. It is not possible to attribute economic values to individual flights as they form part of an integrated system of air services. However—and this addresses one of the specific points made by the hon. Gentleman, in 1998—the industry estimated the value of an additional daily long-haul scheduled flight to be between £20 million and £30 million a year in revenue terms, taking no account of wider economic factors. Whether or not we use the services ourselves, most of us benefit directly or indirectly from their contribution to the economy and to London's strong position both in world markets and as a popular destination for tourism. As a trading nation, we ignore that at our peril.

The hon. Gentleman said that many countries had introduced bans on night flights. I have asked about that point, and I cannot find any example of a major country in Europe. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could draw my attention to any example—if not now, in due course.

The European convention on human rights, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, recognises the necessity of striking a balance between the rights of the individual and the economic well-being of a country. States are allowed a considerable margin of appreciation in striking that balance, the need for which has been recognised by successive Governments. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the example contained in the Official Report, 22 May 1993, at column 1061, and I give him no prizes for guessing who was in Government at the time.

The Guardian report on Monday 13 March touched on that issue. While it did not give a full account of the case to be heard in the European Court of Human Rights next May, it was right to say that the court will have to consider whether the Government reached its decision on night flight restrictions at Heathrow in 1993 in accordance with the law and with important and well-established principles. The Guardian was quite wrong to suggest that the Government had failed to put up a defence in the case: we did so in August 1998. The case is important, but it is for the court to decide it, not for us.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends the Members for Putney and for Slough, whose constituents are affected, are not the only hon. Members to raise night flights regularly with me since I became the relevant Minister. I recognise the importance of the matter, and I am anxious to maintain a dialogue. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman satisfaction tonight, but I look forward to pursuing the matter with him and with others in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.