HL Deb 27 October 1954 vol 189 cc781-802

5.43 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will issue instructions that the type of training carried on at the R.A.F. Station at Abingdon, which involves low flying over civilian houses, shall be suspended and thus alleviate the intolerable nuisance From noise and the potential danger which are being suffered by the civilian population in the area; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I feel that I should apologise to your Lordships for asking you to give your consideration to what I think is a very serious matter, after you have spent such a strenuous afternoon in considering another serious matter; but it is not my fault. I have tried, by every peaceful and conciliatory method I can, to get redress for what I call this intolerable nuisance and danger to a large body of civilians, but to no avail. For months past I have tried to bring reason into this matter by my approaches to the Air Ministry, and it was in desperation that about three weeks ago I approached the noble Marquess the Leader of your Lordships' House. With that courtesy and sympathetic understanding which he shows to all your Lordships, upon whichever Bench you happen to sit, he immediately said he would try and do what he could. After another delay his efforts suffered the same fate as mine, and as I was determined that nothing I could do would be left undone to save these people the misery, the torture and the pain which they are suffering, I put down this Motion to gain an expression of your Lordships' opinion.

I know very well that this is a national problem. If we in this country are to live for the next, decade or longer in a state of semi-armed preparedness for war, if we must house in this country a foreign air force and build up our own, then greater attention must be given to the siting of airfields and the amenity of the civil population than has been the case up to date. My Lords, it was the fortitude and courage of the civilian population that won the last war, and it will be the fortitude and courage of the civilian population that will bring us through the next one, if there ever is one. I do not think the civil population is receiving the consideration to which it is entitled. However, I am not going to deal with the national problem to-day; I am going to concentrate my remarks upon what is happening at Abingdon.

Abingdon Royal Air Force station is occupied by Transport Command, and apart from their operational services they have a type of training which necessitates a noise which is barely describable and is a source of potential danger to the lives and property of civilians. They use there four-engined Hastings and York aircraft, among the noisiest piston machines now in service with the Royal Air Force. They simulate emergency conditions, and immediately one of these aircraft becomes airborne the pilot is blindfolded and sometimes an engine is cut out—as I say, to simulate danger—and the aircraft flies over the rooftops of houses at an approximate height of 150 feet. The instructions to the pilot are that he must ground his aircraft as soon as he possibly can, so he flies round a circuit of the radius of about 6,000 yards; he comes down on the runway, and then immediately goes up again. This goes on consistently, hour after hour, day and night. The aircraft is always going up or coming down; it is always landing or ascending, and it goes round and round, at a height of approximately 150 to 200 feet, to the terror of everybody in the daytime and as a ceaseless nuisance to thorn at night. That is one kind of exercise. Then there is the other, where the aircraft carry heavy loads, such as guns and vehicles, for parachuting in other places.

That, in a few words, is the source of all the trouble caused by these two training exercises. Witt ordinary operational flying the aircraft fly light, and after they have travelled a mile from the centre of the aerodrome they are 500 or 600 feet up and occasion no nuisance to anybody. But there have been times (I have seen this with my own eyes) when one of these aircraft does this training stunt—because it is stunt flying—a mile and a half to two miles from the centre of the runway, when it is still flying at under 200 feet. I will bring before you irrefutable evidence that that is so. Building estates and houses are within 1,000 to 2,000 yards of the centre of the aerodrome. There are two housing estates 1,000 yards from the aerodrome; there is another 1,200 yards from the aerodrome, and a community of some 5,000 people live within 1,500 to 2,000 yards directly in line with the main runway. The nearest houses on one side of the aerodrome are less than 250 yards from the end of the runway. At the other end of the east-west runway there are about 1,000 houses. One main road is 250 yards from one runway, and another is 50 yards from the other. From a radius of 6,000 yards of the centre of that aerodrome there are 30,000 people living, the overspill of industrialised Oxford, men who live their days at the Pressed Steel works, with the noise of heavy presses, or in the machine shops of the Morris Works at Cowley. They live in these humble building estates and are wracked with this terrifying noise all night. I will let these people tell their own stories in the evidence I have here.

Some time ago the north-south runway became out of repair, and for the last three months only the east-west runway, about 1,600 yards long, has been in use. That causes the maximum amount of nuisance, for it means that planes fly over houses within 1,000 yards. Noble Lords will know that Abingdon Airfield has, the natural disability of Boar's Hill, which stands 400 feet above the aerodrome within 3,000 yards of it, and as residents will say, these planes go up and come down literally skimming the rooftops. Because it got so bad, local residents raised a petition which, on their behalf, I forwarded to the Secretary of State. It was couched in this language: I feel I ought to inform you of the really desperate conditions affecting the health of the inhabitants of Frilford Heath through the continual roar of high-powered planes flying as low sometimes as 200 feet high. Personally I am often awakened at night by the fearful noise and literally the house (well built) shakes, not only at night but in the day. My wife and other women living in the district are nearly driven crazy by the terrible noise and frightening effect of these machines which seem as if they will hit the chimneys or rooftops. That petition was signed by the principal residents of Frilford Heath. It had just as much effect as any other protest. I have here a letter from the Rector of Dry Sandford, which is the village and housing estate directly in line with one of the runways over which these roaring monsters, with throttles full open, fly just over the rooftops. The letter says: I am frequently alarmed as … large planes skim over very low. For myself I find the noise the worst part, but some residents are in real fear and will duck as the plane goes over. Ceilings are cracking, babies are unable to get their rest and older children are unable to do any homework at all. That letter is from the Rector. I have a list of residents who complain of sleepless nights. They are unable to get their rest, and their little houses are suffering deterioration.

I have here, too, particulars of someone who has had to build a sound-proof room in his house to keep his wife's sanity. Fortunately that particular gentleman is very wealthy and can afford to do that; but these other artisans of whom I tell you are kept with their nerves on edge, working all day with thousand-ton steel presses and having to put up with this intolerable noise all night. I have in my hand a letter from the Matron of Abingdon Hospital appealing for something to be done. This is what she says: There are always nearly fifty patients and eighteen resident staff. During the day ill patients having been given sedatives for the relief of pain are often prevented from resting or disturbed from sleep by the appalling noise. In this hospital there is a tuberculosis clinic, and this is what the Matron says: Physicians cannot examine patients' chests using a stethoscope, being unable to hear a sound above the roar of the planes' engines, and the night staff cannot sleep. In the late evening patients and staff are again prevented from resting. Peace and quietness is so essential to patients who are very ill in order that sedatives may ease their pain and enable them to get much-needed rest. Of the planes she says: Their present course invariably takes them straight over the middle of the ward blocks. I have also a letter from the Matron of the Warren Maternity Hospital, in Abingdon. Both these hospitals are nearly two and a half miles from the centre of this aerodrome, just about within the 6,000 yard radius I have mentioned. This Matron says: I am writing on behalf of the patients and staff of this hospital, hoping that you may be able to help in the matter of low-flying aircraft. As you will understand, mothers, both in labour and during their lying-in period, need absolute rest and quiet; also the staff, which at the moment, as in all hospitals, is very depleted. The few of us who have to work in the day get very little sleep at night, owing to planes flying so low that it is possible to see some of the crews in them. As I write this a plane flew so low the shadow was shown in this room.

Now here is a letter from the Matron of Dr. Barnardo's Home at Frilford Heath: The aeroplanes fly very, very low over the house, causing a great deal of vibration. We have here fifty small children, aged two months to five years, and twenty young student nurses, as well as our staff. The children are often frightened when the planes come over so low, and they cannot hear themselves speak or the voice of their nurse. This happens very frequently, and of late we have found night flying very disturbing. There is yet another letter that I should like to quote, for it comes from a gentleman known to a number of noble Lords, the headmaster of Cothill House preparatory school, where a great many of your Lordships, I believe, once went. He writes in very strong language. I will just quote to your Lordships one paragraph: The R.A.F. attitude seems to be that the large civilian population don't count, and can be ignored, and that they must weakly and meekly put up with what is for most of us an intolerable condition of affairs. … As headmaster of this boys' preparatory school, of over 100 boys (and the school was here long before any aerodrome was thought of) I know full well what a big nuisance and menace this low flying is. … Surely there are more suitable aerodromes placed in a less populated area. Another letter which I have received is from a man who tells me that his wife gets into a state of collapse and nervous distraction during these performances. Another correspondent who lives next door to the City of Oxford Old People's Home writes that the only people who can live there in peace are those who are afflicted with deafness. My Lords, is it not incongruous that in this country, at this time, the only people who can live in peace in this neighbourhood are those who have one of the worst afflictions from which humans can suffer—that is, deafness?

I have a further letter here (and it is the last one to which I am going to refer); in which my correspondent speaks in terms of affection of "that great man Glyn" and the great work done by him. The noble Lord, Lord Glyn, who is now sitting opposite me, was once Member of Parliament for that area. My correspondent says that he got this nuisance abated and received an undertaking that it would not occur again. What can be done, now that the noble Lord has been transferred here from another place—to the great gain of all your Lordships, but to the terrific loss of the people of that district? My correspondent says that the trouble is worse than ever. I can assure the noble Lord that he is still held in the greatest respect and affection in that district.

Is the answer of the noble Earl who is to reply to me going to be that this kind of training cannot be done anywhere except over a population of 30,000 people? May I make it perfectly clear that I agree that this training is necessary—it is not for me to question that for a moment. What I do question most sincerely is whether it cannot be carried out in a less populous district. As I have said, within 6,000 yards of this place there are 30,000 people, mostly artisans who have to work all day. These people are not exaggerating in the complaints they make. One woman tells me that it is a most terrifying experience for housewives to see these monsters with four engines, sometimes blazing full out, coming right at them as they work in their kitchens. Surely something could be done! But up to date all the efforts have been of little avail, and I am forced to the conclusion that somewhere—I hope your Lordships do not think I am exaggerating—there is a curious indifference to the suffering of these people. For while most of these things are known, no trouble has been taken to find out the true depth of the sufferings of the individuals affected.

The contempt which the Air Ministry show is exemplified in something which appears in a recent edition of the Oxford Mail. It is there recorded that the Air Ministry have sent a letter to the honourable gentleman who is Member for the district saying that the Ministry reject all protests and that this nuisance will go on. And the Ministry have done this knowing that this Motion was down for debate in your Lordships' House. Such is their contempt for Parliament that they make their decision before the case has been put to the Government Front Bench! That is their whole attitude. And that is what the local people complain about. They are not even considered in this matter. I can tell your Lordships of it from my own personal experience: I have an interest in it, for I am one of the 30,000. I say that it is monstrous that this should continue.

We have just debated a subject arising from the Crichel Down affair. When Sir Andrew Clark's Report was published, the Prime Minister set up a Committee of Inquiry to inquire into certain matters. That Committee published a Report which inspired Sir Edward Bridges, the Head of the Civil Service, to write a letter of directive. In it he said this: The circumstances that led up to this Report have brought forcibly to their Lordships' attention,"— "'their Lordships" being the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury— as to that of the country as a whole, the need for constant vigilance to ensure respect for the rights and feelings of individual members of the community who may be affected by the work of Departments. The confidence of the public in the administration of Government Departments depends upon this vigilance. My Lords consider that this most important consideration could not be better expressed than in the words of paragraph 3 of the Report: 'In present times the interests of the private citizen are affected to a great extent by the actions of civil servants. It is the more necessary that the civil servant should bear constantly in mind that the citizen has a right to expect not only that his affairs will be dealt with effectively and expeditiously but also that his personal feelings no less than his rights as an individual will be sympathetically and fairly considered.' The letter ends: My Lords strongly endorse this view and direct that the attention of all grades of the Service should be drawn to it.


What is the date of that letter?


I have not the date here—I am quoting an extract from The Times. It was some time within the last month.

I do not suppose it would be within the authority of the Head of the Civil Service to send a similar letter to uniformed ranks of the Services. But I think that this needs saying: that, from the Marshal of the Air Force downwards, they are just as much civil servants as the most humble clerk who sits in the Air Ministry behind a desk and whose only uniform is a civilian suit. The fundamental root of this trouble is that that is not appreciated. I do not think I need say any more. This is a case in which I can only hope that the pre-judgment of the Air Ministry can be altered, and I would appeal to the noble Marquess who leads your Lordships' House. This is a desperate situation. Surely it is not necessary for the sick to be racked on their beds at night. Surely it is not necessary for mothers in childbirth and for artisan workers to suffer this noise and this intolerable nuisance at night. Surely that aerodrome can be used for some other and less noisy purpose and this training done elsewhere, so that some sense of peace and quietness may be brought to a neighbourhood that is really distressed. I beg to move for Papers.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to intervene for a short time because this matter was frequently brought to my attention during the years I was Member of Parliament for Abingdon. During all that time I received the utmost co-operation, so far as it was possible, from the Air Ministry and the officers commanding the station. My honourable friend the present Member for Abingdon has taken up this case, as I did. Every day I had piteous appeals from schoolmasters and other people who found difficulty in carrying on their work because of the nuisance of aircraft flying very low. I had the most courteous attention from the Air Ministry, and over and over again matters were adjusted to try to improve the situation, which in many ways was intolerable. Therefore, I am very much astonished to learn from the noble Lord that in his view there has been a change of attitude of those in authority, because it is something which I certainly never experienced. I found the utmost co-operation in trying to make things less difficult.

I understand that in another place today an answer was given to the honourable Member for Abingdon by the Under-Secretary of State for Air, undertaking that the north-south runway will be in commission again in about a fortnight. No doubt that will tend to improve the position. But the real difficulty is that this training has to be done, and that round this airfield, the building of which I well remember, the authorities have allowed a large number of bungalows and houses to be built. In my view, they should not have been allowed near the airfield. Since the day the airfield was built the type of aircraft has completely changed. It is a fact, as I have seen myself, that windows have been broken and ceilings damaged. Life for people in that district is well-nigh intolerable. I appreciate the difficulty of the Air Ministry in finding a suitable place where this training can be carried out. I am sure that the present Member for Abingdon cannot be satisfied with the position, when so many of his constituents are suffering daily and nightly, but at the same time I think it necessary to emphasise that this training is vital if we are going to have an efficient Air Force. There are certain satellite airfields which during the war were attached to Abingdon and which are now on a care and maintenance basis. I know two of them which are right in the country, with no houses near them, and I often wonder Why this particular sort of training could not be conducted on these more isolated airfields.

It is the constant taking off and landing which is the real difficulty of people living nearby. There is no question that it affects people's nerves. I know it is the wish of the Air Ministry, as it always has been, that there should be the utmost co-operation between the civil population and the Air Force, and we do not want a feeling of dislike, or even worse, to grow up; but undoubtedly there is a feeling in the district that the authorities do not care sufficiently for their condition. It is not only a question of Abingdon; there are other places in the country where this is the case, and it is no good pretending that this curse is only at Abingdon. Over £30 million have been voted this year for new airfields and for the adaption of existing fields. I think it would be great comfort to my late constituents, and I hope to the present Member, if the noble Earl who is to reply could say that a survey would be taken to see whether these particular noisy exercises could be carried out from the isolated stations where there are no houses in the immediate vicinity, without in the least diminishing the efficiency of the Air Force. I believe we are spending £60,000 this year on surveys alone. Possibly some of that money might be spent on making a survey of existing airfields or of those on a care and maintenance basis to see whether some of the exercises could not be there transferred.

There is one other point which I feel I am in honour bound to mention. I have seen the petition that was sent to the Member of Parliament for Abingdon, as was the right course. The honourable Member has taken every step to relieve the feelings of the local people, which are strained almost to breaking point. It is all very well to deal with this matter in an impartial way, but if one lived there and saw the children's nerves suffering, or if one had to stop teaching in the local school because one could not make oneself heard, one would feel strongly about the matter. That sort of life for young people and women is very bad, and I know the opinions the doctors have given.

I believe that nobody appreciates the difficulties more than the Royal Air Force and that the Air Ministry will do all that they possibly can. But one of the problems has always been for the Member of Parliament to convince the people there that the Air Ministry do care about the position and are anxious to improve the situation. As is known to your Lordships, this airfield is being used for training parachute troops. I wonder whether there could not be a re-assessment of the use of our airfields so that those around which houses have grown up (even through a mistake of the planning authority, as I think) need not be used for this type of training. I have had vast correspondence with the professors and dons who live on Boar's Hill. Boar's Hill, as the noble Lord has said, is some 400 or 500 feet high, and when aeroplanes are circling it is a difficult task to clear the hill, a matter which is only too obvious to some of the professors who live on it. Whilst one is grateful to the noble Lord for raising this matter, when all is said and done, I think it is a matter for the Member of that constituency. I should hate it to be thought from this debate that the Air Ministry are not determined to do all in their power to alleviate this difficulty and bring peace to many honourable people.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I still have some association with Oxford and I have had representations made to me about this matter. I am sorry I was called out while my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth was speaking, and therefore I hesitate to add anything at all. But I have been told by people on whom I can place complete reliance that the burden of this noise is very trying for them, particularly because it goes on at night. We live in the sort of world we do: we all know that we must have an Air Force, and that that Air Force must train its men; we must be realists about this. But I do feel it is most important that the Air Force and the Air Ministry should maintain and retain the confidence of the public. I think the corollary to that is this: that the public should be satisfied that the Air Ministry are appreciative of the trials which they are undergoing and are doing all they possibly can to remedy the position.

On would have thought—I speak as a child in these matters—that these night flying and low flying exercises might take place over some aerodrome where there is not a vast number of people congregated. My experience as a Minister taught me that Ministries are sometimes amenable to a little pressure. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth has raised this question. It was not, I am sure, raised in any sense of trying to take the matter out of the hands of the Member of Parliament, but rather to reinforce and strengthen his evidence, that we have "had a round" in this House. I hope the Minister who is going to reply will realise that these people have a real grievance and that this is causing real distress; and if he can do anything to alleviate the position by representations he can make to the Air Ministry, those people will be grateful. Those of us to whom representations have been made have done no more than was our duty in passing those representations on to your Lordships' House.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I will not keep your Lordships more than a moment. I rise merely to put one point to the noble Earl who is to reply, and I hope that my noble friend who opened the discussion will not think I am in any way trying to minimise the problem, so far as Abingdon is concerned, if I put it on a somewhat broader basis. In 1936 a committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Lord Gorell to go into the general question of noise created by flying aircraft. They issued a unanimous Report. That Report has never been heard of since. I mention this matter merely as a matter of historical interest and to warn my noble friend should he be promised a committee of inquiry.

6.23 p.m.


My Lords, I will detain your Lordships for only a few moments. I spoke on this subject in your Lordships' House some time ago, and naturally when this sort of thing takes place I am communicated with. I have just had a long communication, which no doubt others of your Lordships have received, in regard to Gatwick Aerodrome. We are all suffering from this desire to go everywhere at the most frightful speed. It cannot matter, in the least, if I fly from America to this country, whether I get to my destination an hour and a half sooner. My noble friend Lord Glyn has just said that this large sum is going to be spent on surveying sites for new aerodromes. I feel that they should go to some of these other places. I will show them where they can go where they will disturb nobody, and they will not upset the agricultural population or disturb agriculture. Where you have downland with a few old sheep about, and a rabbit or two, you can fly up and down and not hurt anybody. Then there is all the heathland round about Sunningdale, near the golf course. You could have an aerodrome there and upset nobody at all. For goodness sake make these new sites for aerodromes on places of that sort. And I do not think they will cost anything like as much as if you go into thickly populated areas like Gatwick and the place mentioned by the noble Lord who moved the Motion. I hope that sites will be the paramount objective of the surveyors when they are going into the question of new aerodromes.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air, I have been asked to reply to the Motion which has been moved this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. Before I deal with the individual remarks and complaints which the noble Lord made, I think it may be of general use to the House if I endeavour to explain briefly the rôle of Abingdon Airfield, which was opened in September, 1932, and has been continuously in operation ever since. It was, I understand, in November, 1945, that a review was undertaken by the Air Ministry of all airfields in the United Kingdom. In their wisdom, they decided to retain Abingdon as a peace-time base and thereafter to equip it with every modern facility which is necessary for day and night flying. The airfield, as such, has, I am informed, not been developed since the war: an undertaking to this effect which was given to the Oxford Preservation Trust in 1950 has, in fact, been faithfully fulfilled. There are, as the noble Lord said, two runways on this airfield, the north-south one of 2,200 yards, and the east-west one of 1,600 yards. The longer runway was laid down in line with the prevailing wind and, therefore, that north-south runway is used far more often than the east-west runway.

I have also been advised—this is a technical matter, but it is of some importance in answering the question of the noble Lord—that both these runways were originally sited so that in their approach and take-off aircraft would be pointed over open country. Since 1932 the population within 6,000 yards of the runway has increased from 16,000 to 29,000, but I have been told that the new buildings which have resulted from the increase in the population show that there are few additional houses in line with the runway. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Glyn has just said, the houses which have been built to house this increased population were presumably built by contractors and local authorities, whoever they may be, with full knowledge that they were in close proximity to an airfield.

This base of Abingdon is one of Transport Command's main operational airfields, and the pilots of the squadrons that are based there are highly qualified and fly over many of the overseas air routes. But, in addition, those pilots are called upon to fly aircraft for parachute exercises, to which the noble Lord referred. Let me say, in passing, that that is the only time that any of the aircraft fly fully loaded—indeed, they have to, if they are to have parachute droppings. On the airfield at the moment there are two squadrons of four-engined Hastings, which are machines, I am advised, used for normal operational purposes and for these exercises, too. Their pilots are called upon to carry out monthly training exercises in order that they may retain the high standard of competence for which they are well-known.

Now this training, which has been the basis of the trouble as I understand it, consists first of simulated engine failures on take-off, which involves three flights in every twenty-four hours. The second course of training is the overshoot and break-off with four engines, which involves sixteen flights in twenty-four hours. There is also the instrument take-off exercise. Let me make this quite clear. I think it would be generally and universally agreed that low flying training and practice form an essential part of the skill of these operation pilots. But the fact is that low flying does not take place and cannot occur at the whim of any individual pilot. In point of fact, Queen's Regulations lay down that flying is not to be done at less than 2,000 feet unless it has been specially authorised and, if planes have been specially authorised, the place which is approved for this low flying will have received the approval of the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief and the Air Officer of the Control Centre. The questions of disturbance in hospitals, of private individuals and, indeed, to pedigree herds of cattle, are all taken into consideration by the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief and the Air Traffic Control Centre.

Let me now deal with the grounds of complaint which were made by the noble Lord. He will forgive me if I say that the situation probably may be bad. Many of us who live near aerodromes probably suffer from this inconvenience, but I am bound to admit that I thought he painted a somewhat exaggerated picture. The noble Lord originally complained of noise from aircraft by day and night when the east-west runway is in use. That he did in January of this year. My noble friend the Secretary of State wrote to him in February, and that reply appeared to satisfy the noble Lord, because no further complaints were made by him until the middle of August this year, when much correspondence has since transpired between the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and the Under-Secretary of State. That may be due to the fact that, since August, the north-south runway has been undergoing repair, but, as my noble friend, Lord Glyn, pointed out, it will be operating again in the middle of November. We are all agreed that the north-south runway should be used in preference to the east-west runway, but I should not like, by saying that, to suggest that it may always be possible to do so. Nevertheless, my noble friend will do his best to see that the north-south, the longer, runway is used, but, naturally enough, he cannot give any definite or firm guarantee.

From August onwards, until the noble Lord who moved this Motion discussed the matter with the Leader of the House, there have, as I have said, been continuous letters from the noble Lord opposite in which he said he was trying to get redress from the Air Ministry and my noble friend. In almost every complaint that he has made, my noble friend has done his best to meet him, and has in many cases met him. Let me give the noble Lord indications. He said that the east-west runway had been used when the wind direction would have allowed use of the north-south runway. That, the noble Lord knows, is disputed by the station commander and my noble friend. The noble Lord complained that aircraft went over his house at a dangerously low level. My advice is that, except for taking off and landing, no aircraft is allowed to fly at less than 500 feet, and that it can only fly at that height if the proposals have been approved in the manner and the way in which I have outlined.

Then the noble Lord wrote again at the end of August complaining about low-flying aircraft at night, saying that the airfield is ill-sited for Service use, and that this flying which is carried out at Abingdon should be discontinued. There was a letter which he addressed to my noble and gallant friend, and what happened? It was decided to send down the Under-Secretary of State for Air, who visited the aerodrome at Abingdon, and also visited my noble friend at his house nearby. On this occasion the noble Lord asked for night flying to be reduced during the period when the north-south runway was being repaired. That was in September, and the House will notice that the noble Lord has now gone so far that he asks for it to be completely suspended henceforth and for ever from this airfield. There again, the Under-Secretary of State informed him that, wherever possible, the north-south runway would be used, but that at the present moment, as it was undergoing repair, it was necessary to use the east-west runway. On September 9, the Secretary of State wrote to the noble Lord and told him what he was prepared to do—in fact, everything to assist him that he Could. My noble friend has now agreed that, whilst the north-south runway is out of commission, there will be a limit to the number of nights on which exercises are undertaken to four a week, and for night flying to cease at a reasonable hour. Secondly, he has undertaken that he will restrict the engine failure on take-off exercises to the daytime only. Furthermore, I can give the noble Lord an assurance now that if, in the future, any of these Hastings aircraft are replaced, the replacements will be provided by the Beverley piston-engined aircraft.

May I now refer to one or two of the points which were made in the course of the debate? They are detailed points, but I think it is necessary to clear them up. First, the flying on circuit on the beam, which was discussed by the noble Lord opposite. As I think I have explained to him, aircraft do not do this below 500 feet. They always have an experienced pilot with them, and they are never blindfold. It was suggested by, I think, my noble friend Lord Glyn that the Air Ministry should inquire into the possibility of using other satellite airfields where these exercises and training could be undertaken. I am advised that these old satellite runways would not be able to take these heavy aircraft, that there are no control facilities on them at present, and that there would be a considerable expense in their adaptation. I fully realise, as does my noble friend and, I think, anyone who is connected with, or has any knowledge of, modern aircraft, that people living in close proximity to an aerodrome do suffer a very grievous inconvenience. But, as I think was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, there is, I suppose, no feature in the R.A.F. which is more important than training. Indeed, good flying training is the heart of the whole problem of securing an efficient air force, and my noble friend Lord Glyn was the first to be aware of how vital that is.

I have endeavoured to explain to the House that we have tried to meet every single one of the objections which have been lodged with us, and we have given careful consideration to every point which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has made. But with the best will in the world, it would not be possible for the Secretary of State to restrict further training, still less to suspend it. I repeat again, that I am advised that there is at the moment no other airfield in this country which is available for the two squadrons now stationed at Abingdon. To move the establishment would mean the laying down of a new airfield, at prohibitive cost. I can, however, give this guarantee: that, quite apart from my reporting to my noble and gallant friend the remarks which have been made by noble Lords on this Motion to-day, every person at the Air Ministry is genuinely concerned about reducing noise whenever it is possible and practicable, and efforts are continually being made to see how we can alleviate the distress which it undoubtedly causes to a large number of people.

I would add that I have no knowledge of the 1936 Committee's Report on the noise of aircraft, but if I can obtain a copy I will send it to the noble Lord. In conclusion, I hope that the noble Lord who moved this Motion will appreciate how necessary it is for the members of the Royal Air Force and for the general public to live on friendly terms close to one another. I hope that nothing that I have said to-day, and that nothing that the noble Lord will say in the course of his reply, will make difficult the continuance of that close co-operation in the future.

6.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for his courteous reply. I knew that I should get that. Your Lordships have never had anything other than courtesy from the noble Earl when he replies on behalf of the Government, but I hope he will forgive my saying that some of the information that he has given your Lordships is entirely wrong and misleading. I do not put the responsibility for that upon him—I will tell your Lordships why, in a minute. I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Glyn, for his support. May I say this, in reply to what has been said? The Member for North Berkshire who sits in another place and I have worked in the closest co-operation. He has used every effort, but he has received the same blunt refusals that I have. The noble Earl, Lord Munster, said that concessions had been made. The concessions that have been made do not add up to a row of pins. Admittedly the Secretary of State, before he left for North America, made arrangements that there would be no night flying on Wednesday nights. What he did go on to say in his letter to me, however, was that it would be intensified on every other night, with the net result that we, rather like the humble servant girl, get a night off but have to endure the penalty longer on other nights.

The noble Earl talks about the north-south runway. The north-south runway is coming into operation again in a fortnight's time and the poor people at Dry Sandford, Wootton and Cumnor (where there has been, an increase in population of 3,000 to 4,000 since the date the noble Earl mentioned, when this survey was made; there is the housing estate of the Abingdon Rural District Council which has just been completed; there have been two further housing estates built upon the perimeter by the Abingdon Borough Council and one is just being completed) will have to go through this all over again. The noble Earl says that the only time that these aircraft fly at less than 500 feet is when they are either going up or coming down. If he will forgive my saying this, with great respect—I do not saddle him with the responsibility of making that statement—that is a thoroughly misleading statement and I will tell your Lordships why. On this what we call "circuits and bumps" exercise—that is, the blindfold and engine cutting out—the pilot gets instructions that, as soon as he is airborne, those simulations are put into operation and he has to land his aircraft as soon as he can. So he never gets up above 200 feet. He is always going up and coming down. He goes on doing this all night. He never gets higher than about 150 to 200 feet. So it is useless for my noble friend, with great respect, to say that they never fly at under 500 feet. It is one of those circumlocutions—


I must interrupt the noble Lord for a moment. He is doubting everything that I said to him about the flying of these low-flying aircraft.




I am talking about low-flying aircraft which are not allowed to fly at a height below 2,000 feet unless the procedure and the place is passed by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief. If there are training exercises going on, the aircraft might be going up and coming down again, not getting to 500 feet. But do not let the noble Lord think that aircraft other than those which are going up and coming down fly at below 500 feet.


The noble Earl could not have heard what I said in my opening speech. It is those aircraft about which we complain. It is not the normal work of Transport Command, when they are on operational flying, because those aircraft leave the runway and within a mile have attained a height of 600 feet. Then as regards the visit of the Under-Secretary of State, it is true that he came to see me. He arrived at Abingdon aerodrome at 10.30 in the morning; he came to see me at 12.30; we had lunch and he left at 2.30. While he was at my house, from 12.30 to 2.30, not one aeroplane came anywhere near. I said to him: "Fancy coming down to investigate a problem and you have not seen even the beginning of it!" He left to fly back to Hendon at 2.30 and from 3 o'clock onwards hell was let loose. I happen to know the facts.

Then the noble Earl talks about "overshoot"—the most terrifying thing that could possibly happen. These four-engined monsters come down and a pilot overshoots the runway. He comes up over these small houses, does a quick "bank" out of the funnel into the circuit, just over the tops of the houses. Really, it is not good enough for the noble Earl to tell us that. I do not doubt his veracity, because he is only speaking from a brief, but those are the facts and I hope that the noble Earl will do something more than he has said. It is no good talking about the increase in population and the bad planning. Those people are there. What are they going to do? Does the noble Earl suggest that these artisans should give up their jobs and move out, and find other work in the country, because it suits the convenience of the Royal Air Force or the Air Ministry to have an aerodrome like this in a built-up area? Does the noble Earl suggest that? There may be bad planning, but they are there; those folk are there.

This is not a political question and it is not a question upon which I intend to divide your Lordships, because I am certain that this thing will be cured; and what will cure it will be public opinion. As the noble Earl says, the last thing that any responsible person wants is friction between the civil population—I wish I could have the attention of the noble Earl; it may be a very funny story he is listening to, but this matter is not funny at all.


I would ask the noble Lord not to exaggerate. Much of what he has said is really grossly exaggerated. There are 29,000 people situated in the vicinity of this airfield. The number of complaints which were received from people in that neighbourhood were almost infinitesimal until the noble Lord started canvassing them on his behalf and on their behalf.


That is an entirely wrong statement.


From that moment a number of complaints have come in. For instance, there was one which the noble Lord made which I hoped to overlook. He was reading a letter from the Matron of the Abingdon Hospital about the serious inconvenience that was caused to her patients when the north-south runway was being used. But the noble Lord originally asked the Secretary of State to use none other than the north-south runway, with even more considerable inconvenience to the matron.


The noble Earl says that I have exaggerated. I have not. I let these affected people speak for themselves; I read their letters to your Lordships. That is their own language, and it expresses their feelings. I altered my Motion on the Order Paper because I realised what would be the suffering of other people when the north-south runway came into operation. The noble Earl has no right to say what he has said, and I hope he will withdraw it.


No, I will not.


I have not canvassed anything.


The noble Lord held a Press conference.


No, I did not; I spoke to a reporter. Is that holding a Press conference? Is that exaggeration? The noble Earl need not lose his temper. I have not lost mine. This is far too serious a matter.


I agree.


And, as I say, public opinion will cure this problem, because you cannot do this kind of thing in the name of the national interest. May I draw the noble Earl's attention, finally, to something which was printed in at least a Conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph: 'Efficiency,' 'the national interest,' 'the public interest': … In truth, these phrases are beginning to acquire a sinister connotation; when they hear them, people ask who is being victimised. We know who is being victimised here, and I hope the noble Marquess the Leader of the House will, as I feel certain he will, take into consideration what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Glyn, by my noble and learned Leader, Lord Jowitt, and myself, to see whether some alleviation cannot be brought about. My Lords, with those words I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.