HL Deb 07 December 1955 vol 194 cc1215-30

4.45 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations through diplomatic or other appropriate channels to the American military authorities now stationed in this country in order to mitigate the hardship and distress suffered through noise and disturbance by those who live in areas adjacent to aerodromes occupied by the United States Air Force; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for long in speaking to the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I confess that I do so with a certain amount of diffidence, but in my view it contains a subject of important public interest. I think that the best way in which I can bring this matter to the notice of your Lordships is to give a brief statement of the facts which have prompted me to bring this matter before the House.

The case that I cite in support of my Motion centres upon the Royal Air Force Station occupied by the United States Air Force at Upper Heyford, in Oxfordshire. There, I should tell your Lordships, were stationed for a long time six-engined jet bombers, some of the noisiest aircraft one could imagine. These have now been replaced by even noisier aircraft, by tenengined jet bombers. I have not had personal experience of these latest machines, but I have been informed by people who live in the neighbourhood that the noise from these aircraft is indescribable. It is not so much on that aspect of the matter that I wish to comment, because the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was kind enough to reply fully and comprehensively to a Motion on this subject a short time ago and I do not want him to have to repeat all he said on that occasion. However, the disturbance became so great that the local authority immediately concerned, a parish council, made representations to the commander of the United States Air Force at the station. That was done last May. The letter stating their case, which included a protest from the vicar, who said that it was almost impossible to carry on church services because of the noise, was addressed by the clerk to the parish council to the commanding officer, The council did not receive a reply, but a few weeks after they received a reply from a wing commander of the Royal Air Force, who was, I think, the liaison officer, who wished to make an appointment to see them. The meeting was held, but it was abortive. The wing commander who, as one would expect him to be, was courteous and entirely sympathetic, admitted that he could do nothing about it.

As a result, there was a meeting of the three parish councils concerned—the councils of Ardley, Upper Heyford and Lower Heyford—when the matter was fully discussed. I should tell your Lordships that I am basing my information upon a letter I have before me from the chairman of the Ardley Parish Council, who is also a county councillor for the Heyford division of Oxfordshire, and copies of the minutes. The distressing feature is that it was stated at this meeting that the commanding officer of the United States Air Force base at Upper Heyford said publicly in the village of Heyford, on August 27, 1955, that he received his orders from Washington, and that he could do nothing about the excessive noise. Just previous to this, on July 29, the Upper Heyford Parish Council had invited the commanding officer of this United States Air Force base to their next meeting to discuss the possibility of reducing the noise; and they received no reply. It was then that the statement to which I have just referred was made. As your Lordships can imagine, in a country district in the north of Oxfordshire the statement was received with consternation; the local Press was very "live" about it, and there appeared a number of letters which I do not intend to quote to your Lordships because they were couched in language which I should not bring into this mailer.

I think perhaps the best thing I can do now is not to rely upon my own words but to quote from a letter which I received from a responsible individual—as a matter of fact, he is a retired Admiral of Her Majesty's Navy. He writes to me in these terms: All this disturbance, which thinking people think can be largely avoided with a little forethought on the part of the senior United States authorities ordering these flights, has engendered feelings of bitter and burning resentment in the local population against the Americans generally. This is a most serious matter, as it will inevitably spread and will lead to a deterioration of Anglo-U.S. relations, an unspeakable calamity. With that view I absolutely concur. That is my sole reason for bringing this matter to your Lordships' notice this afternoon, and for inviting the Government to say to whom proper representations from local authorities can be sent, and how they can be received, so that the citizens of this country can at least be satisfied that something is being done to see that their interests are safeguarded. I am not going to suggest for one moment that there is any abdication of the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government to protect the citizens of Britain in Britain; but I think your Lordships will agree that in this country we rest on the principle that the citizen has a right to have his complaints heard, and to have justice done. And, of course, not only should justice be done, but it should be apparent that justice is done.

I am not going to say that this trouble is typical of other places throughout this country. I have evidence that in other parts of the country the relations between the responsible officers of the United States Air Force and the local citizens are of the best, and have been brought to that state by the sympathetic understanding of those United States officers of the feelings of British subjects. As I say, I have evidence that convinces me that this is not typical of the whole country, but even so, in fairness and in truth, I must state that since this Motion appeared on the Order Paper I have had letters from other parts of the country which would tempt me to say that in those parts, too, all is not as we in this House and all responsible people in this country should desire it.

That is the simple case I have to put. I cannot—and I know the noble Lord who is going to reply would not expect me to do so—absolve the Government from an overriding responsibility. The noble Lord speaks for the Minister of Defence, and it may be that he is the appropriate person to approach—I do not know, and I want the noble Lord to tell me; and if not the Minister of Defence, then the Secretary of State for Air. Surely, there must be somebody responsible to Parliament for the Service flying of another nation in this country. In order that I shall not be guilty of exaggerating this matter in die slightest degree, that is all I shall say. I think it is a case that should be looked into. This is perhaps just a side issue, but a number of cases I have given to him, the noble Lord has been good enough to investigate personally. Perhaps he would be kind enough to investigate this case to see whether something can be done to prevent the natural resentment which is being felt at the present time by the local population. In doing that, I hope he will not—as I feel sure he will not—ignore what I consider the overriding consideration: that the citizens of this country should know that through their accredited representatives on the local authorities—the parish councils, rural district councils and county councils—proper representations can be made with confidence to a Government Department which will do something to protect their interests. With those words, I beg to move for Papers.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I speak as chairman of the Local Protection Committee (as it is called) for people living close to an aerodrome. I am perturbed at some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, although at the end of his speech I think he put right some of the things which he had said and which I thought were dangerous, by saying that this was not the general situation in the country. At the same time, I think he did say that there were other cases of the same nature throughout the country. My experience, and that of my committee, is exactly the opposite from that which the noble Lord has brought before your Lordships this afternoon.

Immediately the present commanding officer came to the particular aerodrome I have in mind—and this is typical of what was happening before he came—he got into touch with the local mayor and myself and gave us luncheon. He told us that everything he could possibly do to obviate the noise and the loss of amenities of the neighbourhood would be done by him so far as he could. He showed us rather an amusing film which depicted the situation of the public around aerodromes in the United States, and exactly the same sort of thing was going on there—a man who had bought property found it was worth nothing; the housewife and her children were worried by the noise and could not sleep at night, and all the things were happening about which we are complaining to-day. He said, "You see that in my country where we have these aerodromes the same thing obtains as here."

It is curious that only on December 5 I got a letter from the colonel in command of this aerodrome. I thought he had quite forgotten the complaint I had made to him about the buses running past the aerodrome being filled with his men, with the consequence that the local inhabitants could never get on buses at the most material times for them, which were shopping time, market day and Saturday afternoons. I will quote part of this letter to show the spirit of this officer. He says: … regarding the overcrowding on civilian buses on the Greenham to Newbury run. We have gone into this problem at some length, and although it is still unresolved, the attached copy from our R.A.F. liaison officer will show you the action that has been taken up to this time. I sincerely hope that we will be able to reach a satisfactory solution to this problem. Nothing could be better than that. This officer, whom I am now beginning to know quite well, possesses all the qualities which the noble Lord opposite would like the officer he has mentioned to have. I felt that I had to get up to-day and say a word about this, because I should hate him to read in the Press to-morrow what is, to a certain extent, an indictment of the U.S.A. aerodrome commanders and think that it applied to him. I wanted to be certain that I could send him Hansard, to show him that I had done my best to disabuse the noble Lord's mind of anything that has happened so far as this officer is concerned. As regards noise, the officer told me that every effort has been made to silence planes, as we have been told in your Lordships' House over and over again, but that so far it does not seem that there has been much success with these big planes, particularly the jets.

There is one other point I wish to make. We who live in one of these areas are not only suffering as regards noise but, I might almost say, are suffering also the complete ruin of the value of our property, and I feel that the Government should take all that into consideration. I do not think it is an unfair request to make that this matter should receive further consideration, and that some compensation should be made to thousands of people. I do not believe that the compensation required would be anything very great, taking into consideration the enormous amount of money that is spent.

There is one other matter with which I should like my noble friend who is to reply, to deal. It is rumoured around me and, I believe, in the Press, that certain building schemes are about to be initiated to accommodate American officers and their wives. There are numbers of householders around the particular aerodrome of which I am speaking who would gladly sell, and it seems to me quite ridiculous that an expensive building scheme should be embarked upon when these officers can go into any number of houses within a few hundred yards of the fence round the aerodrome. I hope the noble Lord will make a note of that and see whether there is any truth in it, because it seems ridiculous that such an idea should be in the minds of anybody. I hope that the noble Lord who opened this debate will realise from what I have said that his experience is completely opposite to my experience, that of my committee and those who live near this aerodrome.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said and also my noble friend who moved the Motion. I have a somewhat different tale to tell from that of Lord Teviot. My tale may be exceptional—indeed, I hope it is. I am helped by the fact that his experience with commanding officers of United States Air Force stations has been so friendly and so conducive to results. As noble Lords will know, we in East Anglia have a considerable number of American air stations within our borders. I want to mention a matter which has arisen in regard to one station, and I wish to make two points. A few days ago I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about sending him a letter relative to Shepherds' Grove, which is an American station between Bury St. Edmunds and Diss—I do not suppose I am giving away any secrets by locating the station. I did not send the noble Lord the letter, because I thought it better, in view of this Motion on the Order Paper, to refer to it here. I agree with Lord Teviot's hope that the commanding officer of the station to which he referred in his speech will receive a copy of Hansard, but I wonder, further, whether it might not be advisable to circulate Hansard relative to this debate to all American stations, so that they may know what we in Britain are thinking at this moment. I throw out the suggestion that it might be advisable so that the commanding officers can see what some of us are thinking.

Having received a letter from Sheptherds' Grove, it was fortunate that I happened to be staying last week-end within easy reach of that particular station. I took the opportunity of going to see exactly what the position was, at least on the perimeter of the station, because I did not go on the station. I met my correspondent. This young man farms his own farm, which he purchased about four years ago, I think before the Americans were at this particular station. Like other farmers, he is just on the borders of a fairly large station. Unfortunately for him, the end of the runway where the machines come to tune up is within a very short distance of his house. In his letter to me he says that, on some days, no fewer than a hundred planes tune up on this particular spot. While I was, as I say, passing the station again on the Sunday, I noticed that two American planes were tuning up close to this man's house. They were so close that, if I had been in my youth and using a catapult, I have no doubt that from his garden I could have hit the machines in question. So it can be seen that they are fairly close. The noise, as your Lordships know, is particularly deafening and distractive. Representations have been made in regard to this particular noise to the commanding officer of the station and, rather as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, suggested a moment ago, this man has also suggested that the American forces should purchase his house in order that he might build a house further away from the aerodrome on other land which he owns.

That matter was referred to the liaison officer for the Royal Air Force. Apparently, it is quite impossible and out of the question, because of the cost, for them to purchase houses which are affected on the outskirts of either American or other aerodromes. In the course of my visit, I went to the other side of the aerodrome and had a talk with another farmer within about a hundred yards of where there were a large number of American planes tuning up. I asked him if he was the owner or the tenant of the farm. He said "Unfortunately, I am the owner. If I had been the tenant, I should not be here." That is a serious position, because I can quite understand that, through the presence of noise such as we get from these aerodromes at the present time, a good deal of land outside the confines of the station might not become tenanted At any rate, we stood in his living room and If said: "What sort of reaction do you have to the noise which comes from these planes just across the road?" He said "The exhausts blew a hole in my fence and it looked as though a field of wheat would be fired." I mentioned that to the commanding officer and (I say this as bearing out what the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said) he immediately arranged that the machines should be turned round. That particular matter was put right.

Then the fanner said: "If these machines were tuning up now, you and I, standing in this room, would not hear in the least what the other was saying." If that is happening frequently through the day, it is distractive and, if possible, should be put right. Surely the British Air Ministry and the American authorities can get together in some way so that this noise can be abated. I will come in a moment to the question of screens and other appliances, because I am hoping that the noble Lord who is to reply will be able to tell us that research is advancing and that arrangements are being made so that noise may be cured and the troubles from which we suffer at the moment may not arise in the future. In regard to this letter which I have, this lad suggested to a senior officer, who was apparently sent down to see him by the commanding officer, in reply to one of his letters: "Well, surely screens could be provided which would minimise this noise." The reply he received was that they were far too expensive. I was given to understand that in this particular aerodrome there was a proposition on foot not only to lengthen the runways but to divert a main road which runs alongside one end of the aerodrome. I should not imagine that the cost of providing screens in order that British nationals may be protected in their property from undue noise and the cost of diverting a road and rebuilding it and extending runways are at all comparable. If something can be done in regard to extending runways and diverting a road, surely some sort of screen can be provided or some sort of arrangement made whereby the noise can be minimised.

There is something else which I think is serious. I hope that the opinion which was expressed in this particular matter was a personal one expressed by the officer concerned, and that it is not held generally throughout the American Forces in this country. In the course of discussion on the question of the noise, the officer said to my correspondent—it is not in the letter but he told me this personally—"You know, you are expendable." I have no particular knowledge of what certain words as expressed by Americans mean. I am not quite certain what he was talking about when he used the word "expendable."




"Liquidatable"—I knew it! So I asked the young man: "What do you understand he meant by using the word 'expendable'?" He replied "Well, he clearly told me 'It does not matter what happens to you as long as we can keep out the Russians.'" Your Lordships see the seriousness so far as British nationals are concerned when an expression of that sort is used. I am wondering what noble Lords, standing upon their property in their own confines, would think of an officer of another nationality if similar words were used to them. I hope that that attitude does not prevail because, if it does, we have not only a source of irritation but a source of great risk and annoyance.

I hope that the outcome of this Motion, although not many noble Lords are taking part, will be that there will be established the best co-operation possible between ourselves and the American Forces in this country. It will be a great day when they can leave these shores, and peace will, I hope, then be in the offing. But whilst they are here they must remember the rights of the British people. They must remember that we are not satisfied that our families should suffer this nuisance from their great machines, which create great noise—and a noise that is likely to increase unless steps are taken in the future. We have no wish to fall out with them. We have been allies and friends; but we have been allies and friends with other nations as well. I hope, therefore, that full cooperation can be established, and that in future debates of this sort will not have to take place in your Lordships' House.

5.21 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with considerable interest to this debate. I think we must bear in mind that, whatever is said on this subject, it is impossible at present to reduce the noise made by jet aircraft. Efforts have been made and experiments have been carried out. I can only hope that some of them will eventually prove to be successful. At present they have not turned out to be successful. We had great hopes when the turbo-prop came out that we should have a silent aeroplane, but it proved not to have the power for fighters or for heavy bombers.

I have listened with great interest to your Lordships, and in a way I am sorry to see that the blame for this nuisance is, to a certain extent, being put on United States aerodromes. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the numerous aerodromes in this country, some of which are under the direct control of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, where the noise of experimental aircraft daily is probably far greater than the noise made by the United States aerodromes. Your Lordships will know that during the war we used to have—I think we still have in the Royal Air Force—low-flying areas over which aircraft could carry out experiments at low altitude. There is the possibility that they can now be put to use for carrying out experiments—that is to say, when it is necessary to put the machines through the sound barrier, an occasion when considerable noise is made. Unless it is absolutely operationally necessary, I would suggest that Her Majesty's Government be asked to put forward to the Air Ministry and other people responsible the suggestion that a great deal of the experimental work which is at present being carried out beyond the sound barrier could be carried out over certain areas on the coast. As your Lordships know, at the present speed at which an aeroplane can fly it is only a matter of a few minutes before it reaches the coast from an aerodrome in the middle of England. I realise that certain fuel tests have to be carried out within the vicinity of an aerodrome, but other tests could undoubtedly be carried out further away, in these specified areas.

I have listened with great interest because I know that numerous county councils, borough councils and rural district councils all over the country have been putting in complaints about this matter. I know of one in the Midlands who have, I think, put in a complaint three or four times and have received no satisfaction, and so far as I can see they are not likely to receive any satisfaction Until we can alter this present mode of flight I am afraid we must realise that we have to put up with the noise. I hope that your Lordships will remember that it is not only the United States aircraft which make a noise; it is also those of our own people.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, the last time that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, raised this question he was particularly concerned with the noise made by the Royal Air Force. He has told us that since then he has received some letters from various people. Now he has concentrated the debate this afternoon on the noise made by the United States Air Force. But whoever makes the noise it is equally unpleasant. I am particularly glad that he did not—I do not suppose it would even have entered his head—try to stir up any ill-feeling this evening towards the United States Air Force in this country. When we believe that our individual liberties are infringed by foreigners, it is easy to work up rather more ill-feeling than if exactly the same thing is done by our own people. I am particularly glad that the noble Lord did not do that to-day. I was also pleased that my noble friend Lord Teviot, who has had to leave, bore out and gave witness to the courtesy and the help that he has had from the United States Air Force. I will look into the other two points that he made.

We should be grateful that the United States Air Force are stationed here in this country, helping to strengthen the Western Allies and N.A.T.O. and ensuring the ability of the West to strike back if attacked. If these aircraft and their crews are to be kept at a constant stale of readiness, and that is the significance of the United States' contribution, there must be constant exercises to keep them at the highest pitch of efficiency. In this nuclear age, about which we have talked earlier to-day, that is becoming even more important than hitherto. A force which could fight only after a matter of weeks would be of little use in any future war. The United States formations in bases in this country are here on a 90-day rotation, and during this short time, apart from keeping themselves efficient, the crews have to familiarise themselves with the conditions which operate in Europe. This means that there is a very great deal of flying, and I do not wish in any way to minimise the inconvenience, the sacrifices of amenity and the disturbance which are caused to those who live in the neighbourhood of these airfields. Indeed, they will have the sympathy of all your Lordships and of the Government. But sympathy is not really of much value.

On the last occasion on which we debated this subject, I made a full statement about the whole problem of noise, the difficulties which are encountered and the means which we are seeking to overcome them. In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, I do not think it is necessary for me to cover this ground again, and it seems to me that I have two functions this afternoon: first, to justify the need for this disturbance, which I think I already have done; and secondly, to show that the United States authorities are well aware of the problem and are doing everything in their power to reduce the disturbance to a reasonable level. Certainly it is not true that commanders of United States bases are insensitive to local public opinion—really nothing could be further from the truth than that. United States authorities have shown themselves to be very much aware of the public relations problem and they are tackling the difficulties with the sort of energy which one expects from them.

I have seen one of their Air Force regulations which was dated the end of June this year, in which it is made perfectly clear how seriously they regard flight disturbance. The order is headed Reducing Flight Disturbances that Cause Adverse Public Reactions. It goes on to say that the purpose of the order is that this regulation should outline the practices established to minimise the disturbances of flight operations that cause adverse public reaction. It furnishes the commanders of all flying units with general guidance for dealing with local problems. Succeeding headings are "Importance of good community relations," "Protection of civilian communities," "Check list of protective measures," "Keeping pilots informed," and others. Certainly, speaking on behalf of the Air Ministry, I can say that in the last six or seven years, on the many occasions when noise and disturbance have been discussed with the Americans, no reasonable suggestion has ever been refused; and many times the United States authorities have themselves suggested or devised means of reducing the nuisance. They have shown themselves willing to adopt any measure which was not inconsistent with their operational tasks. Such things as traffic patterns have been altered to avoid centres of population; flying at night and at week-ends has been cut to the barest minimum; running up of engines on the ground has been reduced; and, to take one example, at Manston a large concrete baffle has been built owing to the difficulty of curing the noise by any other means. In some cases the Commanding-General has agreed that, although operationally desirable, some practices should be given up because of the disturbance to the civil population.

Let me give your Lordships an example of this. Operationally, it is desirable that heavy bombers which visit this country—and it is mostly heavy bombers that come here—should practise instrument landings at diversionary airfields, and this entails these huge and very noisy aircraft landing at airfields using a very flat approach path. As a result of complaints at Manston and elsewhere, this practice has been given up, though it is militarily desirable that it should have continued. In addition, the United States Air Force have taken all possible steps to improve their relations with local authorities in this country. Visits to bases and other functions have been arranged, in the hope that greater tolerance on both sides will result; and I pay a most sincere tribute to the way in which this problem has been tackled by them. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, raised the question of an airfield in Norfolk. I had not heard of this until the noble Lord raised the matter and he will not expect me to carry in my head details of every case and every airfield. I will certainly look into the matter and let the noble Lord know whether anything can be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was good enough to let me know beforehand that he was going to raise the question of the airfield at Upper Heyford and I will at once assure him that I will look into it again to see whether anything can be done. The United States authorities will, I know, most gladly co-operate. The noble Lord said that the parish councils concerned twice wrote to the station commander, in neither case receiving an answer, and that the same commander had made statements to the effect that he took his orders only from Washington, and could do nothing about the noise. I am told by the American headquarters that the station commander has no record of having received such letters, nor any recollection of having been asked to meet the parish councils on July 27. The station commander has said that he would at all times be very glad—as would all American commanders—to see deputations from responsible authorities. I have a slightly different version of the remarks which he is alleged to have made about taking orders from Washington. I understand that it was an occasion on which some aircraft arrived from America while the station commander was present at a local flower show. He was then asked whether he could do anything about the noise and replied that the rotation of bomber squadrons was arranged in Washington—meaning, I understand, that the aircraft were outside and he had to receive them.

If there is any doubt I should like to make it clear that although, within agreed limits, the United States Air Force themselves arrange their own programmes of rotational visits, it is the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government, both to Parliament and to the country, to ensure that the citizens of this country are not unduly and unnecessarily disturbed. The arrangement is that the Air Ministry accept responsibility for complaints arising from United States Air Force activities and discusses them informally and in a friendly spirit with the American Service authorities. It is an arrangement that works well and I am convinced that there is no need for further and more formal machinery, and certainly no need for diplomatic representation to the United States Government. There can be no doubt that the noise, nuisance and disturbance caused by these airfields and by the aircraft impose great hardship, but I am convinced that the United States authorities are genuinely seeking to do their best to cause as little inconvenience as possible.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, as usual the House must feel indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for the courtesy of his reply which we always expect and over winch we are never disappointed, and also for the trouble he has taken to go into facts which I thought it only right to give him. I showed the noble Lord the letter from which I quoted. These stories never diminish by repetition. I will have the matter looked into, but I thought it was my duty to bring this case forward because this is the Parliament of the British people and they have a right to have their grievances voiced in Parliament. The tone and tenor of the noble Lord's reply can do nothing but good, and I look for some diminution of the trouble. I will not enter into discussion of the very good suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, but it was one which I commend to Her Majesty's Government. I do not see why a limited number of people should have perforce to experience this dreadful hardship when the bulk of the population get off scot-free. I thank the noble Lord for his reply. It is encouraging in that, so long as the noble Lord has anything to do with this problem, nobody need be afraid of approaching him, because on this occasion, as in the past, he has given it every consideration. I am sure that, though the noble Lord has been unable to mitigate the noise, those who are suffering will be deeply grateful to him. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.