HL Deb 17 February 1970 vol 307 cc1087-94

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement on the Concorde test routes which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Technology.

"The bulk of Concorde's supersonic testing will take place over the sea. But for a small proportion of tests a route affecting some land areas is necessary for technical and safety reasons. In the light of discussions with the authorities concerned and after carefully weighing the various factors involved the Government have decided to authorise the use of a route along the West Coast. Copies of a map of the test routes, including that along the West Coast, will be available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper office.

"Flying along the West Coast route will not start before the spring. Use of the route will be strictly limited to ensure that there is as little disturbance as possible to the public. If any claims for compensation for damage arise they should be addressed to the Concorde Division of the Ministry of Technology.

"In due course an Order in Council will be laid before the House extending the protection of Section 40 of the Civil Aviation Act 1949 to Crown civil aircraft including those engaged on the test flights and providing a statutory basis for compensation.

"This decision to allow a limited number of supersonic test flights over land does not prejudge in any way the issue of whether aircraft should be allowed to fly supersonically over this country in commercial service. This question is being kept under review and my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade will announce a decision in due course in the light of further information and research on the problem."


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement on the Concorde test routes, and for making available to us the maps of the routes. Although perhaps this is an inevitable stage of development, I am sure that this Statement will be received with wide interest, and possibly also a little concern. For that reason, I should like to put to the noble Lord a few points on which perhaps he can reassure us.

First, I should like to ask what sonic boom tests have so far been carried out by the Royal Air Force over land, and if there has yet been any damage recorded. Secondly, is any damage from these future tests anticipated by the Board of Trade? Thirdly, how do the Board of Trade intend to make certain that the right to compensation mentioned in the Statement is properly known in the areas involved? Fourthly, what length of period is anticipated for these tests, and will they be restricted to day time only? Fifthly, have the local authorities in the areas involved been consulted? Lastly (and I hope I have not gone too quickly for the noble Lord) perhaps he could say whether the development of the Concorde is still right on target?


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for this interesting Statement. I desire to ask him only two questions. Can he tell us at what average altitudes, allowing for climb to and descent from operational heights, these tests will be made and whether there will be a difference in the operational altitudes of the flight tests taking place over the land and those taking place over the water?


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord about the last part of the Statement, where he said that the Minister of Technology would in due course announce a decision on whether commercial aircraft would be allowed to fly at supersonic speeds over land. Do I understand that the Minister of Technology will be able to make such a decision without any consultation of Parliament?


My Lords, I will endeavour to answer the questions which noble Lords have put to me. The first question was whether there had been any flights at supersonic speeds undertaken by the Royal Air Force for the purpose of making tests of the effect of sonic booms. I think the most significant experience in this field was what I believe was known as "Exercise Summer Sky" in 1967, when a number of Lightnings—a dozen or fifteen—took part in exercises over densely populated and sparsely populated areas, including London, Bristol, and I think parts of South-West England. The experience on that occasion—since the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, went on to ask about damage and compensation— was that the compensation payable averaged something like £400 per flight.

The noble Earl then asked about the number of flights and the period over which they would last. As I said, we do not expect them to begin before the spring, or possibly early summer. It is always a little difficult to be absolutely precise when one is engaged in a testing programme of this sort—and it will be appreciated that it is only one part of the testing programme which involves this particular route—but the hope is that it will not be necessary to use this route for more than about 40 or 50 flights, over a period of some three years.

As to consultation with local authorities, there has been consultation with the local authorities and with a number of bodies concerned in the areas which will be affected by the test route. They include county councils in England, Wales and Scotland, Royal Burghs of Scotland, rural district councils, urban district councils and municipal corporations in the areas affected by the route. We have also had consultations with the House of Keys in the Isle of Man, representatives of the Northern Ireland central and local governments, the National Farmers' Union, including the Scottish and Ulster Farmers' Unions, the Farmers' Union of Wales, the Chartered Land Societies Committee, Country Landowners' Association, British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise and the Nature Conservancy, and we hope shortly to have some discussions on the subject with the Welsh Council.

On the question of damage and compensation, appropriate steps will be taken to see that the arrangements for compensation are well known in the areas which may be affected.

The noble Earl, Lord Amherst, asked about the heights at which the flights will take place. I am afraid that I cannot give him a figure for the average height, or any information on the further point about possible variation of height. However, I will examine this point and get in touch with him about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Conesford, asked a question about supersonic test flights over land. This is not a question for the Ministry of Technology. It is a matter for my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, and he will announce a decision on this subject in the light of further information and research in due course.


My Lords, do I understand that the Government have come to the conclusion that they are at liberty to make a decision, not so far made by any other country in the world, that commercial flights at supersonic speeds can take place over this country? Also, that they feel at liberty to make this decision without any consultation with Parliament at all?


My Lords, I have not said that in any way. This is, as I have said, a question for my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, and when he has reached his decision he will no doubt announce, explain and defend it to Parliament.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to clarify this point? The decision that he is talking about, as I understand him to say in his remarks, is only for experimental purposes, whereas I think the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, was referring to flights for commercial purposes. Perhaps my noble friend would make it clear if it is in fact for commercial purposes or experimental purposes.


My Lords, I am not sure that we are not to some extent at cross-purposes. I referred to the fact that my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade will do two things. He will in due course lay an Order before Parliament to extend Section 40 of the Civil Aviation Act 1949, broadly to bring the position of Crown civil aircraft in a number of respects into the same position as the general civil air fleets have been in for more than twenty years. That is the first point. Secondly, he is considering the question of general, commercial supersonic flying over this country. That point is again a matter for the President of the Board of Trade. The Government have powers under Section 19 of the Civil Aviation Act 1968. Those powers would enable them to restrict or prohibit commercial supersonic flights over the United Kingdom. My second reference to my right honourable friend, the President of the Board of Trade, was to say that he has not yet reached a decision about what use, if any, he should make, in the case of general commercial supersonic flying, of those powers which are conferred upon him by Section 19 of the 1968 Civil Aviation Act. That is the position.


My Lords, could the Minister answer this simple question? No doubt he has powers under the Act, but Parliament has certain powers also, and will the Minister come to Parliament before he makes and announces his decision, so that Parliament can have the chance of saying whether it approves or disapproves the decision of the Minister?


My Lords, the position, as I understand it, is that my right honourable friend, the President of the Board of Trade, has power under existing legislation—power of prohibition—and he will in due course come to Parliament and say whether he intends at all or to any degree to use that power for the regulation of commercial supersonic flying. When he comes to Parliament and makes the announcement of his intentions regarding the use of his power, it will be subject to Parliamentary discussion in the normal way. It is a question of what use he proposes to make of powers which are already in his possession.


My Lords, I am well aware of that. What I should like the Minister to answer is quite simple. Without prejudicing what is the right decision, will the Minister come to Parliament before the formal, final decision is made? There is a lot of difference between announcing to Parliament and then giving Parliament the chance of discussing a fait accompli, and coming to Parliament before the decision is taken.


My Lords, I do not think I can give any assurance in any way binding upon this point. I can do no more than bring the point that the noble Earl has raised to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for his very extended answer. May I ask two questions? First of all, he mentioned that three years' testing will go on on this route—or did I misunderstand him? But three years' testing would mean an enormous postponement of the actual commercial flight, if ever it comes to that. Therefore it would make this aircraft even more uneconomic than I think it will prove to be in the end. Secondly, may I ask whether the choice of a route over populous areas would not have been better? Would it not be better for a number of people to experience the consequences of what this slight shortening of the travel time from London to New York would be, if indeed this aircraft ever reaches New York from London in one jump?

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, on the first question which was raised by my noble friend, may I say that the first part of the work will be very largely performance testing of the prototype aircraft 002. That is the British-assembled one. In addition, thereafter there may be use of the route for further testing, and the whole of this would be comprised within the three years to which I referred. From the fact that I mentioned this three-year period one should not make any deductions about any modification at all in the Concorde programme. I apologise for the fact that I did not pick up this point earlier, but the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, raised a point with regard to the Concorde programme. There is nothing I can add to the most recent statement made on the subject by my right honourable friend the Minister of Technology.

The second point, raised by my noble friend Lord Balogh, is a matter for judgment and opinion: whether it would seem better to carry out these tests and this testing programme over a densely populated area, rather than carry it out very largely over the sea, touching upon the fringes of this country and, generally speaking, on relatively sparsely populated areas. The Government have felt that on the whole the route which is now proposed is the one which, taking into account the views that have been expressed in the consultations to which I referred, is the best.


My Lords, could the noble Lord give any precision of time in regard to when the tests will be carried out next April? If a violent noise were to occur suddenly it might cause alarm and anxiety, particularly among children. There are certain activities—for instance, training a child to ride a horse—which one would not undertake if one of these booms were due to come along at, say, 12 o'clock on that day. If some measure of precision is given, I think an advantage is gained.


My Lords, we have looked at this point. In a testing programme of this sort it is not easy to be absolutely precise as to when every flight will take place and to state such a certain period in advance. Sometimes test flights may be required at short notice; on other occasions an adjustment may be necessary, and the flight may have to be postponed at short notice. For that reason we have decided that it would not be the right course to try to announce individual fights—for example by radio or television. We shall, however, arrange for the Press to be informed that test flights will take place within a certain period, and the police will also be kept informed.


My Lords, could the Minister say to what extent this programme of test flying will be complementary to the amount of test flying which has actually taken place in France? Also, has the Minister any information whether the French have similar proposals with regard to this type of test flying?


My Lords, Concorde is a joint programme, and the programme of testing is a joint one, too. Certain tests are to be carried out on British-assembled planes, and other tests on French-assembled planes. A certain amount of experience has already been gained by the French in this regard, and the two programmes of testing are not, as it were, competitive. They are not identical, but they are complementary.


My Lords, is it not the case that the French programme from the beginning has, as arranged, been running slightly ahead of the British programme and that therefore we shall benefit from any experience of this type of testing which the French may have carried out before us?


Yes, my Lords; to some extent that is so.