HL Deb 21 October 1982 vol 435 cc278-95

6.49 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Noise in the Environment (13th Report, 1981–82, H.L. 175).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, noise is a difficult subject to define, and difficult to quantify. It is perhaps most simply defined as "unwanted sound"; but whether or not that sound is wanted depends very much on the interest of the hearer in the source. Noise is difficult to measure, but, nonetheless, noise is a form of nuisance about which most people have strong feelings. In noise control legislation a distinction is made between noise in the workplace and environmental noise. Housewives may not be pleased to know that for this purpose the home is classed with the environment rather than as a place of work, but it is a fact that noise intruding into the home often causes the greatest annoyance.

The report which I bring before your Lordships this evening is concerned with noise in this broadest term of definition of noise in the environment. The review of the activities of the European Community in environmental noise control was carried out by Sub-Committee "G" of the Select Committee with the help of Lord Hayter, temporarily seconded to us from Sub-Committee "B". Speaking as chairman of Sub-Committee "G" I should like to record our gratitude for the specialist advice provided by Mr. Nigel Haigh and for valuable written and oral evidence which was given by the Departments of the Environment, of Transport, and of Trade and Industry, the Health and Safety Executive and the Consumers' Association.

In addition we had a particularly fruitful meeting in Brussels with the Commission's Services, chiefly involving the staff of Directorate-General XI but with members of DG III and DG XII also present. A memorandum which was prepared for that occasion by the Commission's Services is published with the report. I should like to express the warmest thanks for this contribution and I should like also to express my thanks personally to the noble Baroness, Lady White, for her support on that visit and to express my regret that she is unable to be present here tonight.

The report has a double function. Its lesser role, in my opinion, is to record the committee's reaction to three recent proposals for directives concerned with noise from different sources; that is, from subsonic aircraft, from helicopters and from household appliances. Its second role, much more important, is to review the whole range of Community involvement in the control of noise emissions in general. As the report shows, since 1973 the subject of noise control has found a place in successive action plans for the environment. It has therefore implicitly received support and the approval of Council. Earlier still, before the adoption of a Community policy for the environment, legislative action was taken in the area of noise control. I refer noble Lords to Annex 1 of our report and also to Annexes I and II of the evidence of the Department of the Environment. These sources provide a useful list of directives in the field of noise abatement, both those agreed and those still in the form of proposals.

The earliest of these directives was 70/157. This had the objective of setting limits for levels of noise emission from motor vehicles and, since it was adopted before the United Kingdom acceded to the Treaty of Rome, it was adopted by our Government on accession in 1973. The point is that this first directive did not originate out of environmental concern but as part of the general programme for the elimination of non-tariff barriers to trade between members under Article 100 of the Treaty of Rome. In fact, as is pointed out in paragraph 11 of the report, to date all Community legislation on noise relates to articles in trade between member states. All directives have been promoted under Article 100, with the aim of providing uniform technical standards for the products in question; that is to say, in turn, four-wheeled motor vehicles, tractors, motor-cycles, construction plant, subsonic aircraft, helicopters, lawn mowers and, finally, household appliances.

I hope that the point is clear because I believe it to be rather important. It is that whether or not an agreed environmental action programme exists—and there have been disputes over the legality of such an action programme—the Community will still inevitably be involved in legislation to control sound emissions of these essentially noisy products which are in trade between member states. From this point of view, I am particularly pleased that we have the Commission's permission to publish as Annex II of the report the brief memorandum prepared for us in Brussels on 6th May last by Directorate-General XI. This is entitled "The European Corn mission's Programme against Noise". I hope that your Lordships will agree with me that this is an important document and that it is a privilege that, through one of the Select Committee reports, we should provide the medium for the first publication of an itemised programme against noise from the Commission.

This memorandum lays out the main objectives of the Commission in a clear and concise fashion. It also draws attention to the mechanism by which individual member states can influence, and have influenced, the Commission's choice of priority in the field of noise control. This is through the operation of what is called the Information Agreement of 5th March 1973, under which the Commission is notified of proposed national legislation in the environmental field and then has an option within a time-scale—in the words of the report—within time-scales that have proved to be reasonably elastic".

Some of them might be considered excessively elastic. The Commission then has the opportunity to introduce harmonising legislation.

The memorandum continues by observing that noise emissions can be controlled in two principal ways. First, they can be controlled by specifications relating to use; secondly, they can be controlled by specifications in manufacture. In comment on the first method of control, the Commission's Services take the view that. in general, specifications relating to the use of a product are more appropriately pursued at the level of national, regional or local authorities of the Member States".

Holding this opinion, the Commission's Services have taken a policy decision to pursue harmonisation at the European or the wider level in specifications to be taken into account during manufacture. This, in effect, leaves the control of use of noisy products to the member states.

In previous debates on Community environmental matters, speakers have often urged that there should be an agreed partitioning of areas of action between the Commission and national or local Governments of member states at appropriate levels. Here is a proposal from the Commission for just such a separation of objectives. It leaves the United Kingdom Government free to take all action such as that already empowered under Part III of the Control of Pollution Act, for instance, for the control of noise on construction sites or in streets, noise abatement orders, quiet town experiments, noise insulation standards in building construction, and so on. Community legislation will he confined to the control of the noise emissions of manufactured products in trade between member states.

I hope to hear from my noble friend Lord Avon that the Government view this proposed division of effort with favour, and I hope that he will agree that it is a useful and proper standard to apply to the level of appropriateness. If so, can we further hope that there will be an improved exchange of information and ideas between the relevant departments of our own national Government concerned with noise control and the Commission's Services? There were certain remarks of witnesses that appeared in our report which gave Members of the Sub-Committee cause for concern at the limited flow of information and mutual interaction between our own departments and the Commission's Services which exist at present.

This led Members of the Committee in the report (at paragraph 71) to make a proposal that, in their opinion, would facilitate the exchange of ideas and of other developments in the field of noise control. It is suggested that the Commission should set up an informal advisory body to review the noise policies of the member states and the Commission. If my noble friend agrees that this will be beneficial I hope that he will ensure that moves are made to promote the formation of an advisory committee.

I am not able in the time available to me to repeat all the remaining conclusions of the committee. They are summarised shortly and tersely in paragraph 78 of the report. But I wish to lay stress on one important issue which I believe affects many people: lorry noise. The rather sad story of the Commission's slow progress towards effective reduction of the noise of lorries—or "heavy vehicles" as they are referred to—is outlined paragraphs 74 to 77 of the report.

Originally the United Kingdom took a lead in the development of the quiet heavy vehicle. As long ago as 1971, the Department of Transport financed research that led to the production of the combined Rolls-Royce Fodens quiet heavy lorry in 1978. This was a real juggernaut of 350 bhp. Yet its noise emissions registered no more than 80 to 82½ decibels, the different results depending on the different methods used to measure the noise emission. I understand that the manufacturing costs were not more than 7 per cent. above those of conventional vehicles of comparable power, and the running costs as a result of a fleet test were of the order of 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. higher, and fuel costs only some 1 per cent. higher.

The lorry perhaps did not totally achieve the target of 80 decibels that had been set by the Council declaration in 1977 and which reflects the United Kingdom Government's own long term target. But its development clearly shows that considerable noise reduction is possible, and that it could probably be further improved by extra R and D effort. In the 1981 White Paper, Lorries, People and the Environment, the Government's target was set for a progressive reduction in the perceived noise from new heavy lorries coming onto the road to less than half the 1981 level".

If I take the 1981 level as being something up to 91 decibels—and I remind your Lordships that noise scales are logarithmic so that to halve this value we have to subtract 10 decibels—that halving 91 brings us to 80 or 81 decibels, which is in the region of the Government's target and also the Community's target. It was also stated in the 1981 White Paper that, The Government will press other European countries to adopt this target".

If I may, I shall ask my noble friend: What has happened to this programme? Can he tell us if further R and D support will be forthcoming? Does he agree that the United Kingdom should not lose the lead which our manufacturers have apparently gained in the research into a quiet heavy vehicle? Do the Government support the Select Committee's conclusion that the biggest and most desirable contribution towards the reduction of environmental noise that can now be made through Community means lies in the quiet heavy vehicle project? If there is anything of truth in the short report that appears in The Times today, maybe we shall have something interesting to hear shortly.

In conclusion, I believe that this report of the Select Committee has produced a useful review of a subject that is of real concern to many people in this country, and to many people throughout the European Community. I hope that our own Government, through Community institutions, will press for rapid and effective action in the matters which we have highlighted. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Noise in the Environment.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

7.6 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I am sure we are indebted to the Select Committee under its chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who has just introduced the report. We are grateful to him for the way in which he has outlined this very detailed report and has referred to its conclusions. We value the contributions made by all those who gave evidence, both in this country and abroad. The subject of course is one of great importance at a time when all forms of pollution seem to be increasing, and the quality of life is diminished because of it. Noise is one of the factors in this because we gradually get used to higher noise levels, and we may not realise the effects of it on individuals and on the local environment generally.

To see the extent of the noise problem, we need to define what "noise" is. I was very pleased that the noble Earl, in his introduction, referred to that straight away. The report refers to it in paragraph 60, which says: Noise has been defined as unwanted sound". This is not the best of definitions as there are many things that we do not want to hear, but they are not necessarily a noise. I think that it might be better for me to quote my own definition: A loud noise which annoys should not be allowed". I think that sums up the position and the criteria which we might look for in studying the report.

While that is a desirable aim, there are noises which not only annoy but can cause harm within the environment and indeed to individuals, impairing their hearing and their health. I should like greater consideration to be given to the health aspects. Although "unwanted sound"—as it is described—is a factor, there are often hidden dangers and hazards for health and hearing. The report led me to look at the Health and Safety Commission's consultation document entitled Protection of Hearing at Work, which comments that, although noise at work has been known for many years as a cause of hearing loss, it is only during the past decade that major scientific studies have allowed a reliable estimate to be made of the relationship between noise exposure and the risk of hearing damage. Although high noise levels exist in many major industries, including among others, construction, agriculture, quarrying, shipping, transport, entertainment and a few others, it appears that with few exceptions no estimate of the percentage of the workforce exposed to various noise levels is available. This is a shortcoming which ought to be rectified soon.

The Health and Safety Commission's report stresses: Noise represents a serious problem", and recommends uniform controls for workplaces. The health factors need more attention. While I am referring to this aspect, may I say that I am pleased that the document of the Health and Safety Commission's Working Group on Machinery Noise, published on 5th August 1981, allowed for consideration and consultations during the past nine months. I hope there will be positive results in the future. I do not know whether the Minister might comment on the possibility of the report of the Health and Safety Commission's Working Group receiving some consideration from the Government and whether he will let us know something about their proposals.

Regarding the committee's conclusions, there are many of great weight and it would be impossible and undesirable in a short debate to go too deeply into them. I feel sure that there will be general agreement with the Select Committee's conclusions. One difficulty was to sort out the priorities on a matter which is not only a national or even an EEC issue but indeed is international. The claim to reduce pollution in the community by reducing noise levels has to compete with commercial and other considerations. Another problem is the practicality of reducing noise levels, because what is desirable may not be technically possible, or indeed commercially acceptable, in a fiercely competitive world of trade imports and exports.

The first conclusion of the committee shows the right priority in that it recommends that the EEC should produce an overall policy to combat noise. This is vital if the most appropriate action is to follow and if the areas for action are to be limited, as they must be. Such aspects as timing, noise levels, harmonisation and enforcement must have their proper place in the overall plan and in this, of course, we should have regard not only to action within the EEC but to those outside, and not least to third world countries. I was very pleased to see that stressed in the report.

Harmonisation is important; research and development will be increasingly necessary, and we must bear in mind also that higher technical standards necessary to reduce noise levels could be costly. One has to balance the interests there. The Community is already involved, as the noble Earl has said, in prescribing noise levels between member states and is concerned about two of the most important areas—those of traffic noise and aircraft noise. I think it is necessary that the EEC should enforce noise levels agreed by members and should also comply with other bodies such as ICAO. So there is a need for a comprehensive approach which cannot be underestimated.

Paragraph 70 of the report suggests that the EEC's Second Action Programme accepts certain actions where appropriate at Community level and some at other levels, two—national, regional and local. There must he co-ordination of the work and a decision taken as to who will ensure it. This is another important point, because there must be some responsibility of Governments or other bodies in industry, trade, local authorities, transport and other interests. It cannot be left without some authority to shape it up and get it moving.

Recommendation No. 3, regarding an advisory committee to keep the EEC informed of activity in member states and to ensure direction of an orderly development of the EEC anti-noise programme, is most desirable. I think that efforts must be made not only to ensure that there are no gaps but also that overlap of effort is avoided. Technically, this could cost huge sums if, unknown to one another, companies and countries are pursuing similar research and development programmes at the same time.

A fair amount of legislation in the United Kingdom concerning noise has already been produced. I would remind the House that the Wilson Report was issued in 1963, and we are still waiting for some action on its proposals. I wonder whether the Minister would comment on the possibility of the proposals of the Wilson Report being reviewed and acted on so far as may be necessary.

One test of progress will be the extent to which the targets are met for noise limitation. Under the 1977 Council declaration, the EEC is working towards a limit of 80 decibels for all categories of new vehicles by 1985. I note that the British Government, in the evidence, aims for the meeting of that target by 1990; and it would be helpful to know what chances there are of achieving that target through the motor industry. Of course, this means consultation with those who have to bring it about.

Aircraft noise is an international problem, especially for those living near airports. I think I am right in saying that, from the evidence, the Department of Trade believe that the EEC should not initiate aircraft noise standards but should follow international bodies such as ICAO. While ICAO may well know what is desirable and what is practicable, there seems to be no reason why we should not have an independent view on this, given the facts about practicality and the costs required to achieve lower noise standards.

I think the Government should determine reasonable criteria in view of the continuing public concern which may not be matched by those who take the responsibility for noise standards in the airline business.

Even if limits set by non-governmental bodies are accepted, they must be enforced following directives. One factor to which our attention is drawn is the domination of markets in respect of aircraft, especially helicopters, by the United States, so that European reductions in noise levels may not be matched by the United States. This is a factor which could be damaging to our industry. Our Government departments, in their evidence, are rightly concerned with the effects of limits imposed internationally upon our own environment and upon our trade. They point out the need for exchange of information and the need for further investigation.

Transport, as the noble Earl said, is a big area for work in the limitation of noise, The enormous increase in transport and also in the size and weight of vehicles and the movement of vehicles across frontiers produces a problem which is becoming even more intense. There has been a great deal of controversy about the size of lorries from the Continent, hurtling their smoky, noisy way through some of our charming but Dickensian villages; and so transport is another urgent aspect.

Motor cycles seem to make their presence known, and indeed heard, in most of our towns and villages where the noise from the machines seems to be a modern virility symbol. Hordes of motor-cyclists screeching through our communities seem to have put the fear of God into more people than all the churches put together. I notice that the Consumers' Association—which of course should know what we all want, as consumers—considers that we should have more information about the goods we purchase, including test results and labelling. They rightly think that the EEC should bear in mind to a greater extent the view of consumers. Clearly, the Commission must do more to satisfy the Consumers' Association and those of us they represent; and I believe that the Government should be pressing for more assurances in that direction.

The noble Earl mentioned household appliances. I notice that the Consumers' Association report on the measurement of human responses indicated that the majority of persons interviewed regarding their feelings about domestic noise emitted by vacuum cleaners and washing machines gave a neutral response—25 per cent. and 28 per cent. respectively disliked the noise and I notice that 16 per cent. in both categories actually enjoyed the noise. I am not sure what that may be interpreted as meaning. But there are some noises we get used to—perhaps I should say not "noises" but "sounds", because it may be that we are getting used to the sound of church bells, which appeal to many of us—and of course we know that some noise is acceptable because it is part of the price we pay for higher living standards, especially in the case of domestic appliances.

These are the only observations I would make. One could go into greater depth, because the report is so comprehensive; but, to sum up, I think we are greatly indebted to the Select Committee for the work they have done in bringing this report to the House and in drawing the attention of the House and of the country to this problem, which is already well under way within the Community. We generally back their conclusions, especially the demand for an overall policy and for considered priorities which would include noise from motor vehicles, construction plant, aircraft and some domestic appliances.

I believe there is need for greater co-ordination in planning, research and development, and the testing and setting of standards, and also with enforcement, because without enforcement all this work and all the efforts involved will not be satisfactory. In this I believe the Government must play a major role in getting progress and in representing the views of our people, recognising that there are vital health factors also to be taken into account.

7.19 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the Select Committee for the work they have done on this extremely important subject and I should like also to thank the noble Earl for his introduction. Both speakers so far have started by defining noise and the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, seemed to be complicating the matter with his "noisy noise which annoys", rather like the riddle we all knew in our youth, I think: What kind of noise annoys a noisy oyster?"— to which noble Lords will remember the answer is: It is a noisy noise that annoys a noisy oyster". There are all kinds of different noises, some of which we find pleasant, some of which we do not, but which, in large quantity at high levels, we find extremely annoying. We can find them in every branch of life. We can find them in the goods that we have in our homes. We can find them even in the countryside where at times, particularly in contrast with the stillness around, they are extremely annoying. Since I am in a reminiscent mood, I remember the Saki poem, where he asks: Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse, or the snarl of a snaffled snail? Brother or husband like me or spouse. Have you lain awake in a darkened house where the wounded wombats wail? We may not suffer from problems of that kind, but there are major ones with which we have to deal. Two of them, which I want to deal with, have been mentioned already and the first is the noise caused by transport. There are the lorries, which the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, have covered in quite a detailed way. This noise is something to which we must continue to pay a great deal of attention. It is exportable noise. The lorries that we send to other people's countries cause trouble, and the mere fact that you have to fix some kind of limit for them is something which affects the terms of trade.

The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, mentioned the noise of foreign lorries, but one correspondent who has written to me on this subject says about the problem in Ilford; It is the British lorries which make even more noise than the foreign ones". Unless we get some kind of control right across the EEC, we shall have a situation where, because of the advantages to be gained from not having controls, countries vie with each other and we get more noise rather than less. That is one reason why it is extremely important to insist on noise limits.

This is particularly so because, as noble Lords will know from experience, it is almost impossible to pin down and do anything about the noise of a vehicle in transit. How often have we seen a lorry go past and thought, "I wish I could report that, because it is obviously making a noise which must be well above anything that the law allows." But, of course, we never do anything and, if we did, it is almost certain that absolutely nothing would happen. So we have to rely on controls on lorry makers and on customs checks when lorries move from country to country. It is very important that we move as quickly as possible towards the quiet, heavy vehicles which are mentioned in the report, because to have to wait until 1990 is a very long time for people who live in areas which are badly affected by noise.

Of course, there are certain matters which are under our own control. While talking about the European Communities' report, I do not think I should fail to point out that more action should probably be taken domestically to direct heavy and noisy traffic away from residential areas, and also, perhaps, to increase insulation grants which are very helpful where the noise cannot be avoided. The rules governing insulation grants sometimes do not make a tremendous amount of sense. I have a letter here from the London Borough of Redbridge: Noise resulting from new or altered highways produces premises eligible for noise insulation. Noise resulting from increased traffic flows on existing highways does not, of itself, make premises eligible for noise insulation". So there is plenty that we can do in the domestic area, but, primarily, we must forge ahead in the European area.

Aircraft noise is something which the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, mentioned, but I want to deal with it in slightly more depth. It is rather more serious than is often appreciated, if only because it is very often a fairly limited number of people who suffer really badly from it over a long period of time; in fact, they suffer from it every hour of the day. I am particularly referring to those who live in the vicinity of airports. The ECC should certainly do something to limit the nuisance, because, if they do not, the fact that there is not a proper law which fixes limits will affect the terms of trade on which passengers and freight are carried.

The Wilson Committee said in 1963: Traffic produces a serious noise problem in the air. Aircraft noise at Heathrow is more than people should be required to tolerate". The committee recommended that the noise should be reduced progressively, but, in fact, it has increased since then. In 1963, there were 60,000 jet movements per year, while on 1982 there were 248,000. There are the problems of noisy aircraft. The Airbus has a takeoff noise of 85db, while the Concorde, about which I have spoken before in your Lordships' House, has a take-off noise of 111db, compared with the 78 to 86db of motorcycles.

This has an international dimension, because, primarily, travelling across borders from country to country is what air travel is all about. According to the report, the, Trans-frontier effects of noise are … localised and cannot readily be called upon to justify Community involvement". But that is not so, because a major share of air traffic is inter-European, and therefore the EEC must have a role to play in controlling this nuisance. The EEC need not involve itself in formulating noise standards. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, about the ICAO levels and about our having a say in formulating the levels, because only in that way can we also control the use that we want to make of them. If we accept the ICAO methods of noise measurement, but apply EEC controls to enforce them, it will have, more or less, the main effect.

One or two of the countries involved in the EEC are not enforcing ICAO standards. Italy, I believe, is an example of failure to comply. The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, spoke about helicopter standards. This is a matter upon which we should concentrate, because we can obtain some benefit for ourselves, in trade terms as well as in environmental terms, by developing a quiet helicopter. We ought definitely to pay more attention to the problem of supersonic aircraft. It may be that supersonic aircraft have a short life and that in the future we shall not have this major problem in front of us. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Concorde produces a noise which is considerably worse and less tolerable than other forms of aircraft noise. It is far louder than all other jets, yet it is not included in the monitoring figures, nor is it included in noise infringement statistics.

There is also a problem about night noise. I do not see why the EEC should not take the lead in directing all European airports, certainly those with international trade, to close at night. In certain countries—Switzerland. Japan, Australia—there is a complete limit in many airports on the landings and take-offs which can happen at night. That would make a very great deal of difference to the many people who live near our major airports. Responsibility for noise seems to be largely the responsibility of the Department of Trade. In terms of the EEC, this obviously makes sense, but I wonder whether the Department of the Environment ought to have a greater say. A very interesting answer was given in evidence. At page 38 of the report, the witnesses from the Department of Industry and the Department of Trade were asked at Question 77: Will Europe fall in line behind France? The answer was: Not if we see it to be detrimental to our own industry, no". One has considerable sympathy with that answer. We must do the best we can to keep our industry competitive. Nevertheless, there is a real sense in which we should try to do the best we can, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves, in trade terms, to make certain that the environment is respected and that noise limits are acceptable to our citizens.

There is one other question that I want to ask, of which I am afraid I have not given notice to the noble Earl; it relates to the legal situation and the recourse which is open to citizens. I said earlier that there is a problem for us all with really noisy lorries. In the Noise Abatement Act 1960, noise became a form of nuisance against which local authorities or private individuals could take action, as the report says. So far as I can gather, this does not apply to aircraft noise. May I ask whether it would be possible for the GLC or local authorities to complain and to bring prosecutions on a noise basis against aircraft and airlines which disturb the rest of our citizens? I do not think that it would be at all a bad idea if popular control of that kind existed.

Finally, it seems to me that the most disturbing part of this admirable report is to be found at page where it is recorded that the member state which is strongly opposed to the total harmonisation solution put forward by the Commission was said by Commission officials to be the United Kingdom. If that is so, it is most unfortunate. I should have hoped that this country, which has always had a reputation for civilised living and for trying to ensure that its citizens can live in peace and quiet, would be one of the leaders in Europe. It is a great shame if we are not, and we should certainly reform.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, may I apologise for not having put down my name to speak. May I also apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for not being in my place when he opened the debate. I shall take up only a couple of minutes of your Lordships' time. This has been a very interesting debate. I agree entirely with most of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, spoke about aircraft noise, and I understood him to say that aircraft noise was louder than motor-cycle noise. In my opinion, the reverse is the case. The aircraft comes and goes but the motor-cycle whizzes down the street and the noise reverberates between the buildings. I should like to know whether the Minister has got anything to say about motor-cycle noise.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, also spoke about airports. Those who design airports may put an airport in the middle of nowhere, but in no time at all there are houses all round that airport. Therefore one is in a cleft stick as to who is right and who is wrong. The people who work at the airport have got to bear in mind that they will have to live with the noise.

7.38 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the House will be most grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for introducing this subject today in such a lucid form, thereby offering to the House an opportunity to debate the report by the European Communities Select Committee on action by the European Community to control noise in the environment.

The Government welcome the review as a timely, useful consideration of what is going on in this field. As has been well demonstrated in the debate, noise nuisance touches all our lives in one way or another. It is quite clear when we are being bothered by noise. Unfortunately, it is not always so clear as to how to control, or who should control, that noise. So far as the European Community is concerned, it is a question of what is appropriate at Community level as part of the European Community action programmes on the environment under the Treaty of Rome. In looking at this issue, the report raises important matters of policy and principle.

The Government recognise the importance of these matters and appreciate the strength and breadth of interest which has been expressed. Noise pollution has been referred to on occasions as the Cinderella of pollutants. Control of noise nuisance has a relatively short history throughout the world, but increasingly more concern is being shown about the need to control it. In 1963, the Wilson Committee, to which noble Lords have already referred, defined noise as "sound which is undesired by the recipient"—a slightly different definition from those which have been mentioned tonight. However, I believe that that definition still holds good today, almost 20 years later. Since that date the United Kingdom has made substantial progress in controlling noise from air and surface traffic at source as well as, for example, controlling noise at construction sites, from factories and between neighbours under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, asked particularly about the recommendations of that committee's report. I think I can fairly say that most have been implemented to some degree and that a considerable number fall within the scope of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. We in the United Kingdom are fortunate. We have a reasonably comprehensive legislative system for meeting our prime objective, the reduction and containment of noise wherever possible, both in the environment and in the workplace—although the latter was not considered in this report.

In the context of a European Community, the Government recognise that in certain circumstances noise causes nuisance and distress. For that reason we are far from complacent about noise problems. We recognise that our policies must keep pace with the times, and be geared to our internal domestic needs within the United Kingdom, and at the same time reflect the needs of a member state as part of the European Community. I can assure the House that all Government departments will continue to keep a watching brief on the activity of the commission on noise control which affects them. This will, I hope, become clear from what I shall say shortly about some aspects of noise responsibilities as they affect various departments.

As this report concludes, it is desirable that there should be an overall policy to combat noise on a Community basis where Community action is appropriate; as the report further concludes, control of products is just such a sphere of noise control. The United Kingdom welcomes Community involvement in the fight to control noise nuisance—provided, of course, that it is a balanced, discriminating involvement. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook will be pleased to note that, for this reason, the Government would welcome the creation of the advisory committee referred to in the report to take an overall view on the Commission's "anti-noise" programme. In this context, we recognise that the European Commission is concerned to investigate questions of noise pollution identified in the environment programmes.

We certainly attach importance to the Commission having full information, in advance of any action it may take, about the situation in and the views of, the member states. It is apparent from the wide range of this debate that noise is a complex subject, with many different facets. It is for the Commission to decide how they can best take advice to help them to identify policies and priorities on the European scale. We would certainly see merit in some form of mechanism; for example, an advisory committee meeting occasionally to make sure that both the Commission and the Government are informed. That would help to avoid the risk of individual proposals coming forward out of context and perhaps at fairly short notice. As far as contact between the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission is concerned, officials of Government departments are together meeting Commission officials at the beginning of next year to discuss noise matters informally in addition to ongoing commitments on specific proposals.

Clearly, as the report recognises, there are some aspects of noise pollution, such as neighbourhood noise, which are more appropriate to control within member states and which do not lend themselves to action at Community level. Indeed it is not appropriate in all cases to legislate even within a national framework; many noise problems stem from inconsiderate human behaviour. We cannot legislate to improve that, but we can hope to educate and inform. To bear witness to this, there has been the recent publication of the Bothered by Noise booklet and, before that, the codes of practice on, for example, model aircraft flying.

If I may turn now to road vehicle noise, which all speakers have mentioned, attention has been drawn to the report's comments on Community action to reduce noise levels for road traffic vehicles—heavy lorries, motorcycles and cars. Let me stress that the Government are well aware of the public concern about vehicle noise and the sub-committee's report reflects this concern. We are determined to see that action is taken to improve matters. There are two aspects to this problem: first, to make sure that new vehicles are as quiet as possible; and, second, to see that they remain quiet in use.

New lower noise limits will apply to vehicles coming into use from next year and we are already urgently looking at what further reductions would be possible in the future. The United Kingdom was instrumental in the setting up of a European Community Working Group which is looking at all aspects of future noise limits. The working Group reported in July, and discussion of its report is taking place in Brussels this autumn. The Government will press for the lowest limits that are technically feasible at an acceptable cost. We are also working with the motor industry to develop a quiet heavy vehicle for the 1990s that should be no noisier than present day cars.

The existing law and the annual testing of lorries and cars generally work well in ensuring that the agreed limits are maintained in use. But there is a problem with motorcycles, particularly because of the fitting of inadequate replacement exhaust systems. As a first step, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport laid regulations on 14th October 1982 which will make it absolutely clear that a replacement silencer must enable a vehicle to meet the same standards as the original equipment silencer did. We are also looking urgently at other ways of improving enforcement of the noise regulations in respect of motorcycles, bearing in mind that only an irresponsible minority do flout the existing regulations. I hope that it will be clear from what I have already said that the Government fully share the sub-committee's wish to see further substantial reductions in vehicle noise limits—subject, of course, to feasibility and cost.

We must take issue, albeit slightly, with the report's concentration on the 1977 declaration by the Council of Ministers that the community should work towards a limit of 80dB(A) for all categories of vehicle by 1985. First, the declaration set a goal rather than making a definite commitment. Secondly, the proposal was made on the basis of the test procedure then current. The test procedure has been tightened and will bring reductions in noise limits for many heavy lorries and some cars even though the numerical values are unchanged. This has, as the department's oral evidence made clear, made the goal more difficult to reach, particularly for heavy lorries and large motorcycles. Thirdly, the majority of new vehicles are already meeting this goal.

The European Commission is expected to make known its proposals for future noise limits early next year. Until they are available, the need for additional measures to promote the introduction of quiet vehicles into traffic cannot be assessed. However, the Secretary of State for Transport has already announced the collaborative research and development programme to take forward the work with the department's quiet heavy vehicle to show how the techniques may be applied to production vehicles. Work will begin on the project itself in the next months.

As the Secretary of State for Transport announced in last December's White Paper, we have put in hand the next stage in taking forward to the production stage the techniques domonstrated in the quiet heavy vehicle. Some projects supported by the Department of Industry are already under way and we are heavily engaged with manufactureres to define further projects. There is a tentative provision of £5 million from the two department's funds, which, if matched by industry, would give a total £10 million programme. Part of the reason for a collaborative research programme involving vehicle and engine manufacturers is to ensure that British industry is as well placed as its competitors to meet this major technical challenge of meeting a noise limit of about 80dB(A). Nevertheless, a ceiling of 80dB(A) remains the government's broad objective, and to answer one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitely, we are working towards it as quickly as possible in conjunction with our Community partners.

Turning now to aircraft noise, which was particularly mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Bishopstone and Lord Beaumont of Whitley, the Governments agree with the committee's conclusions that the amendments to the Subsonic Aircraft Directive are a natural extension of the present directive and should be adopted. Since the Thirteenth Report was published, the Council of Ministers has approved the directive on Limitation of Noise Emissions from Subsonic Aircraft (EC 8153/82). Legislation to amend the 1979 Air Navigation (Noise Certification) Order, which will incorporate the provisions of the directive, will be laid before both Houses during the next Session.

The Government also accepts the committee's conclusions on the proposed helicopter directive. As suggested by the committee European pressure has been brought to bear on the United States, within the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to reconsider its decision to defer helicopter noise standards, but so far to no avail. Further pressure will be brought to bear through the relevant working groups of the organisation, but it appears unlikely that the Americans will change their attitude before 1984/85.

Another area of EC action, following an initiative by an individual member state, is that of the proposed directive of noise labelling of houshold appliances. Let me say at once that the Government have noted the report's conlusion on this; and also let me say that we entirely take the point made by consumer bodies that labels showing only noise emitted by household appliances might confuse a purchaser. They might for instance, confuse low noise with good performance, or even high noise with high power. The way out of this difficulty is to provide that noise information is not mentioned in isolation but is always accompanied by other information, for example relating to energy rating.

I note the consumer point, that the unit of noise, the decibel, and its relationship with everyday experience of noise is not familiar to the general public. I am sure that in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, was using the term they will become aware of it very soon. It is, however, a well established unit that has a sound scientific basis and is internationally recognised as a method of measuring noise. In view of this we do not think it would be practiclabe to attempt to introduce any other method of indicating noise emitted. We would rather prefer to rely on the public's often under-rated ability to absorb and put to practical use the terms involved in new technology. This they have quite easily done, for example, in the case of film speeds for photography and distortions in hi-fi systems.

It must also be remembered that the main aim of this directive is to remove barriers to trade, and we already have at least one member state anxious to introduce mandatory noise labelling. It is important, therefore, that we establish harmonised methods of measuring and quoting noise emitted, so that we do not find ourselves having to submit household appliances to a number of testing authorities in order to export to other member states. This is a most important consideration. We believe, therefore, that we should support the introduction of this directive, if only to prevent the emergence of barriers to trade.

My Lords, a number of other points were raised on specific matters and I might perhaps just deal quickly with one or two of them. The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, mentioned particularly noise at work. This forms part of the Community's action programme on safety and health at work as set out on page 20 of the report, and we are awaiting the proposal for a directive which the Commission mentions in paragraph 5 on page xxxi. When the proposal has been received its details can be studied, to consider how far they are sensible.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned specifically the sound insulation of dwellings against traffic noise. Recognising that noise is one of the most disturbing features created by a new road, particularly when it cuts through a residential area, the United Kingdom Government adopted the approach that where the coming into use of a road would result in more than a specified level of noise outside a dwelling house, there should he a right for the householder to claim and a duty on the highway authority to provide such insulation. This approach has been given practical effect in Part II of the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the detailed regulations made thereunder. The Department of Transport undertook to keep the regulations under review and for this purpose a working party was set up to review their scope in the light of experience and the implications of any change. My right honourable friend is awaiting the working group's report, which is expected shortly.

The noble Lord also referred to lorry controls or controls on lorry routeing. We are encouraging local highway authorities to make greater use of their powers to control the routes that lorries may use as part of our package of measures to control lorries. We have offered technical advice from the Department of Transport where required. Further encouragement will be offered through favourable treatment in transport supplementary grants settlements to councils making good use of these powers. Good progress has already been made in recent years with some 850 lorry bans made on amenity grounds.

My noble friend mentioned motor-cycles. As he is well aware, there are limits on how far we can go in this field. There are already rules on how noisy new machines are allowed to be and these rules have just been tightened. Consideration of further reductions is likely. There are rules about not making excessive noise or tampering with exhaust systems. We are looking into ways of controlling inadequate replacement silencers. But modern motor-cycles used sensibly are already fairly quiet. The problems are largely caused by an anti-social minority of young riders who seem to take delight in drawing attention to themselves. The police do their best but it is difficult for them to take effective action against such mobile offenders. In some cases we are getting into deep questions about the alienation of some young people from society, and vehicle regulation is perhaps not the best way of tackling this.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also referred to the noise at Heathrow Airport and from aircraft generally. At Heathrow itself, although aircraft movements have increased year on year, peak noise levels are already falling, and we believe they will fall further by 1st January 1986, when no older, noisier aircraft on the United Kingdom register will be allowed to operate in the United Kingdom. We and most other European Community countries greatly prefer to initiate aircraft noise proposals within ICAO, because, first, we have always done so, and, secondly, we feel that our own national interests are best represented in a wider international context. We are also anxious to avoid duplication of effort.

My Lords, if I have not covered any specific points I hope the House will allow me to do so by writing. To conclude, the Commission of the European Community has included a section on noise pollution in its proposed programme for environmental action between now and 1986. These proposals have been endorsed by the European Parliament and will be put to the Council of Ministers later this year. I assure your Lordships that the views expressed in this House this evening will form a valuable basis for the United Kingdom's contribution to the Council debate, particularly in seeking to guide the Commission's priorities for future action.

I would like to end by saying that I am sure all noble Lords would like to join me in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for initiating what I believe has been a valuable discussion on noise pollution in the European Community. The Government appeciate the contribution of your Lordships, both in debate now and, more importantly, in the preparation of the Select Committee's report. This useful document will assist future progress on noise control both in the United Kingdom and in the European Community.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I hesitate to cross the indefinable barrier and from being a mere sound become an unwanted sound and therefore a noise. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, spoke of the appeal of bells and my noble friend Lord Avon spoke of the appeal of decibels, as a unit of measurement. But seriously, my Lords, I thank your Lordships very much for a fruitful and useful debate. The sub-committee will note with interest the remarks of noble Lords on the other side of the House, and I think they will note with particular gratitude two firm statements by my noble friend on this side: first, that the United Kingdom Government firmly supports the proposal for an advisory committee for exchange of information on developments in this field, and, secondly, for the assurance that there will be a grant of £5 million from the Government, which I sincerely hope will be matched by the £5 million from industry, if only to make true what we read in The Times today. My Lords, I thank you for participating in this debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.