HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc30-7WH

12 noon

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I am sorry not to have been present for more of the previous debate, introduced by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Having spent many years working for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in the Child Poverty Action Group and many years working in Brixton and Peckham, I am well aware of how Londoners often fail to get child care, mental health and other services to which they are richly entitled. I also recognise the importance of cultural, as well as economic and social, regeneration.

I raise a subject of growing concern to not only my constitutents but those throughout the south-east. After I had the opportunity and privilege to address the House on the subject, many colleagues said that their constituents give a high priority to the question of aircraft noise. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and my hon. Friends the Members for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) and for Horsham (Mr. Maude) all asked me to say that it involves not only the people of South-West Surrey. It is causing mounting concern and growing anger throughout the area.

Benjamin Disraeli said that increased means and increased leisure are the two great civilisers of mankind. That may be the case—later today, for example, I shall open an international tourism and hospitality conference at Surrey university—but increased means and increased leisure, as well as the greater prosperity and regeneration of the south-east, are causing a massive expansion in air traffic, with the concomitant noise pollution. A great deal of noise is generated by the inexorable increase in air travel.

I am the first to say that the ever-lowering cost of air transport is another remarkable example of the democratisation of goods in our society. What was once a luxury for an elite few is now a way of life for many. What was once the jet set is now everyday set. We now have marvellous opportunities to reach all parts of the globe—but a growing price is being paid in terms of the effect on the environment and, above all, of noise pollution.

The chairman of British Airways, Lord Marshall, speaking on behalf of the industry at a conference of Ministers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Trade and Industry, said: It is abundantly clear to us that aviation growth, which we believe is crucial to UK economic growth, must be achieved within a sustainable environment context. He went on to concede: I admit freely that the aviation industry, in the past, has not been as sympathetic to community or environmental concerns as it could have been. While airlines advertise their opportunities with great enthusiasm, there is another reminder of the ubiquity of air travel: the roar of the jet engine. Whatever the benefits of the technological revolution, which must not be underestimated, we need to ensure that it does not threaten our traditional and more serene way of life, which often finds its best expression in rural England. Every day, the home counties fear urbanisation, the erosion of the green belt and the pressure for development, which affects constituencies throughout the south-east. The pressure of growing aircraft noise is therefore all the more oppressive. For those in the countryside who happen to live on a flight path of major domestic and international routes, aircraft noise serves as a subtle reminder, every other minute, of the paradox of the opportunities for growth and prosperity on the one hand and the pressures on the environment and the quality of life on the other.

During the summer of 1997, residents in my constituency noticed a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of low-flying commercial planes approaching Gatwick airport, passing directly over villages and causing considerable noise disturbance. That has resulted in significant distress in a quiet rural area where previously aircraft noise has been only occasional, although near Dunsfold aerodrome residents agree that British Aerospace planes have not been a problem as flying and testing times are highly regulated and restricted, and intrusive for perhaps only an hour or two each week. As a result of those residents' complaints in 1997, Alfold parish council began talking to the British Airports Authority and air traffic control. The parish council chairman, Dr. Jenny Masding, was invited to sit on the Gatwick airport consultative committee. A resident for nearly 30 years, Roger Duckworth, wrote: there has been a huge increase in the number of aircraft passing over on their way to and from, Heathrow, Gatwick and Farnborough at a relatively low level and overflying aircraft going elsewhere. As a result, there are very few times in the day when I am not subject to the noise of at least one commercial aircraft. As one passes the next approaches. His observation is instructive because it reflects so many of my constituents' comments. As a Member of Parliament for 16 years, I can tell the Minister that this is a new preoccupation. I have never heard such a volume and intensity of concern and complaint as I have over the past couple of years.

Noise disturbance from air traffic has continued and worsened since 1997, at times making life intolerable. The main problem is incoming aircraft when Gatwick airport is either operating in easterly mode—when the wind blows from the east—or is very still, as occurs in several different weather conditions. Figures from the BAA show that such conditions prevail for 45 to 50 per cent. of the time. Arriving aircraft fly level and low at relatively high power settings from 4 am onwards, which may continue all day until late evening.

Dr. Jenny Masding, the Alford parish council chairman, wrote to me: In the early mornings until mid day and again in the evenings the frequency is often one plane every two to three minutes. The effect on our quality of life has been disastrous. Sleep is impossible from 5 a.m. and often difficult before midnight. The noise is intrusive during the day ruining outdoor leisure pursuits and any pleasure in the use of gardens. In addition to this extreme problem of incoming aircraft, for the last year we now have outbound aircraft over flying parts of the villages when the wind is westerly. The numbers of these outgoing planes are increasing and at a lower level so that they are ever more intrusive. That issue was brought to my attention by a remarkable, tireless and energetic group called the quieter skies campaign over a year ago. Bridget Bloom of the campaign has co-ordinated the efforts and given voice to members in Dunsfold and the surrounding area. Her dedication and professionalism have been greatly appreciated and respected by her neighbours and certainly by myself as the local Member of Parliament.

In passing, I would like to recognise the work of the British Airports Authority at Gatwick. Richard Hilton, for example, has attended meetings in my constituency and listened to the community's concerns. As a result, he is well acquainted with the problem and has provided valuable insight and information on the subject. The flight evaluation unit has made data available and always treats inquiries from me or my constituents with great courtesy.

I was worried about several radio programmes asking me whether I was critical of the BAA. I am not remotely critical; I am merely asking the Minister to strengthen its arm to tighten the guidelines and follow up several specific measures. BAA Gatwick is a private limited company and, as such, can only influence, not determine, operating policies. Only the Minister—I am delighted, as he knows, to see him here today—can create policy on such crucial matters as aircraft routes, speeds, altitudes, flight paths and time slots. I thank him very much for being with us today and for taking time to respond to the debate.

Everyone's goal is to find solutions that are acceptable to the airline industry, air traffic control and those affected on the ground. The key is to craft an approach that does not stymie London's growth as an international city, the development of the south-east region or Gatwick's emergence as an international hub. Our approach must be sensitive to safety considerations—for both the airborne and the earthbound—and, most importantly, we need new guidelines to decrease the current unacceptable level, frequency and duration of noise pollution.

Complaints and concerns have been increasing, as I have already stated. The Surrey Advertiser has been an excellent chronicler of complaints in that regard. On 12 November, it printed a letter from Mr. Woodward of Dunsfold: Over several months, the level of low-flying aircraft from Gatwick has increased dramatically; indeed, the increased level far exceeds the national growth in traffic volume … To demonstrate why we feel so aggrieved, on Sunday October 24, between 4 am and 6 am, 30 aircraft flew directly overhead … one aircraft every four minutes. Some were flying well below 3,000 ft. … Noise pollution and disruption of sleep seriously affects the well-being of people and it is therefore the responsibility of the authorities concerned to take appropriate action to improve the current intolerable situation. I entirely agree with that sentiment.

On 14 October, Peter Bugge, another Dunsfold resident and a former pilot—there are a great many of them around—recorded 11 out of 39 aircraft passing overhead between 4 am and midday at or below 3,000 ft. That analysis was provided by the BAA.

In another letter, Colin Hall said: It is clear that once tranquil rural areas now have aircraft much closer to them—in larger numbers, at lower heights, generating higher levels of noise—than ever before. Dr. Jenny Masding, the chairman of Alfold parish council, has been active in trying to achieve a constructive dialogue and increase the attention that the subject receives. She said: The level of concern, anger and desperation felt by Alfold residents is increasing. A village consultation exercise was carried out in 1998 to assess what residents were concerned about and what actions they would like to see taken. A large percentage of the comments received on environmental issues were concerns about noise pollution from aircraft. The parish council receives regular desperate calls from residents concerning sleep problems. The problem is different from any that I have seen during the past 16 years. As a result of that concern, the council organised a public meeting with the BAA in December 1999, and about 100 local people attended. The level of distress, anger and desperation expressed at that meeting was high and impressed, even perhaps distressed, some of the BAA staff.

In summary, the impact of Gatwick airport on the quality of life in Alfold, Dunsfold and many other villages is extremely alarming, especially as the BAA plans to increase turnover from 27 million to 40 million passengers in only five years. The frequency of night arrivals and the height at which they fly over the area is unacceptable, causing significant sleep problems. The tranquility and rest that people would like in their own homes and gardens are severely at risk. As well as the intrusion and stress that noise pollution causes, many people are worried about the adverse affect on property values of such developments.

The group with which I have had discussions has given much constructive and detailed thought to the matter. It has produced several specific and practical proposals, to which I hope that the Minister, with the BAA at Gatwick and air traffic control, will be able to give a positive response. First, on the routes of arriving and departing aircraft, terminal air traffic control requires aircraft departing Gatwick to follow clearly defined noise preferential routes up to a level of 3,000 ft. I understand that the level is 4,000 ft at Heathrow. When aircraft reach that level, ATC at West Drayton has adopted a policy of diverting aircraft on to their direct route even though they have not reached the end of the NPR. To raise the minimum vectoring level to 5,000 ft and require aircraft to follow NPRs strictly before vectoring off would lead to a significant reduction in ground noise. Clearly, we must ensure that aircraft follow their NPRs with greater attention. There is a mounting lack of confidence in the enforcement of NPRs. What can be done? What are the sanctions for aircraft disregarding NPRs?

Secondly, on the speed of arriving and departing aircraft, the ground noise from jet engines and body drag is significantly increased as the departing aircraft accelerate. Under an International Civil Aviation Organisation requirement, all aircraft should restrict their speed to 250 knots when below 10,000 ft. Although air traffic controllers in many countries insist on that requirement, it seems that the British standard has been more relaxed. We believe that it is crucial that those standards are incorporated in British air traffic service rules. The 10,000 ft level would bring the United Kingdom into compliance with European Union and other international controllers. I strongly urge the Government to adopt a policy that would require aircraft to adhere to the 250-knot limit while below 10,000 ft. What encouragement can the Minister offer? How can enforcement be strengthened?

Thirdly, on altitude levels, the quieter skies campaign suggests that policies should be adopted to extend and clarify the altitude levels of arriving aircraft. I understand that aircraft must reduce their height to 3,000 ft 10 miles from the runway in order to establish a final descent path. It has come to my attention that some aircraft are at or below that altitude well before 10 miles from the runway. To avoid increased noise caused by aircraft flying at low altitude, I suggest that all air carriers abide by the continuous descent procedure promulgated in "Air Pilot". I understand that aircraft could regulate their descent from 15,000 ft to avoid level flight at low levels over open countryside. That would reduce the impact of noise, especially in the early hours of the morning, and would have a major ameliorating impact on my constituents.

I gave the Minister my points in advance so that he could reflect on them. My fourth point relates to night flying. The rapid expansion in passenger traffic at Gatwick and the restricted number of slots available mean that it is only a matter of time before the airlines begin to request more take-offs and landing times, especially at night. At Heathrow, a limit has been set on the number of aircraft movements permitted between 11 pm and 6 am, which is fewer than that set for Gatwick. It would be greatly appreciated if Gatwick were to introduce equally restrictive policies. Only the Minister can enforce such a change. Surely the Gatwick area should be at least as protected as Heathrow.

Some might argue that such proposals may lead to increased fuel costs and higher ticket prices for consumers. It should be noted, however, that fuel and overall costs could be reduced as a result of such proposals. The relative cost either way is relatively insignificant in comparison with the real danger of the emergence of hostility and resentment against air travel in the area.

There has always been good co-operation and partnership with the people at Gatwick. This is a test point. The challenge that we face is how to combine social and economic growth with sustainable development, and how to expand opportunities without jeopardising the quality of life for others. The British countryside is admired the world over for its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness. I urge the Minister to help to find a way forward.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) for raising what is, as she said, an important issue not only for her own constituents but for anyone who lives near an airport. As she fairly acknowledges, air traffic has brought many benefits, although it also has a considerable downside. I shall do my best to reassure her on some of the points that she raised. She may want to follow up some of them by correspondence, as I anticipate that the problem will not go away.

Having holidayed four years in succession at Northchapel in West Sussex, just a little south of the right hon. Lady's constituency, I am familiar with some of the area and some of the beautiful countryside in and around it. We must try to minimise the impact of airports on the environment. At the same time, our policies must and do take account of the economic benefits of a strong and competitive airline industry and we must provide sufficient airport capacity where it is economically and environmentally justified. One of the difficulties that we face is that everyone likes the convenience of airports but no one likes the inconvenience of living near one. One of the difficult tasks that the Government and other authorities must face is how to reconcile those sometimes not entirely reconcilable feelings.

The Civil Aviation Act 1982 empowers the Secretary of State to impose requirements on the operators of Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports, and on aircraft using those airports, for the purpose of limiting or mitigating the effects of noise. The requirements imposed include departure noise limits, night restrictions, noise preferential routes for departures, and regulations for the management of arriving aircraft, some of which I shall outline.

A noise and track monitoring advisory group monitors the operation of the noise and track-keeping system, the core of which has recently been replaced by a more modern computer system. The group includes representatives from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and from the airport, consultative committee members and local authority officers representing the local community. National Air Traffic Services and the airlines are also involved. Gatwick also convenes a flight operations performance committee—there is quite a lot of jargon in this subject—known to its friends as Flopsy. The airline people and air traffic controllers on it examine technical issues.

At Gatwick the general trend, contrary to widespread belief, has been a diminution of daytime noise over the years as older, noisier aircraft have been replaced by quieter ones, despite a large increase in the volume of traffic. The annual noise contour reports, produced on behalf of my Department, tell the story. They show the equivalent continuous sound level experienced on the ground between 7 am and 11 pm during the busiest summer months. Over the past 20 years, the area of the 57-decibel Gatwick contour has more than halved. South-West Surrey, for example, now lies outside that contour and the level of noise experienced there should be lower. Gatwick operates towards the east in daytime, about 25 per cent. of the time on a long-run average. That can vary a good deal annually. In 1995, easterly operations were as high as 47 per cent., but that was exceptional. In 1998, the proportion was only 14 per cent.

Since 1968, my Department and its predecessors have stipulated noise preferential routes for aircraft departing from Gatwick. These routes are designed to avoid built-up areas and so minimise disturbance. However, it must be accepted that some dispersion from the noise preferential routes centre line is inevitable because of navigational tolerance, aircraft characteristics and, not least, weather, especially wind. In practice, that means that there may legitimately be a swathe of tracks of up to 1.5 km on either side of the nominal route. Compliance with this swathe has been improving: over 95 per cent. of departures in 1998–99 complied. Although deviations are not subject at present to financial sanctions, the causes of significant off-track flying are investigated thoroughly. The right hon. Lady and her constituents may be assured that considerable efforts have been and will continue to be made, by the airport and by airlines and controllers in co-operation, to improve compliance.

Once an aircraft departing Gatwick has reached 3,000 ft, air traffic control may, if traffic conditions permit, assign it a more direct course to its destination. That, as the right hon. Lady explained, is called vectoring. It is intended to speed up the flow of traffic, giving the benefit of being able to clear an area quicker and at a higher altitude. As a result there may be greater track dispersion once the required height has been achieved; but the amount of noise experienced by people on the ground will be relatively less than it would be at lower altitudes closer to the airport. The possibility, which she mentioned, of raising the Gatwick vectoring altitude to 4,000 ft is under consideration, but I am afraid there is no possibility in the short term of raising it to 5,000 ft, which is what she asked for; there is, she will be glad to hear, some movement on that point. In December, the release altitude for westerly departures turning east was raised to 4,000 ft. The possibility of a similar relaxation for easterly departures is also under continuing consideration.

The South-West Surrey constituency is around 15 to 25 miles to the west of Gatwick. It is inevitable that it will experience overflights. Two departure routes overfly the area when the airport is operating towards the west. Departures from Heathrow and elsewhere will also overfly, normally at a much higher altitude. Overflight at altitudes of 4,000 ft and more is a fact of life over a very large proportion of the south-east. We are not complacent and seek improvements where possible, but the noise heard on the ground must be taken in perspective with that from other sources that are regrettably endemic to modern life.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of speed restrictions. There is, as she noted, an International Civil Aviation Organisation recommendation—not, incidentally a requirement—that a standard limit of 250 knots should apply below about 10,000 ft. That limit may be lifted tactically by air traffic control, as is done as a matter of common practice. That can be beneficial overall, helping aircraft to climb and clear the area more rapidly. The lifting of the limit by air traffic control does not, however, absolve pilots from responsibility to use speed and power settings consistent with the achievement of noise abatement procedures such as the noise preferential routes.

Arrivals—inbound aircraft—unlike departures, do not follow fixed routes all the way from home to touchdown, because that would remove the flexibility needed to direct aircraft to the final approach track while ensuring safe operation. Maximising the use of continuous descent approach procedures is of prime importance in reducing noise impact. Pilots at Gatwick are requested to use continuous descent as best they can, but air traffic control constraints—in particular, the need to maintain clearance from Heathrow departures—mean that 100 per cent. adherence is not always possible.

At night there is an additional requirement not to join the extended runway centre line below 3,000 ft—closer than 10 nautical miles from touchdown. I accept that that may bring more traffic over the Dunsfold-Alford area, but the rule benefits other areas that would otherwise be overflown more noisily and at a lower altitude. The Department's Aircraft Noise Advisory Committee recently concluded a study of arrivals noise that re-emphasised the importance of continuous descent: a technical report will be published shortly and a code of practice is being developed.

On night restrictions, we appreciate that noise from aircraft can be particularly disturbing at night. We operate a night restrictions policy limiting the number of aircraft that can take off and land between 11.30 pm and 6 am, backed by a quota system in which noisier aircraft count more than quiet aircraft, and the very noisiest are already precluded from operating at night.

The night restrictions regime is reviewed every five years or so, through public consultation. Following the 1998 consultations, the present night restrictions came into force on 31 October 1999 and will continue until summer 2004. I understand the wish of the right hon. Lady and others for a reduction to Heathrow levels of the movements and quota limits at Gatwick, but the Government had to make a balanced judgment, bearing in mind the different nature of Gatwick operations. Nevertheless, the former Minister for Transport in London, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), announced a progressive reduction in the Gatwick night quota, starting with the noisiest aircraft. I hope that that gives some small comfort to the right hon. Lady's constituents.

As to the possible expansion that was announced last March, a study of airport issues in the south-east and east of England, including, of course, Gatwick, will assess the economic, environmental and social impacts and we shall balance these before reaching a view about what additional capacity should be provided, at a particular site, or at all. This is not a blanket commitment to meet demand and then mitigate the environmental effects.

Much work has already been done to minimise the impact of Gatwick airport on the communities around it. We believe that more can be done: work on the wider policies is continuing, and in detail, so as to help to improve environmental performance. In the next few years we shall establish a framework to guide the development of airports for many years ahead. We shall work closely with all interested parties, including the communities affected by the airport operations, to achieve that. I am conscious that I have not been able to meet all the suggestions—many of them reasonable— from the right hon. Lady, but this is an on-going process and I look forward to a dialogue with her on the subject in the months ahead.