HC Deb 17 July 2001 vol 372 cc60-8WH 1.29 pm
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

I am grateful for this early opportunity in my parliamentary life to raise an issue that blights the lives of many of my constituents in Knutsford, Wilmslow, Mobberley and elsewhere. It is easy for those who do not know what it is like to be woken night after night by the roar of aircraft engines, to be unable to open windows on a hot day and never to be able to sit peacefully either indoors or in the garden, to dismiss aircraft noise as a small price to pay for the great expansion of our airports and aviation industry. For my constituents, however, who experience the daily misery of planes using Manchester airport's second runway, aircraft noise is central to their quality of life.

I spoke to a meeting of several hundred Knutsford residents on Friday night and I have to tell the Minister and, through him, the authorities of Manchester airport, that they feel that their voice and their concerns are often completely ignored. They are angry and bitter and today in this debate I speak for them. I am not asking for the impossible. I know that Manchester airport is crucial to the economic development that I and other hon. Members from the north-west want. It employs, directly and indirectly, several thousand people who live in Tatton and in the constituencies of other hon. Members who are present in the Chamber. I know that whether or not the second runway was necessary—I believe that it was not—it cannot be unbuilt. It exists, it is operational and it will be used. I also know that there is little point in trying to reverse the huge growth in the number of air passengers. We all use aeroplanes more and more in our lives and will go on doing so.

We need to find an acceptable balance between the demands of the aviation industry and its passengers and the impact on the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people who live around airports. In that context I look forward to the Government's promised White Paper on air transport. I also welcome the fact that they have consulted widely on how best to control aircraft noise. I recognise that some of the most important steps needed to reduce the impact of aircraft noise have to be taken at an international level through the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Union. I look forward to the phasing out of chapter 2 aircraft next year and I urge the Government to press for further international pressure for quieter engine technology and, for example, the introduction of chapter 4 status for aircraft.

However, I know my limits. Attempting to rewrite global aviation agreements is one of them. Instead I shall focus on three practical steps that would make a huge difference here in Britain and to my constituents. The first and most important step is the enforcement of so-called preferred noise routes, or PNRs. When planes take off from Manchester airport's second runway in an easterly direction they are supposed to follow an agreed track that takes them to the right, skirting around the town of Knutsford, over the Tatton estate after which my constituency is named, and avoiding built-up areas, before turning south towards London. The technology that enables them to do that is straightforward. As a pilot confirmed to me on Friday, there is no reason for any plane taking off from Manchester to fly over Knutsford, yet every day planes do precisely that. Indeed, Manchester airport itself confirms that last year 6,624 aeroplanes did not stick to the agreed noise routes. That is almost 8 per cent. of all departures.

The reason is simply because some pilots cannot be bothered to follow the tracks and some airlines cannot be bothered to insist that they do so. There are some excellent operators, such as British Airways and Continental Airlines, which keep their planes on track, but others, including major airlines such as PIA, Swissair, Cathay Pacific and Iberia, are repeat offenders. It is hardly surprising that that goes on when all that happens when they deviate from the preferred noise route is that they get a letter from the airport ticking them off. Most of the time they do not even reply and the airport does not chase them up.

I shall read a letter that my constituent, Mr. Barry Scott, received on 15 June from the airport, when he complained about an off-track aeroplane over Knutsford. The airport says that in the case of extreme track deviations the airlines are corresponded with and offered the opportunity to comment. I must state that unfortunately not all airlines are forthcoming with replies". The airport says that it does not chase around after replies as this is very time consuming and prevents other more proactive development work from taking place. Clearly, the only way in which to enforce the preferred noise routes and keep departing planes on the tracks that keep them away from people's homes is by changing the law, so that the people responsible, instead of receiving a warning letter that goes straight in the bin, are given a stiff fine that comes straight out of their bank account. Manchester airport, to its credit, is also pressing for the power to levy fines. I welcome that, but I disagree with the airport's opinion that the power should be voluntary and used at the airport's discretion. The fines should be automatic, unless a good excuse is provided on safety grounds, for example. If the law were changed I am sure that every departing plane would stick to the agreed route.

The Minister will no doubt tell me that the last Conservative Government said that they were in favour of new primary legislation to achieve those things that I have outlined, but failed to find the necessary parliamentary time for it over an 18-year period in office. The present Government say that they are in favour of that legislation, but in the last Parliament failed to find parliamentary time and did not accept the necessary amendment. I urge the Minister to find time to introduce the much-needed change to the law.

The second practical step that we can take is to make existing fines for aircraft that break the noise limits much heavier and apply them to planes that are landing as well as to those taking off. At present, the fine for an aircraft that breaks the noise restrictions around Manchester airport is £500, plus £150 for every decibel unit above the limit. That is barely more than the cost of a club class ticket and hardly a powerful incentive for airlines to change their practices and improve their technology.

As with off-track aeroplanes, it is striking how a great proportion of planes breaking the noise limits come from a very small number of operators. Of the 173 infringements reported last year at Manchester airport, more than 100 were caused by planes operated by either Virgin or PIA. If those airlines consistently fail to meet acceptable noise limits and will not respond to heavy fines, they should be banned from using the airport. We would all be presently surprised at how quickly they cleaned up their act, with that threat hanging over them.

The fines and the threat of a ban should also apply to planes that are landing as well as to those taking off. I spoke to the airport on Friday and the excuse that it gave was that pilots could do little to reduce the noise when coming into land. I do not believe that that excuse any longer holds true. Pilots living in my constituency have told me that new technology, piloting techniques and new profiles of flaps and wheels can make a huge impact on noise. Those things should be insisted upon.

The third practical step that could be taken is to ban night flights at Manchester airport. That is perhaps wishful thinking—it is certainly the most difficult of the steps that I propose. However, night flights make up only a small proportion of Manchester airport's daily activity, yet they are the greatest source of misery for people living around airports, as they deny them the basic right of a decent night's sleep. A single noisy aircraft at 4 am can ruin the night for literally tens of thousands of people in Cheshire and Manchester. The track and noise fines that I propose will help, although the simplest solution would be to ban all night flights, as has been done by many major United States airports and in Canada. In the past, night flights often offered the only opportunity for some people to go on holiday abroad. These days, however, cheap flights are available throughout the day, so there is no reason to travel in the middle of the night.

If the Government or Manchester airport will not ban night flights, they should at least extend their night restrictions from 6 am to 7 am, when most people get up—although, as a father of a four-week-old son, that does not apply to me. Many of my constituents find it most irksome that the main daily flights begin at 6 am rather than 7 am. That simple change would make a huge change to many of their lives.

Many other things could be done to reduce the detrimental impact of Manchester airport on the environment around Knutsford, Mobberley, Wilmslow and Handforth. For example, the Government could finish the long-awaited Manchester airport link road, which would stop heavy airport traffic going through Wilmslow and using completely unsuitable country roads in Morley and Styal.

Today, however, I have concentrated on aircraft noise. Instead of demanding changes to international conventions that I have little chance of influencing, or grandstanding about the growth in air traffic, which I cannot alter, I have focused on three practical steps that we could take.

First, we could fine aeroplanes that do not stick to the preferred noise routes. Secondly, we could increase and extend the fines for those that break noise limits. Thirdly, we could stop night flights at Manchester. I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to each of the three proposals, as those small steps would greatly improve the quality of life of the many thousands of people whom I represent.

1.40 pm
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing what I believe is his first Adjournment debate and I thank him for allowing me to make a short contribution. Clearly, his constituents have lost little time in making him aware of some of their concerns. It is worth recording, however, that people who live in what the boffins call the 69 LEQ contour in the Woodhouse Park ward in my constituency suffer the highest levels of noise from Manchester airport. That is why I warmly welcomed the airport's announcement more than a year ago that it was introducing an enhanced soundproofing scheme.

I support the hon. Gentleman's call to give the airport greater powers over track keeping. As long ago as 1997, when I came to the House, I was a member of an all-party delegation that included his predecessor, Martin Bell, and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). We met the then Minister for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who seemed to indicate that the Government were moving in that direction. Since then, there has been consultation and I hope that the Minister will tell us more today. Greater powers on track keeping would put more pressure on airlines and ultimately reduce noise levels still further.

As a supporter of runway 2 throughout the inquiry, its construction and now that it is in operation, I have never pretended that the development at Manchester airport would have no adverse impact. However, we must always balance any such impact with the benefits and the other arrangements that have been made. The airport signed a section 106 agreement as part of the planning consent, which included many detailed commitments such as a major environmental management plan at the airport and important commitments on noise levels. It is important to record the fact that noise levels from daytime and night flying are now lower than in 1992. The expectation is that they will remain lower.

A myth seems to be going around the airport that there has been more noise from night flying since runway 2 opened. That is hard to understand, as all night flying is done from runway 1. The arrangements for night flying are therefore exactly as they were before runway 2 opened.

Many other benefits flow from the expansion of Manchester airport. New routes are opening up to places such as Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul and there are direct flights to Washington and Chicago. That increases access for north-west passengers and could relieve the great pressure on the London and south-east aviation system. Major improvements in the ground transport system around Manchester airport are being introduced. A new interchange is under construction and we hope that it will not be too long before metrolink trams arrive not only at Manchester airport, but at Wythenshawe hospital and town centre.

The crucial point is the impact of the expansion of Manchester airport on the economy and jobs: 19,000 people work at the airport and 70,000 jobs depend on it and the activity there. That activity and those jobs simply could not exist without aircraft taking off and landing and therefore producing some noise. On balance, the people of the north-west support the expansion of Manchester airport and runway 2, because of the prosperity that it brings to my constituency, that of the hon. Gentleman and the whole region.

1.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing the debate so early on in his time in the House. We look forward to hearing him speak on many more occasions. While he was making his speech, he was being doughnutted by two of his hon. Friends. I might write a note to the Whips Office to say that he is already keeping bad company.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he introduced the debate. I am aware that he had a public meeting on Friday and I am sure that some of the issues that were raised then were repeated today, which is a job that all good Members of Parliament undertake. Unfortunately, he will find out that good Ministers have to explain sometimes why actions supported by hon. Members cannot be undertaken instantly.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) for his contribution to the debate, which was somewhat in counterbalance to some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend has obviated the need for me to refer to certain matters in my response. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) is in the Chamber, too, showing an interest in the debate.

Aircraft noise can have an impact on people who live near airports, particularly on departure routes. Many people in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tatton and those of other hon. Members appreciate the prosperity that the airport and the second runway have brought to the north-east region. Manchester estimates that it generates about £1.7 billion for the local economy. By 2015, we expect there to be about 40 million passengers per year and the contribution to the local economy to be about £4 billion, which is not an insubstantial amount.

As the hon. Member for Tatton said, an acceptable balance must be found between the economic benefits and some of the problems that clearly occur in his constituency. There is no doubt that one of the least desirable consequences of airport growth is aircraft noise. It is suffered by far fewer people than the number who share in the prosperity, but that is probably of little consolation to the people of Knutsford and those who attended the meeting on Friday night.

I will try to put the debate into context and then move rapidly to the important points made by the hon. Gentleman. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports are designated under section 80 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 for the purposes of section 78. That means that my Department is responsible for setting noise mitigation measures for those airports. Elsewhere, circumstances vary greatly between the large airports and the many small local airfields. The policy of successive Governments has been that aircraft noise is a local issue and is best resolved locally. From time to time, there have been calls for Manchester airport to be designated for the purpose of section 78 of the 1982 Act, most recently in 1995. Each request was carefully considered, but was rejected as unnecessary in view of the noise mitigation arrangements that are in place in Manchester.

On the immediate effect of aircraft noise on the Tatton constituency and on Knutsford, in particular, the new runway at Manchester, which was opened earlier this year, lies closer to Knutsford than the previous runway. As a result, there is no doubt that the town has suffered an increase in noise. The International Civil Aviation Organisation rules for the use of staggered parallel runways state that aircraft should utilise the first available runway. That means that, during the day, when the wind is from the north or east, aircraft on approach will be using the new runway and will be approximately 300 ft lower over the town than when approaching from the original runway. When the wind is from the south or west, aircraft will take off towards Knutsford. There, aircraft will be lower and, on the revised departure routes, they will bring more traffic to the north of town. I regret that that is the case.

The second runway at Manchester was the subject of a public inquiry in 1994–95, which carefully considered the issue of air noise. The inspector recognised adverse impacts on Knutsford, for example. A package of mitigation measures was crucial to the granting of planning permission to build the second runway. The measures are subject to an enforceable agreement with Cheshire county council and Manchester city council under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I will take the opportunity to explain some of those measures, as they are important for the understanding of the House, and so that the hon. Gentleman can pursue some of the measures on behalf of his constituents.

The airport has undertaken not to use the new runway for night flights other than when it would be unsafe to use the existing runway or when it is undergoing repairs. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, he might want to pursue that matter with the appropriate authorities. That obligation and the whole night flight regime at Manchester are to be reviewed in 2005. I dare say that his constituents will want to be part of that review. The current night restrictions at Manchester are based on the Department's night quota—the quota count scheme at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. The airport has a noise points budget, based on the quota count classification. In addition, it has night movement caps. If the hon. Gentleman wants more details on those, I am sure that my Department will be happy to assist him.

Enlarging further on the matter may be beyond the scope of today's debate. Manchester sets noise limits for departing aircraft, which are 92 decibels during the day—2 decibels lower than the new daytime limit at the London airports—and 87 decibels at night. Aircraft that exceed those limits are subject to a surcharge of £500, with an additional £150 for each perceived noise decibel by which the limits are exceeded.

Noise penalties in 2000 totalled £154,300 and the money is used to support community and charitable organisations close to the airport. Manchester has preferred noise routes that keep aircraft as far away as possible from built-up areas. Although that is of little comfort to the people of Knutsford, it benefits other communities in the area. I understand that, during 2000, the total number of track digressions represented 7.8 per cent. of all standard instrument departures.

The Manchester airport noise and track information system is a computerised system that allows the airport to monitor aircraft within 20 km of the airport, up to a height of 12,000 ft. It is interesting that we measure along the ground in metric and upwards in imperial; I have yet to discover why that is the case. The system also enables the airport to identify aircraft that break the noise limits, investigate and record complaints from the community, measure the effectiveness of the noise reduction programme and provide statistical information to allow assessment of effectiveness of new procedures. The airport has operated a noise insulation scheme for many years. Under the present scheme, it contributes between 50 and 80 per cent., depending on the glazing specification, towards the costs of sound insulation and glazing to those properties within the scheme boundary.

Since 1999, an inner zone of almost 1,000 properties has been created, which allows the properties to be eligible for repeat grants, loft insulation and higher-performance double glazing. Manchester airport operates a policy of surcharging the chapter 2 aircraft, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, for use of the airport, in an attempt to encourage the use of the chapter 3 aircraft prior to the phase-out deadline. Daytime engine tests are normally carried out within the engine test bay and there are tight restrictions on the number of night time engine tests.

As part of the Department's air quality monitoring automatic urban network, an air quality monitoring station is located under the main approach flight path. It continuously monitors nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone. There were no exceedances of the national air quality strategy objectives at the station in 1997, 1998 or 1999.

The airport is continually working to reduce the impact of its operations. It has invested over £100,000 in additional mobile transformers to enable more aircraft to use fixed electrical ground power facilities rather than their own auxiliary power units, which helps to reduce emissions and noise on the ground by providing power for jet aircraft while they are parked. The airport has also developed an airfield infringement fine system that includes a provision to levy fines for vehicles left running while unattended within the airport's boundaries.

Section 38(1) of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 states: an aerodrome authority may … fix its charges by reference, among other things, to any fact or matter relevant to—

  1. (a) the amount of noise caused by the aircraft in respect of which the charges are made; or
  2. (b) the extent or nature of any inconvenience resulting from such noise."
The hon. Gentleman may wish to follow that through.

Mr. George Osborne

Will the Minister respond to the point that I raised about changing the law to allow airports to fine planes that deviate from tracks? That is a huge problem in Knutsford, and the airport would support such a change. Although we disagree on the extent to which the fines should be used, we all agree that the law should be changed. Will the Government include that in the forthcoming White Paper and the following legislation?

Mr. Jamieson

That can certainly be considered. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make that point during the consultation, I am sure that he—and many others—will do so. We look forward to receiving his comments.

In July 2000, the Department issued a consultation paper entitled "Control of noise from civil aircraft". Paragraph 27 of the paper suggested that section 38(1) might be amended to make it clearer that charges could relate. for example, to compliance with 'noise preferential routes'. Manchester airport has long supported the idea of improved powers to ensure compliance. The consultation has now closed and the responses are being considered.

Manchester airport has a committee that actively consults with four local environmental groups—the Knutsford and Mobberley joint action group, the Heald Green and Long Lane Ratepayers Association, the Styal Action Association and the Wythenshawe Combined Tenants Association—to discuss the concerns of those living around the airport, in addition to the local authority representatives. I welcome the involvement of those groups and trust that local people, particularly those from Knutsford, will make good use of that opportunity to air concerns and possible solutions with the airport management and other interested parties. It may be helpful for the hon. Gentleman to discuss with some of those organisations and the consultative committee the degree of involvement that they may or may not have had on particular matters. That might be a good avenue for making his views known at the local level to those who have some influence over the policy.

The airport is the terminus of one of the new Manchester metrolink extension lines, which will improve access to employment for the large non-car owning section of the population in the Wythenshawe area.

The hon. Gentleman raised several other matters that I wished to cover, but there may not be adequate time. If at some time he draws those matters to my attention, perhaps in a note, I will be happy to write to him. He may wish to follow through on some of the legal detail to form a better understanding of the issue. Perhaps when he has done that, he might come and have a chat with me so that I understand it as well.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman raised these important and sensitive matters on behalf of his constituents. I, too, have an airport in my area, and I know that the issues are difficult to resolve. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East said, sometimes we must balance the problems of our constituents with the wider aspects of economic regeneration, which are also important in our areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o'clock.