Gatwick Airport: Growth and Noise Mitigation

Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall Debate

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Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I congratulate you on your elevation. I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) in calling this debate. As he explained, the background to it is a significant increase in the number of flights to and from Gatwick airport. Since 2013, the number of flights has increased by 12% and the number of passengers has increased by 22%. That has resulted in an increase in noise not just in the immediate vicinity of the airport, but in rural areas, such as the one I represent in Arundel and South Downs, in the approach to the airport for both take-off and arrival. 

As my hon. Friend explained, the Government’s policy is that future aviation growth should share benefits between the industry and local communities. Therefore the question is: how is growth that has already taken place and future growth to be shared with the communities that many of us represent? So far as we can see, there has been no such sharing. There is no doubt that the increase in growth has been good for elements of the local economy, for those who are using the airport, including me, and for the country as a whole, but it is difficult to see a benefit for local communities, which calls into question whether the Government’s key objective is being fulfilled. 

The Government’s second objective is to limit and where possible reduce noise. The second question is, therefore: to what extent has noise even been limited, let alone reduced? What precisely is their policy to ensure that the objective is met? That policy can be expressed only through the operation of Gatwick airport, and it is ot at all clear that its noise management board is doing anything other than providing a talking shop where community groups are encouraged to make their representations known. Adjustments can be made to flight paths, approach lanes and so on, but there is no strategy to reduce noise. There are no metrics by which the airport can be held to account for that noise reduction. That is the key point: there is no plan. 

The Government have effectively conceded that point, because their response to the concerns raised on our community’s behalf by various community groups and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling on behalf of a number of us was to say, “There will be an aviation strategy that will look at how noise can be reduced.” It is wonderful to know that there will be an aviation strategy; it would be good to know when that aviation strategy is coming. My hon. Friend the Minister has been hard at work today—first thing this morning he was doing a debate on a different matter, which I also attended—but it would be good to know when the strategy is coming. Will he say a little more about how that might affect the reduction in noise that the Government are committed to? For all we know, that aviation strategy might be months or years down the line. We do not know what it will say on noise. At the moment, there is meant to be a policy to reduce noise. I return to the key question: why is there not a plan that Gatwick airport, which is making a great deal of money from this expansion in aviation—I am not criticising the expansion at all—must subscribe to that sets out how it will reduce noise? 

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), because they have both made powerful points. I first took part in a debate on aviation noise 34 years ago, when Gatwick was in my constituency. We had to deal with the BAC 111, which made a noise like a screaming banshee. It is true to say that aircraft noise is much mitigated now. The point that my right hon. Friend makes is terribly important, because it requires only a tweak, not major change, and the absolute enforcement of discipline in terms of the pilots. 

Nick Herbert

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Only he could introduce phrases such as “screaming banshee” into a debate. He draws my attention to another point. Part of the increase in flights from Gatwick has been in long-haul flights, which are a relatively new development and mean much bigger planes. Even if the newer planes are less noisy, residents and groups such as Communities Against Gatwick Noise and Emissions and the Association of Parish Councils Aviation Group—one of its representatives is a constituent—are saying that there has been an increase in noise as a consequence of the new flights. Will the Minister tell us more about the aviation strategy and when that is coming? Specifically, why is there not a plan ahead of that strategy that Gatwick is required to adhere to, setting out metrics for how the increase in passengers and flights over the last few years will be mitigated through noise reduction and how future growth will ensure a reduction in noise? It is no good just saying that there will be a strategy in the future; our communities want action now. 


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jesse Norman)

May I say what a delight it is to have you in the chair, Sir Christopher, especially in your recently dignified form? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this debate about growth and noise reduction at Gatwick, and all those Members who have spoken. My hon. Friend has proved himself on this issue as on every other to be an indefatigable campaigner—a tribune of his people—and still more strikingly so with a voice that is obviously failing under him. We can only congratulate him on his courage and resolution. 

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, this matter falls briefly but unhappily into what might be referred to as a ministerial limbo, and therefore I am responding on behalf of the Government—I should say that I am very far from an expert on these matters, as I fear will become strikingly clear with the passage of time. I also pay tribute and offer my pity, if I may, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for having to put up with me twice in a single day, once on transport for the north and once on noise in the south. Those issues are not necessarily as different as one might think. 

As hon. Members will be aware, the Government recognise that noise disturbance from aircraft is a serious concern to local communities. The concern can be still more pronounced when an airport is experiencing growth of the kind that has been seen at Gatwick. The Government’s role is to ensure that the right balance is struck locally and nationally between the environmental impacts and the economic and consumer benefits that aviation growth can deliver. Those environmental impacts of course include noise.

 I need hardly say that the value of aviation does not need to be debated in this Chamber. It connects us with the world and allows us to visit our friends and family, to conduct our business and to see foreign countries and further parts of this country. The sector is also, as has been recognised, a very important part of the economy, directly supporting more than 230,000 jobs with many more employed indirectly. It contributes around £20 billion annually to the UK economy. The inbound tourism industry alone across the country is worth a further £19 billion.

Although there has been an aerodrome at Gatwick since the 1930s, the commercial airport as we know it today was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1958. In its first year of operation, just 186,000 passengers passed through the airport. Today, it is the UK’s second largest airport and helps take more than 44 million passengers to 228 destinations in 74 countries around the world every year.

 As has been recognised by several hon. Members, Gatwick is a very important local employer—it is important to put that on public record again from the Government perspective. Almost 24,000 people work on the Gatwick campus across 252 different companies, with 2,800 directly mployed by the airport. Nationally, the airport supports a further 61,000 jobs and contributes more than £5 billion towards our GDP. As such, it is a key part of our national infrastructure. Its local economic impact and the local economic value of its recent growth are significant drivers of growth and prosperity in the south-east. That means better pay, more jobs, stronger local businesses and growing asset values.

 The Government recognise and have made clear that the benefits of airport growth must not come without due consideration and mitigation of the environmental impacts of aviation, in particular those impacts caused by the noise generated by aircraft. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned, the Government’s policy, as set out in the aviation policy framework, is

“to limit and where possible reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise.”

My colleagues have recently brought forward new policies and measures in line with that aim. It has been suggested that nothing has happened, but I understand that that is not true and I want to put some of the measures on the public record. They can then be discussed and debated and used as a framework for further discussion. 

As hon. Members are aware, the Government set noise controls at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports using powers in the Civil Aviation Act 1982. My Department has the power to direct those airports, including Gatwick, to fine for noise infringements. I have no doubt that Gatwick’s management are, or shortly will be, following this debate closely. The responsibility—as matters presently stand, pending a further aviation strategy—lies with Gatwick, as advised, with potential enforcement from the Department. 

One of the main controls the Government set is restrictions on operations at night time, because we recognise that noise from aircraft at night is, among many unacceptable aspects of aircraft noise, widely regarded as the least acceptable. In October last year, the Government introduced changes to improve the night flight regime. By introducing a new quota count category for the quietest aircraft, the Government are seeking to improve transparency for communities and to ensure that all aircraft movements will count towards an airport’s movement limit, whereas before such aircraft were exempt. 

I reassure hon. Members that the Government have maintained the previous movement limit for night flights at Gatwick, which has been fixed for many years. It will guarantee until 2022 no increase in flights beyond what was already permitted. Furthermore, among other measures, from later this year there will be a reduction in Gatwick’s quota count limit, which should incentivise airlines to purchase quieter aircraft to make use of the airport’s permitted noise and movement allowances.

Separately, last October the Government published our decision on how we aim to support airspace modernisation, which includes new policies to ensure noise is more thoroughly considered in these important decisions. As hon. Members may know, the way our airspace is managed is based on arrangements that are in many cases almost 50 years old. In today’s world, that approach is increasingly inefficient, and can lead to unnecessary delays for passengers and an excessive impact on the environment around airports. We therefore need to modernise our airspace to enable the UK to keep ace with the rest of the world in exploiting the newest technologies. Advances in technologies have provided great improvements in the environmental performance of aircraft airframe design and engines, in terms of both noise and carbon emissions, and that has had a substantial effect on the noise experienced on the ground. For example, new-generation aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 737 MAX have a noise footprint that is typically 50% smaller on departure and 30% smaller on arrival than the aircraft they are replacing.

We expect aircraft noise to continue to fall in the future, compared with today’s levels, and we believe that that trend has the potential to outweigh the noise generated from increases in air traffic. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is no longer in his place, discussed the screaming banshee of the BAC 111. There is no doubt that, as it and the A320 indicate, tweaks to aircraft design can greatly improve noise performance. As he said, the noise experienced over the past few years may have actually decreased by some measurements. I respectfully suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling that it may not be correct to measure from just 2013. Possibly the correct measurement for noise is to look at before the recession of 2007-08—the Gordon Brown recession, as I like to refer to it—when noise levels were not quite at the level they are now in terms of the number of people affected, but were certainly significantly higher than in the intervening period. 

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

 I am wont to be pedantic with the Minister, but he understands better than anybody, having represented his community in Herefordshire so assiduously for so long, that, although an incremental change downwards is to be welcomed, but should an uptick come, it is hard to remember where we were 10 years ago—it is very easy to remember where we were before the uptick. 

Jesse Norman 

I am exceedingly aware of that. It is generally a feature of human consciousness that we ignore the things we benefit from but are extremely angry if things we enjoy are taken away from us. This is an example of that. I would not derogate for a second from what my hon. Friend said. 

To say that we believe that the trend has the potential to outweigh the noise generated from increases in air traffic is, of course, not to say that as aircraft get quieter there are not difficult issues that need to be addressed with the implementation of the new technology. One major component of airspace modernisation—some hon. Members touched on this—is performance-based navigation, which allows aircraft to fly their flightpaths far more accurately than they could with previous navigation techniques. That has obvious benefits in terms of noise, because populated areas can be better avoided, but it also poses challenges—I do not need to remind hon. Members that with great power comes great responsibility —particularly in its effect on those directly underneath flight paths that experience a greater concentration of aircraft. That requires proper administration and control, and a sensible and considered approach. That is why the Government have brought about a new requirement for options analysis to be used when developing proposals to change the use of airspace. That will enable communities to take part in a more transparent airspace change rocess, and it ensure that options such as concentrated routes versus multiple routes and the degree of respite that can be offered, which has been discussed today, can be given proper consideration. 

The Government recognise through the 2014 “Survey of Noise Attitudes” that attitudes towards aviation noise are changing. That goes to my hon. Friend’s point. The work carried out during the SONA study shows that sensitivity to aircraft noise has increased. The same percentage of people are registered as “highly annoyed” at lower levels of noise than in a past study. That is what we should see in an increasingly prosperous society. The threshold for interruptions and loss of amenity should go up. That is not a bad thing by any means, although it might be highly distressing for those involved. That is why the Government have introduced new metrics and appraisal guidance to assess the impact of noise on health and quality of life. In particular, it will ensure that for future airspace changes, noise impacts much further away from airports are considered much more than they are at present. 

As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) mentioned, the Government have also committed to creating an independent commission on civil aviation noise later in the spring. ICCAN, as it is known, is designed to help rebuild some of the communities’ trust in the industry that we recognise has been lost, and will ensure that the noise impacts of airspace changes are properly considered. Communities will be given a greater understanding of and stake in noise management. 

Alongside the Government’s work, Gatwick, which in this case is the responsible entity, is seeking to address the concerns of the communities surrounding the airport. I welcome the tone of the constructive remarks in relation to how Gatwick is engaging with those around it. In response to the significant concerns raised in 2014 and 2015 about Gatwick-related aircraft noise, the airport has launched several programmes of community engagement, most notably the noise management board, which is independently chaired and attended by representatives from several local community groups. Its role is to develop, agree, and maintain a co-ordinated strategy for noise management for Gatwick on behalf of stakeholder organisations. My officials are actively involved in that work, and all evidence raised at the NMB is considered in the development of Government policy. If it is for Gatwick, as the responsible entity, to take action, it can do so under advisement from the NMB. 

Furthermore, and in accordance with its obligations under the environmental noise directive, Gatwick will later this year publish its draft noise action plan for 2019-23, which will provide an opportunity for the public to have their say on what it is doing to mitigate against noise. The final approval of the noise action plan falls to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but my officials will work closely with the airport and officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as the plan is developed. 

Finally, I want to return to aviation in the national context and the aviation strategy, which has been discussed. It is subject to a process that is already under way. We seek for it to be comprehensive in its scope. It will seek o address many important issues, such as security, connectivity and skills, and the development of innovation and new technology, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East raised—I have some experience of our great investment from when I was at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation programme, and our relationship with some of the big aircraft manufacturers. Hon. Members may be pleased to know that one of its objectives is to consider how we support growth while tackling the environmental impact of aviation. As the Secretary of State said in his recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, one of the issues that the Department wants to consider is whether there should be new framework to allow airports to grow sustainably. That means looking at trends in aviation noise over the long term and how they relate to growth in aircraft movements. 

I want to give my hon. Friend a moment to finish, so I will speak for just a second longer. This issue is relevant not just to Gatwick, but to all airports across the UK, and it demands a national approach. We cannot prejudge the process, but one of its outcomes may be that we will want to clarify our existing aviation policy and how it should be monitored and enforced. My colleagues and I recognise the importance of accountability, and that may well be something that needs to be considered as part of a more developed overall aviation strategy framework. 

Nick Herbert


Jesse Norman 

As I have described, that work is going to start this year. It is quite substantial, and there will be several levels of consultation. I cannot tell my right hon. Friend when it is going to end. It is the nature of these things that they are open-ended, but it is very much at the forefront of my colleagues’ minds. 

The Government recognise that colleagues from across the House and the communities they serve want faster progress, both at Gatwick and at other airports, but we believe that the new aviation strategy is the best vehicle by which to co-ordinate and implement any potential change in a properly informed and considered way. As I said, there will be a series of consultations. I will relay the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling for a further meeting with my colleague the Aviation Minister, and I am sure she will take it with great seriousness. I thank him for securing this constructive debate, and I thank hon. Members from across the House for their valuable contributions.

Tom Tugendhat 

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who has arrived in the nick of time. His presence and support is always gratefully received. 

I want to reinforce three very brief points. The Minister responsible should take time out of her schedule to meet the community groups and the noise management board. Gatwick Obviously Not! and other groups have done an awful lot to ensure that their requests are not only appropriate and reasonable, but well argued and practical to implement. I also suggest that, as the London airspace management programme phase 2 is developed, it should take into account the full review of airspace olicy that the Government have promised. The policy must not weaken the relationship between growth and noise. Indeed, it should be tightened. 

I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Gordon (Colin Clark), for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) nd for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), and for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for their contributions. I thank the Minister for responding for the Government.


To read the full Hansard report of the debate click here - you can also view the ParliamentTV footage of Nick's speech here.

SpeechesNick HerbertGatwick