Nick's Intervention in the Westminster Hall Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I offer my support on the issue of ambient noise, because in rural communities where noise levels are low the concentration of flights that often happens as a result of the new digital navigation technology means that the disruption now being caused from Gatwick can be great. Does that not need to be taken into account when considering flightpaths over areas that already have a high level of ambient noise and would therefore be disrupted less by such concentration?
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that we might need the wisdom of Solomon. I cannot claim to have that, but I am wise enough not to stray into the area that the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), encouraged us to stray into. I shall focus on the issue of noise, if I may.
I want to assure the House that the Government are acutely aware that noise is a major environmental concern around airports. We know that communities feel strongly about the issue. I remind the House that, as set out in the aviation policy framework published in 2013, our overall policy is
“to limit and, where possible, reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise”.
How we define the word “significantly” is important, and I well understand the points that have been made about background ambient noise in more rural areas. In accordance with the aviation policy framework, we will continue to treat 57 dB as the average level of daytime aircraft noise that marks the approximate onset of significant community annoyance. That does not, however, mean that all people within that contour will experience significant adverse affects. Nor does it mean that no one outside the contour will consider themselves annoyed by aircraft noise. We are looking at the matter, and our consultation later in the year will consider policy in that area and particularly what it means for airspace change. Our overarching policy on the issue of noise remains as I have set out, and I think that the House will agree that it is the right approach to take.
We have a strong aviation sector here in the United Kingdom, and we should be proud of it, but we want to ensure that it does all it can to reduce the effect of noise on communities. I know that airports and other stakeholders, such as airlines, the CAA and NATS, all realise the importance of tackling noise if the industry is to continue to grow. The Government, too, have a role to play, which is why we set noise controls at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted to balance the benefits of aviation with the burdens they place on communities.
Aircraft noise is a difficult issue, as we have heard, and when changes take place, they can lead to less noise for some but a worsening for others. It can be particularly difficult for people who experience a noticeable change in noise, and it presents formidable challenges for those responsible for decisions. I am aware that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, and in others, people will have experienced changes in noise in recent years because of changes to where aircraft fly.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, a recent change to the joining point for aircraft approaching Gatwick from the east has created concerns for some residents. That change affected the point at which aircraft join the instrument landing system that leads down to the runway. Although that will have meant that some people have experienced fewer aircraft, for others it will have led to an increase in noise as a result of a narrower and more concentrated swathe on the final approach. As he will be aware, the Government believe that it is usually better to concentrate aircraft over as few routes as possible in order to minimise the number of people affected. That has been Government policy for many years and works well for many airports across the country.
Our current policy makes it clear, however, that there may be instances in which multiple routes, such as those that can offer respite for communities, can be better. The Government believe that those decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, with local communities informing the process where possible. I understand that in this instance, as the change was not to published airspace routes, communities were neither informed nor consulted before it occurred. For aircraft arriving in the UK, there are no set routes leading to the final approach. That is because arriving aircraft approach UK airspace in a random pattern and then have to be sequenced for safe operation by air traffic controllers. The change that took place in 2013 was to the procedures that air traffic controllers followed. It was therefore not subject to the Civil Aviation Authority’s airspace change process, which needs to be followed when changes to airspace routes are proposed and requires consultation. Although there is no suggestion that NATS, Gatwick or the CAA acted improperly when making the change, as I have said, I believe that communities should be engaged when such changes are made.
I turn to one or two points that were made in the debate. My hon. Friend talked about changing the angle of approach. At the end of March, Heathrow airport trialled a 3.2° descent, but of course that requires significant pilot training and safety tests. As some airports trial that, more can follow. We need to look at pilot training and plane technology, and the report following that trial is expected over the summer. Having flown the 747 simulator into Heathrow at various descent angles, I can well understand some of the issues involved—in particular, the kinetic energy in a plane when it arrives on a steeper descent. That requires training, and there are noise issues when planes get nearer to the airport as greater braking power is needed. However, the descents are certainly not the same as I experienced when being taken into Kandahar airport some time ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) both referred to the lack of a night flight ban at Gatwick. The Government recognise the impact of noise disturbance at night and, for that reason, set night flight restrictions at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. The current restrictions end in October 2017, and we will consult on future arrangements later this year to ensure that the cost and benefits of night flights continue to be balanced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham asked why stacking could not be done out at sea. The Gatwick arrivals review has recommended that holding areas should be enabled over the sea. Gatwick has accepted that, but it will take some years, as it will require widespread airspace and procedural change. Gatwick will be conferring with the CAA and NATS on that particular issue.
A number of Members raised the issue of the health effects on people on the ground. I have visited schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and experienced the noise at first hand. I had a briefing earlier this week from the Aviation Environment Federation, which presented some very important research—not least from Imperial College, a well respected institution—on the effects on cardiovascular disease and other diseases.
The basic structure of UK airspace was developed more than 40 years ago and since then there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for flights. The future airspace strategy, which is being led by the CAA, is crucial to ensuring that the industry is efficient and can minimise its overall environmental impacts. The plan is to modernise UK airspace and deliver our contribution to the European Commission’s single European sky by 2030—the date by which we feel we should be able to do that. It is an ambitious plan designed around the use of modern technology, including more precise navigation.
Performance-based navigation can vastly improve the accuracy with which aircraft can fly a designated route, and airspace systemisation will mean that they follow a more predictable route, reducing the need for interference from air traffic controllers. That will not only make air travel safer but reduce emissions and journey times. It will also offer the chance to reduce noise for communities around airports by allowing routes that can accurately avoid built-up areas and maximising the rate at which aircraft can climb or descend. For those benefits to be realised, however, we need to ensure that when those essential changes take place, they work for communities as much as possible.
My officials are constantly reviewing Government policies on airspace and aviation noise. One thing I have asked them to consider is whether we can ensure that communities are informed and, when appropriate, consulted when such changes are to be made. They have also been working to deliver the right policies by engaging with all stakeholders, including representatives of local communities. I know that they have found that engagement valuable in ensuring that communities’ interests are represented, and we will continue that dialogue when refining our policies.
I thank the Minister for his promise to consult communities. Should the Government be inclined to go ahead with runway 3 at Heathrow, will they consult the 300,000 residents of west London and beyond who would be affected? Those people are not currently affected by aircraft noise to the same extent as they would be in that situation.
Mr George Howarth (in the Chair)
May I ask the Minister to bear in mind that he needs to leave some time for the mover of the motion to sum up?
Thank you, Mr Howarth.
Of course we will consult in that case.
The Government want to maximise the benefits from a strong aviation sector; it is good for the economy, bringing investment and employment to the UK and wider benefits to society and individuals. However, the Government recognise that that needs to be balanced against the costs to the local environment that more flights bring, with noise being a prime example. I thank the Members who have taken part in this debate; it has been useful to inform the Government of people’s views, and I look forward to hearing the summing-up by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling.