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RAF Upper Heyford

Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Sackville.]

1.5 am

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : I am grateful, even at this late hour, for the opportunity to raise an important issue so early in this Session of Parliament. I refer to the problem of noise levels at RAF Upper Heyford.

There has been an airfield at Upper Heyford since the late 1920s. For some time now it has been a major NATO air base. F111 aircraft have been based there since 1970 and their numbers were significantly increased by deployment of an additional squadron of EF111s in 1984. Local people have always recognised the contribution that the base may make to Britain's defences and acknowledge that the first duty of the realm is the defence of the realm. However, that public duty has to be balanced against the collective private interests and considerations of hundreds of people living in the proximity of the base.

RAF Upper Heyford lies in the Cherwell valley. The airfield has one physical runway which is aligned roughly on an east-west axis. To the west, literally at the end of the runway, lies the village of Upper Heyford with an adult population of about 1,750 people. A little further away, on the valley ridge, lies Steeple Aston with a population of approximately 860 and Middle Aston with a population of just over 100. At the other end of the runway, again right against the perimeter fence, lies the village of Ardley with a population of about 670. In total, about 2,400 adults and their children live very close to the base. There can be no airfield in Britain or, I suspect, in NATO where so many people and so many villages are so close to an airfield runway and so vulnerable to aircraft noise.

During the late 1960s, there was a substantial increase in aircraft activity at RAF Upper Heyford and thus an increase in aircraft noise. That led in turn to an increase in very real concern among local people that aircraft noise was making their lives intolerable. A survey carried out by some pupils at Bicester school in 1969 and 1970 stated :

"the chairman of Steeple Aston Parish Council told us that the council had done everything possible, but with very little in the way of actual results. They have written to the Base Commander, attended many meetings at the Base, as well as writing to the Ministry of Defence (who only referred the letters back to Upper Heyford)." That sense of frustration in 1970 is undoubtedly experienced perhaps even more deeply today by the parish council and local residents who feel that officials simply are not listening to them. However, in 1970, the Ministry of Defence realised that something had to be done to try to relieve the burden of aircraft noise on local people. The minutes of Steeple Aston parish council in September 1970 state :

"In an endeavour to alleviate the noise, aircraft taking off from Upper Heyford were now instructed to turn 10 deg right as soon as possible after take-off. If it were possible with the compatibility of safety, it may be possible to turn more than 10 deg."

That was 1970. Following further public concern, these informal arrangements later became more formal.

Early in 1974, the United States air force experimented with and finally adopted a formal noise abatement flight pattern for departures to the west. The procedure involved a right turn before the aircraft had left the confines of the

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airfield to avoid Upper Heyford village, following a line slightly to the north of Middle Aston and culminating in a left turn to avoid direct overflight of Duns Tew.

In 1984, as the result of suggestions from a civil airline pilot who lived in Ardley, basically a similar procedure was adopted for departures to the east of the base to avoid Ardley. Despite these noise abatement measures, there was still considerable aircraft noise. In fairness, however, householders in the worst affected villages qualified for noise insulation grants. From time to time there were complaints about aircraft straying from what were regarded as agreed flight paths, but the noise levels were at least tolerable.

What for a number of years had at least been tolerable levels of aircraft noise became intolerable in June of this year. On 24 May, the United States air force announced to local people that both noise abatement departure routes would cease to be used from 1 June. From then on planes would take off in a straight line and fly direct over the villages. That means that to the west of the base they fly directly over Upper Heyford and Steeple Aston. To the east, jets fly directly over Ardley. The official reason for such change was that over the years the F-111 aircraft have become heavier and the planes' thrust has remained the same. Thus, on the ground of safety it had become necessary to straighten the flight paths. The consequence of the change was that the levels of aircraft noise were no longer tolerable. Instead, they became intolerable.

My hon. Friend the Minister came to RAF Upper Heyford to learn more about the situation for himself. In consequence, the United States air force was asked, during the latter part of the summer, to experiment with flying slightly different flight patterns over the area to ascertain whether any improvement could be made. Simultaneously with these experiments, noise tests were carried out by the RAF institute of community health and the Cherwell district council, the council being the environmental health authority. A combination of these experimental flight patterns and extensive noise tests have led in due course to a slightly modified flight pattern. The results of the tests to the west of the base have now been published. They show that, while there has been a slight reduction in noise levels in the southern end of Steeple Aston, the modified flight paths have meant a substantial increase in noise for Middle Aston. Much of Steeple Aston and Middle Aston now lie within a 78 dBA contour. Amazingly, the noise tests by the RAF institute of community health in the Ardley area, to the east of the base, have not yet been completed. However, there is every reason to believe that, given the results that have been obtained by Cherwell district council and a straightforward extrapolation of the noise footprint elsewhere, a substantial part of Ardley will now come within the 83 dBA contour.

What do the figures mean? I can inform the House that 70 dBA is the level at which the Ministry of Defence pays for houses to have noise insulation grants. So there is a clear public recognition that any household that has continually to endure those levels of noise merits some compensation and the ability to have its home insulated. I am concerned about substantially greater noise levels. There is not time in this debate to discuss in detail the way in which noise is measured, but it is important to remember that it is a logarithmic scale, not a linear progression.

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment recently refused a planning appeal in the Cherwell valley because the background noise was 73 dBA. The local district council recently took enforcement proceedings against a factory in a nearby built- up area where noise levels were in in the mid 60s dBA. By contrast, many local people are expected to live with noise levels of 77 dBA and 78 dBA and more. That is somewhat akin to the count of a tube train reaching peak speed and crossing line junctions. We should remember that the report from the RAF institute of community health produced average readings. Contained within them are some very hig spot readings. Individual planes passing close over people's homes cause real physical pain and distress.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has received many letters from local people which set out very clearly the depth of discomfort that they now experience. Nor should we forget that, in consequence of the change in the flight path, Dr. Radcliffe's school at Steeple Aston is now immediately below the flight path. As the Bishop of Oxford, in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, said, the school is

"now suffering intolerable noise levels."

If, as expected, the noise levels in Ardley are in excess of 83 dBA, the MOD will be obliged to offer to purchase all the houses--an Oxfordshire village. To the west of the base 13 properties in Upper Heyford are clearly within the 83 dBA contour and I understand that the Secretary of State for Defence will be offering to purchase those homes in due course.

People do not want their homes bought ; they want quieter homes. There has been a village at Ardley since before the Norman conquest, and villagers do not want the village to be purchased. They simply want to see a substantial amelioration in the present noise levels or, as posters in the village now claim, they want "church bells, not decibels."

Many people experience intolerable levels of noise, and relief must be found. That relief can only come from the MOD. As it is an MOD air base, private individuals have no relief to abate the nuisance in the courts, and the local environmental health authority has no statutory powers to make the nuisance cease. However, let there be no doubt that, had this been a factory or anything other than an installation exempt by statute, local people could have obtained relief by an injunction in the courts and the local environmental health authority would certainly have sought to abate the nuisance by enforcement procedures.

There is a simple constitutional point. The RAF and the United States air force are answerable to Ministers and Ministers are answerable and accountable to the House. My hon. Friend the Minister will have seen that 75 right hon. and hon. Members have signed early-day motion 22. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and colleague and neighbour the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for sponsoring that motion. The most recent signature to that motion is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) who is in the Chamber tonight. Early-day motion 22 urges the MOD to investigate without delay measures to relieve substantially aircraft noise, including the possible realignment of the runway.

This issue will not go away until a solution is found. Since early-day motion 22 was tabled, I have been encouraged by the sizeable number of right hon. and hon. Members who have expressed their support for speedy

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action. My hon. Friend the Minister will doubtless tell the House that realigning the runway is a very expensive option. I understand that he estimates that that would cost more than £50 million. If the Ministry feels that in the totality of its budget that is too expensive, the burden of responsibility is on the Minister to come up with a workable and cost-effective solution.

The MOD has the technical expertise and knowledge. Tonight the House wants to know what the MOD is doing to find a solution. The status quo is clearly not sustainable, and changes need to be made without delay.

On television, my hon. Friend said that he

" will want to see over time what effect this really does have on the local villages."

I do not believe that there can be any doubt whatsoever about the effect of the changes of flight path on local people and local villages. The effect is devastating. No more time is needed to confirm that. It will be no good for my hon. Friend simply to hold out the vague hope of some uncertain solution at some unspecified date in the future. People living in the proximity of Upper Heyford want to know today what action the Ministry of Defence intends to take to resolve the problem.

Finally, I express this caution to my hon. Friend. Local people have been very patient. Six months have passed since the change in flight paths was introduced. They have placed their trust in the parliamentary system. If that system does not produce a result, they will feel increasingly antipathetic towards their American neighbours, and in time, I fear, increasingly hostile to their presence. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the United States air force realise that it would be a matter of real concern if the base were to exhaust local support. Thus, I hope that this evening we shall start to hear of some real solutions.

1.21 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman) : My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) has presented the problem with characteristic clarity. I am aware of the considerable concern of those who live in his constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), which is also affected. I am well aware, through reports in the media and correspondence received from my hon. Friends and from members of the public, of the very deep concerns that they have, and, I understand them.

The problems of Upper Heyford as a military airfield, and the problems of noise associated with military aircraft, are not unique. I regret that there are no simple solutions. I hope that I shall be able to convey to the House my concern and that of the Ministry of Defence, and outline one or two positive constructive steps that we plan to take.

The history of RAF Upper Heyford began during world war 1, when the base was used for training purposes. During world war 2, Upper Heyford again played a training role at first, eventually becoming a Royal Air Force bomber station in 1943. In 1969 it was announced that the base would become home to the 20th Tactical Figher Wing of the USAF which was to be re- equipped with the F-111E swing-wing fighter bomber. A large modernisation and construction programme was carried out at the base to enable it to accommodate the F-111E, and the first aircraft of the planned three squadrons arrived in September 1970. The three squadrons of F-111Es were joined in 1983 by one squadron of the EF-111A--electronic counter-measures support aircraft.

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Those aircraft provide long-range, all- weather tactical fighter bomber and electronic combat sorties for NATO and are a vital part of the Alliance's range of deterrent forces.

The United States air force presence at Upper Heyford therefore goes back more than 30 years, and during that time the base has received the support and the hospitality of the local community. I am very grateful for that support, which continues to this day, despite the current problems, and I know that this gratitude is shared by the United States air force. The base has worked hard to reciprocate that support. One of the ways in which it has done so was the introduction in 1976, as my hon. Friend said, in response to representations from the local community about aircraft noise, of a noise abatement take-off pattern for aircraft departing to the west. That manoeuvre involved the aircraft making a steep banking turn to the right immediately on take-off, followed very shortly by another turn to the left. That procedure aimed successfully, to reduce the noise levels experienced by villages near the end of the runway. In 1984 a noise- abatement pattern was introduced for aircraft departing to the east, with the same aim. However, the F-111 is undoubtedly a noisy aeroplane, and noise levels around the base were still high. Consequently, in 1986, following a noise survey by the RAF's institute of community and occupational medicine, a noise compensation scheme was introduced. That provided for those homes within the 12-hour average 70 dBA noise contour to be given grants for noise insulation work and for the Ministry to purchase homes within the 83 dBA noise contour, of which there was only one at that time.

Our prime responsibility towards the communities around the base is to ensure that the flying activities there are carried out as safely as possible. To that end, the safety of flying operations at the base, as elsewhere, is kept under constant review. That process led the United States air force to the conclusion, earlier this year, that changes in the thrust-to-weight ratio of the F-111E since the noise abatement patterns were introduced had led to an erosion of the safety margins for those patterns to an unacceptable, though not currently dangerous, degree. Typically, an F-111E on an operational sortie is some 6 per cent. heavier now than it would have been 10 years ago, consequently reducing the thrust- to-weight ratio, while there has been an associated increase in the drag factor. Those changes did not occur all at once, but step-by-step over the 10-year period.

Bearing in mind its responsibilities for those over whom it flies as well as the safety of the aircrew themselves, the United States air force prudently requested that it be allowed to revert to the standard direct take-off employed at other military airbases, and, indeed, as previously used at Upper Heyford. I endorsed that request and the changes in take-off patterns were made with effect from 1 June this year.

We expected that the changes would increase noise levels in several of the villages around the base, notably Steeple Aston and Ardley, but we took into account the fact that Steeple Aston had lived with the straight-ahead pattern from 1970 to 1976, while Ardley had done so from 1970 to 1984, although neither village could be expected to welcome a return to the earlier patterns. In addition, when

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visibility was bad the aircraft had in any case generally used the straight-ahead pattern directly over Steeple Aston or Ardley. I commissioned a full noise survey by scientists of the RAF's institute of community and occupational medicine for this autumn, taking account of the changes to which I have already referred. I also arranged for my officials and officers at the base to brief locally elected representatives of the communities likely to be affected--and indeed my hon. Friend--before the changes took place.

In the event, it became clear that the increased noise levels had given rise to considerable local concern especially in respect of the Dr. Ratcliffe school in Steeple Aston. I accept that they also affect other residents. Those concerns were ably and forcefully represented by my hon. Friend and, as a result, I visited RAF Upper Heyford and Steeple Aston soon after the change in take-off patterns to assess the situation for myself. During my visit I announced that I had decided to take three steps in the light of my hon. Friend's representations : first, that the Ministry of Defence would, in principle, on an exceptional basis, pay for sound insulation work at the Dr. Ratcliffe school in Steeple Aston ; secondly, that the United States air force would carry out an evaluation of alternative operating patterns aimed at identifying a means of reducing the noise levels then being experienced by many local people ; and, thirdly, that the full noise survey planned for the autumn would be brought forward to this summer. The work on all three of those areas has been pressed forward as swiftly as practicable and I shall outline where we now stand on each.

First, the governors of the Dr. Ratcliffe school have commissioned a firm of consultants, for which the Ministry is paying, to advise them on a suitable noise insulation scheme for the school. We shall pay for the necessary work to be carried out and I hope that it will be possible to begin that during the Christmas holidays.

Secondly, the United States air force tried out a modification whereby the aircraft made a gentle turn to take the aircraft between the villages of Steeple and Middle Aston, coupled with an earlier termination of the aircraft's afterburners. That modified pattern has been employed by the F- 111s taking off from the base to the west since mid-August, and the results of the noise survey indicate that it has produced some reduction in the noise level in most of Steeple Aston. For example, the average noise level at the bus stop in the centre of Steeple Aston was 77.5 dBA prior to the introduction of the modified take-off path, and 72.3 subsequently. It has also reduced noise levels in Lower Heyford.

The modified take-off pattern has a further advantage. The old noise abatement pattern could not be flown in bad weather and so aircraft from the base used to overfly Steeple Aston perhaps as much as 17 per cent. of the time during the winter months. The modified path can be used in bad weather as well as in good, and so aircraft from the base no longer directly overfly the village of Steeple Aston because of bad weather.

Thirdly, the noise survey for the western end of the airfield has now been completed. The work on the eastern end, in which direction there are significantly fewer departures, is not yet complete because there have not been a sufficient number of flying days for correct observations to be taken. We are not delaying matters. The report for the western end of the runway shows that the noise levels in Steeple Aston and Upper Heyford in

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particular are higher than they were prior to 1 June and recommends the introduction of a revised noise compensation scheme at the base. This revised scheme will include an offer from the Ministry of Defence to purchase 13 properties in Upper Heyford which lie within the 83 dBA 12-hour noise contour.

I am today able to announce a further step which I hope will be welcome to my hon. Friend, although it is not a complete answer, and I shall come on to further planned steps in a moment. As my hon. Friend is aware, in addition to providing noise insulation grants for residents who are subject to average noise levels in excess of 70 dBA, the Ministry of Defence allows claims for injurious affection compensation where there is evidence to show that there has been an adverse effect on the value of residential property and certain small businesses as a direct result of an increase in noise or other physical effects following the bringing into use of new public works at an airfield. I feel sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that, although strictly speaking there are no new public works, exceptionally my Department will be able to consider claims for injurious affection from those concerned. I shall announce full details when the revised noise compensation scheme at RAF Upper Heyford is introduced.

My hon. Friend especially mentioned the possibility of realigning the runway at RAF Upper Heyford as a possible solution to the remaining problems. I am aware that I have been talking principally about noise compensation schemes and not, as my hon. Friend said, tackling the fundamental problems. I have to say that there are significant difficulties with this proposal, not least of which is that realigning the runway so that aircraft no longer take-off toward Steeple and Middle Aston can only serve to create problems elsewhere. Although, perhaps, not as severe, they will none the less be unwelcome to the people they affect.

Such a project would also be extremely costly, because it would involve the demolition and reprovision of expensive support facilities, as well as simply building a new runway. In addition, there would be operational problems caused by the disruption of moving the aircraft to another base while the work was done ; and, indeed, the problem of finding another base at which to put them and the large numbers of associated personnel. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that we will, as he asked, carry out a full study of the costs and implications of realigning the runway. We will make the results public and I shall write to my hon. Friend when the work is complete.

When I visited Upper Heyford some months ago to see and hear for myself the problems involving military

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aircraft, I promised that I would return to the base once the full study had been completed, and I hope that it will be completed not only comprehensively but quickly. I shall then meet my hon. Friend and his constituents to explain the results of the study and to explore what further steps can be taken.

Mr. Baldry : May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that, while, of course, I am grateful for the fact that he will carry out a full technical survey of the feasibility of realigning the runway, he has made it clear on a number of occasions that there is a cost involved, and he has made it clear publicly that he is worried about that and the technical feasibility of it. However, can one understand that the Ministry of Defence will consider other technical options? The Ministry clearly knows the capabilities of these planes, and it should not just be a question of considering whether it is possible to realign the runway. Other options that may be available to relieve aircraft noise in this area should also be considered.

Mr. Freeman : I give my hon. Friend that assurance. Our minds are certainly not closed. We are sympathetic to the problems. As I said at the outset, there are no simple solutions. If there were, we would have taken them. Certainly my mind is open, and we shall continue to explore with the United States air force and with our own experts possible solutions to the problem.

To sum up, I very much regret that the change of take-off patterns at RAF Upper Heyford this summer has led to an increase in the levels of disturbance experienced by many of those who live in the vicinity of the airfield. I apologise to those who have experienced distress because of this disturbance. However, I have to say that the changes were necessary because of the need to maximise the safety of flying operations from the base. As such, the changes were in the interests of all concerned, the local community as well as the aircrew, since I believe that one point on which we would all agree is the need to do our utmost to reduce the chances of an accident.

I hope that I have shown that the concerns that my hon. Friend has so ably presented on behalf of his constituents have been taken very seriously by the Ministry of Defence, by myself and by the US air force, and that we have responded, and will continue to respond, in a constructive and helpful way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Two o'clock.

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