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Column 1310that may seem somewhat quaint, any measure which can help to reduce the noise impact on people living nearby is obviously to be welcomed and is worth trying.
It will be in everyone's interest if Squadron Leader Rice can have regular meetings with representatives of local communities to take forward any sensible suggestions to help ameliorate noise levels and also, if possible, to establish much quicker and more effective lines of communication and information to local vilages about what is happening, about to happen and has happened, at the base. The recent F111 incidents were an example of when, for most people, the only immediate information available was received in dribs and drabs on the radio and in the press. By definition, much of it was hearsay and second hand and led to speculation and rumour. It must be possible to establish an effective network to disseminate information regularly and, when necessary, speedily through local communities from the base. I am sure that local people would willingly co- operate with such a move if it meant that they could be given more speedily the information that they as local people need about these matters.
I hope that progress with Squadron Leader Rice and Colonel Downer has been positive, but there are one or two areas in which progress has not been as positive. The first relates to compensation for Ardley. Ardley is a comparatively small village to the east of the base and has been perhaps one of the worst affected villages. It has a sizeable number of houses within the 83 dbn contour. The Ministry of Defence has offered to purchase those houses at market values. I understand that once purchased they will be relet to American service personnel.
Many people in Ardley feel that it is unfair and unjust that, whereas a house on one side of the road may fall within the 83 dbn contour and thus be available for purchase, a house which is literally on the other side of the side of the road and which happens to be outside the 83 dbn contour, but by definition must be within a very high noise contour, is not eligible for purchase. It would be fairer and more just if every householder in the immediate parish of Ardley could have the opportunity of his or her property being sold to the Ministry of Defence at market value because otherwise my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will encounter some hard cases and people who feel, rightly, that they have not been treated fairly or justly.
The people of Ardley have not brought this upon themselves. The village has existed for a long time. The noise levels are not of the people's making, but inevitably if, as I suspect will happen, a sizeable number of people sell their houses because of the intolerable noise levels, the nature and character of the village will change considerably. The village shop, garage and church are all within the 83 dbn contour. It will be much more sensible if all home owners in the village were given the opportunity of selling their property. It could then be rightly and fairly said that anyone who purchased that property thereafter and moved to the village did so with full knowledge and understanding of the nuisance involved. My hon. Friend will doubtless say that that would create a precedent. In effect, the decision by the Ministry of Defence to offer compensation along the lines that are similar to those in the Land Compensation Act 1973 is itself a precedent in many ways. If the Ministry of Defence feels unable to offer to purchase the homes itself, I
Column 1311understand that the United States Air Force is short of accommodation. The housing estate that it has been using in Bicester is shortly no longer to be available to it. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider having discussions with the United States Air Force to see whether it would be prepared to purchase those houses from its budget.
Many people whose homes fall within the 83 dbn contour have lived in Ardley for many years and have children attending the local schools. They are finding the present noise levels intolerable and wish to move, but they regard the period of one year in which they have to make the decision to move as a tight time frame. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider extending that period. Indeed, there are precedents for that, such as what happened in Yeovilton. Such an extension would ensure that people did not feel that their only option was to be rushed out of their homes.
Everyone in Ardley has been put in an intolerable position. It is difficult for those of us not in that position to conceive of it. People in Ardley, both individually and as a community are having to contend with a whole host of difficulties about their future. I hope that my hon. Friend will give consideration--I am sure that he will--to whether the Ministry of Defence could extend the compensation provisions so that everyone in Ardley could be included.
There is then the question of compensation for what in the law of nuisance is described as the loss of quiet enjoyment of one's property. For those who live, for example, in rented
accommodation--council tenants and others--the compensation arrangements recently announced by my hon. Friend will be of no real benefit. I should have thought that it would be sensible for those living within the 75 plus dbn contour to be offered a straightforward one-off lump sum payment as compensation for what, in effect, is the loss of the quiet enjoyment of their properties. In due time, of course, if those houses are sold or people move, the people coming new into the area will know the position, but the people who are living there at present have no means of knowing that what had hitherto been tolerable levels of noise would become intolerable. In those circumstances, it would be considered much more fair and just if those people were to receive a single lump sum compensation payment for what has materially and seriously affected the quality of life that they are able to enjoy.
There are continuing concerns about Dr. Radcliffe's school, which is a Church of England school at Steeple Aston. It has a roll of approximately 150 pupils aged 5 to 11 years. It is now almost immediately under the new flight path to the west. My hon. Friend has visited the school and knows its exact location.
I have seen a letter of 24 May, written by Mr. Topps of the Ministry of Defence Land Agents to Mrs. Simmons, who is chairman of the school's governors. I am sure that my hon. Friend has seen that letter, so, as time is short, I do not intend to go through it in great detail. I do not believe that Mr. Topps's letter is a fair summary of the history of the matter. When it became apparent that the noise levels over Steeple Aston were becoming intolerable, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) fairly came to Steeple Aston. He visited Dr. Radcliffe's school and sought Treasury permission to offer payment for that school to have proper noise insulation. That, obviously, was a sensible and straightforward approach to the matter, and the approach that anyone would have
Column 1312hoped would be taken. The school governors and the parents understood that, and supported the fact that there should be a full technical survey to see whether it would be possible to insulate the school.
In due course that survey was completed and there was a meeting at Dr. Radcliffe's school, which a large number of people attended, because there was much interest in the school. As it is a Church of England school, there were representatives from the diocesan education authority. there were also representatives from Oxfordshire county council, as the local education authority, the trustees of the Dr. Radcliffe trust, governors and others who were concerned, including representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the PSA and the technical advisers who had carried out the technical survey. It was only at that time that the local education authority and others had the opportunity to consider the implications of the technical survey. I am bound to say that the general consensus was that the proposals were costly and that there was no guarantee that such expense, once incurred, would materially improve the school's environment. What is more, it became apparent in the intervening period that both teachers and parents had become increasingly apprehensive about the number of planes that were flying immediately above the school, and, therefore, that was another factor that had to be taken into consideration.
Following that meeting, the school governors unanimously resolved that, rather than spending large sums of public money on seeking an expensive system of noise insulation, which would probably not solve the problem, they would much prefer that the school be moved. That approach is now supported by Oxfordshire county council as the local education authority. From Mr. Topps's letter, I understand that the Ministry is not prepared to support such an approach.
I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect upon the matter. By definition, any change to the school will need the endorsement of the local education authority and, doubtless, of the Department of Education and Science. I hope also that my hon. Friend will consider the Dr. Radcliffe school and the other issues, and ensure that his officials consult officials in the Department of Education and Science on the best way forward. I understand my hon. Friend's concern that the technical survey has already incurred a sum of money, but there will be greater concern if thousands of pounds are spent on insulating the school only for a modest improvement. Parents and staff would still be worried about children being taught in that environment.
To a greater or lesser degree, everyone in north Oxfordshire supports the fundamental principle that my hon. Friend and I support, that the first duty of the realm is the defence of the realm. Over the years, there has been full appreciation of the contribution that RAF Upper Heyford has played and continues to play in the nation's defence. As I have made clear on previous occasions, that public good must be balanced against the numerous collective private interests of the thousands of people who live around the base. One of the Government's functions is to seek to reconcile the public good and private interests as best as possible.
The change in the flight path has led to a substantial increase in aircraft noise. What was once tolerable has now become intolerable for many people. There is said to be no relief from the noise. Frustration has increased because of
Column 1313recent incidents. For instance, on 9 May, shortly after take-off, an F111 developed engine problems and jettisoned fuel, which then ignited, causing the plane to have the appearance of a fireball when it landed. On 19 May, part of a wing flap fell off an F111 during a flight close to Banbury.
Such frustrations and concerns are causing increasingly large numbers of people in north Oxfordshire to question the reason for having a major military airfield in one of the fastest growing areas in the United Kingdom. Over the past year, local people have been patient. I trust that my hon. Friend will today be able to meet some of their specific and immediate concerns, and ensure that everyone considers that he is being treated fairly and justly and that every step is being taken to ensure that they can lead their lives with as little inconvenience from the base as is humanly possible in the circumstances.
I appreciate that I have taken more time than is customary in an Adjournment debate, and I apologise for that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that several matters of concern should have been outlined. In many instances, I have been able to outline them only briefly and in headline form. If my hon. Friend feels that I have not accorded him sufficient time to respond fully to my constituents' concerns, I hope that he will take time to reflect and to write to me in due course or that we will have further meetings. I thank my hon. Friend and his officials for their courtesy in recent weeks and months. My hon. Friend found this problem on his desk when he moved to his present position. I hope that he will continue to make efforts to find solutions to these difficult problems. 2.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) is to be congratulated on again raising this issue on the Adjournment. I know that many people in his constituency are concerned about the problem of military aircraft noise at RAF Upper Heyford. I hope this debate will give me the opportunity to clarify some of the issues involved and answer some of the points raised by my hon. Friend, who made his case with characteristic clarity and who continues his staunch defence of his constituents' interests. I do not intend to go over the history of this issue in detail, not least because my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), did so in debate on 30 November and because I am left with only seven minutes for my response today and time will undoubtedly run out on me. However, as the principal events have been brought into question, I believe that it would be useful if I were to set out those events that led up to the change in take-off patterns and those which have taken place since.
Early last year the Ministry of Defence received a submission from the headquarters of the United States Third Air Force at RAF Mildenhall on behalf of RAF Upper Heyford. This submission set out the reasons why they, as operators of the F111, believed that the take-off patterns then being used by aircraft of the 20th tactical fighter wing based at RAF Upper Heyford no longer met the necessarily high safety standards of the United States Air Force, and why they therefore believed their use should be discontinued. I will come onto the reasons for
Column 1314this in more detail later in my speech. The submission requested the approval of the Ministry of Defence to this proposal. After very careful consideration in the Ministry of Defence, including advice from Royal Air Force experts and further consultation with the United States Air Force, my predecessor gave his approval to the proposed changes--to be made with effect from 1 June 1988.
The new take-off path to the west was subsequently modified in mid August to relieve some of the impact on Steeple Aston. However, local people, particularly in Steeple and Middle Aston and Ardley, still felt the noise levels to which they were being subjected were too high. Their campaign therefore continued and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury suggested during the debate on 30 November that the Ministry examine the possibility of realigning the runway at RAF Upper Heyford to determine whether this offered a solution to the problem. In responding to that debate, my predecessor agreed to undertake a full study of the costs and implications of such a project and to examine whether there were any other technical means by which the situation might be improved.
A thorough and careful study was carried out by my officials with the help of the Property Services Agency and the United States Air Force. The conclusion it reached was that, although it might be technically feasible to realign the runway at RAF Upper Heyford, it was not in fact practical because it would redistribute the noise to other villages, have significant operational penalties for the 20th tactical fighter wing and involve enormous costs--a minimum of £150 million for the project itself, plus other costs of a similar order to base the aircraft elsewhere during the work. The study was not able to identify any other technical means by which a solution to the problem might be found.
As my hon. Friend has said, I visited RAF Upper Heyford on 19 April, when he was present, to announce the results of the study. I made it clear at that meeting that we and our American colleagues very much regret the noise and disturbance to which the residents of the local community around the base are subject. I can assure the House that the decision to introduce new departure routes at the base was made only after very careful consideration of the position and with the interests of safety in mind. However, there appears to be some confusion still about the reason for the change and it might be helpful if I explain the background.
The old take-off routes required the aircraft to make a sharp banked turn to the right immediately after take-off, followed by one to the left. Sharply banking an aircraft requires the pilot to produce enough lift by pulling back on the stick both to overcome gravity and make the turn. Producing more lift also increases the drag on the aircraft so the pilot normally adds power to maintain air speed. However, immediately after lift off, the pilot has already applied maximum power, so his only remaining alternative is to sacrifice climb performance. This S-bend manoeuvre therefore reduced the safety margin of the take-off, because it meant that if the pilot did encounter a problem on take-off he was climbing less steeply and therefore the time available to cope with any emergency was reduced. While this reduction in the take-off pattern was small when the old take-off procedure was first introduced, subsequent changes led to a further deterioration in the safety margins of this manoeuvre to a point where they became unacceptable.
Column 1315Changing operational requirements had led to an increase in the weight of the F111 aircraft based at RAF Upper Heyford so that, for example, an aircraft on a typical operational sortie is about 6 per cent. heavier now than it would have been 10 years ago. This is partly due to a change to safer, though heavier, fuel and partly due to changing operational requirements which have increased the payload that the aircraft is required to carry. Because some of this weight increase is due to the carriage of additional external stores there has also been an associated increase in the drag factor. It was those factors which led to the reduction in safety margins to the point where the only prudent course was for the United States Air Force to request a reversion to a conventional straight out pattern and for the Ministry of Defence to agree to that request. The straight out pattern, as modified last August, restores the safety margins for the foreseeable future. I should perhaps stress, in view of some suggestions which have been made, that the decision was taken purely in the light of current circumstances with the sole aim of maintaining the safety of flying operations from the base.
Column 1316That brings me to the second issue that I hope to clarify and that concerns the future of the base. There has been a great deal of speculation in the press in recent weeks about what may or may not happen at the base in the future, but the truth is quite straightforward. We are currently considering with our NATO partners what adjustments need to be made to our forces in Europe in the wake of the intermediate nuclear forces--INF--treaty. However, no decisions have yet been taken and the Government have not agreed to any changes to the role or aircraft of the 20th tactical fighter wing at RAF Upper Heyford ; nor have we agreed to any expansion or additions to the facilities there to support new or additional aircraft. Any works under way at the base relate to the aircraft currently stationed there--
The motion having been made at half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, till Tuesday 6 June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 22 May.
Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.
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