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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I am grateful for the opportunity not only to complete the trilogy of Berkshire MPs who have spoken in Adjournment debates this week but to bring to the attention of the House a matter that is of considerable concern to my local residents. I believe that it is also of concern to residents in other parts of the country. The issue in question is the need to control noise from light aircraft.
White Waltham airfield in my constituency is one of the oldest and best-known airfields in the country. It is one of the few remaining grass airfields and is reputed to be the largest such airfield in Europe. It started in 1928 when the de Havilland family bought the land and set up the de Havilland flying school. In 1939 the airfield was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and became the headquarters of the Air Transport Auxiliarythe renowned ATA.
I am proud to count among my constituents several former members of the ATAredoubtable ladies whose expertise and courage in transporting aircraft across the country during the war deserves our recognition. To digress slightly, among their number is one lady who went on to learn to fly a helicopter when she was in her seventies. The maidens of Maidenhead are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
The airfield was retained under Royal Air Force control until 1982. It is now controlled and operated by West London Aero Club and up to 150 aircraft of different types are based there, including Tiger Moths and other pre-war aircraft. It operates as a traditional flying club, but anyone who lives near such an airfield will know that, pleasant though the open space is, such airfields bring problems for local residentsnotably, noise.
Noise from White Waltham airfield has been a recurring theme during my time as Member of Parliament for Maidenhead. Many residents knew about the problem, in that the airfield was operational and they were aware of the flying activity when they moved into the area. However, the problems become greater if noise levels increase.
Residents are frustrated: not only do they suffer the problem of noise, but when they appeal to authorities to do something it appears that nothing can be done because nobody has the power to enforce any controls over the nuisance from which they suffer. Residents expect their local council to be able to do something, but find that it is powerless to do anything.
I should say at this point that, although residents are worried about the noise, they want the airfield to stay. Having such a wonderful open space on the outskirts of Maidenhead is welcome and, as I said, many of them moved into the area knowing that the airfield was there. Residents need a balance to be struck between their needs and the needs of the airfield and its users.
West London Aero Club has taken some steps itself. It has circuits for flying, details of which are posted to its pilots and made known to visiting pilots. The club offers a free instructor to work with pilots who are unsure of the procedures operated by the club. Other measures include a voluntary decision not to engage in night flights or helicopter pilot training, both of which previously caused my constituents concern in terms of noise nuisance. The club has also been active on the issue of silencers. As I understand it, a silencer cannot be fitted to an aircraft in the United Kingdom unless it is approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, even if it is approved by the relevant authorities in the country of origin. Over the years, that has been used by many fliers as a smokescreen for not doing something about the problem. This year, however, West London Aero Club paid the CAA to approve silencers for its training aircraft, and has now fitted them to those in use at White Waltham. Silencers could be fitted to similar training aircraft elsewhere; the club is now considering using them for multi-bladed propellers.
The club has taken action, but problems still remain for local residents. There have been agreements in the past; when I first took my seat, a voluntary flying agreement between the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and West London Aero Club covered night flights and matters such as the use of helicopters. That agreement was reached following the council's decision to withdraw two enforcement orders that had been imposed in 1996, and it ran until November 2000. It then lapsed and has not been renewed. It was voluntary and it is for West London Aero Club to negotiate a further agreement. However, such an agreement has no statutory enforcement beyond the council going to court for an injunction. As that is at the court's discretion, there is no guarantee that enforcement action can be taken if the controls in the voluntary agreement have not been met by people using the club.
At White Waltham, the issue of noise control has often been taken alongside planning matters and applications. Following the withdrawal of the voluntary agreement, which, as I said, lapsed last November, the council received a planning application for development on part of the site that also included a proposal for a further voluntary flying control agreement. The council's legal advice was that, as the proposed agreement was part of the planning application, it was not suitable for inclusion in the planning decision. The application for development has now been refused, which perhaps has affected the opportunities for voluntary agreement.
The council is right in its fundamental point that it should be possible to separate the control of noise and flying at such an airfield from planning decisions. When planning applications are made, councils should not have to rely on planning conditions as a means of offering control on flying to local residents; it should be possible to have powers to offer that control separately.
There is one further point about whether there should be statutory or voluntary control at White Waltham. As the Minister will be aware, there are statutory consultative arrangements for designated airfields under section 5 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. However, White Waltham is not a designated airfield, so it is not possible to have a statutory consultative procedure, even though the council established a voluntary consultative committee. Questions about the chairmanship of the committee and whether certain local councillors took residents' views into consideration properly were recently followed by discussions about the constitution of the committee and the fact that it is only voluntary; again, it has no statutory power.
There is no statutory power, either for consultative arrangements or for noise and flying controls, except that on which the council relied in its previous agreementsection 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
The issue that I wish to raise with the Minister is whether the Government intend to follow their proposal last year to introduce legislation to allow local councils to control flights of light aircraft at such airfields. As the Minister might imagine, I have been in correspondence about the issue with a number of Ministers over the years, and depending on what he says tonight I dare say that I will be in correspondence with him in future.
I refer to a letter that I received on 18 January this year from the then Under-Secretary of State at the then Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who has returned to a more traditional and recognisable role for him and freedom on the Government Back Benches. He referred to the consultation paper that the Government issued last July, following their White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport". He wrote:
However, residents want the comfort of knowing that when the nuisance becomes too great, someone can take action. At present, that does not seem possible. Residents expect their local council to be able to take such action. The royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead wants to be able to take action, but it cannot do so on its own. The matter is in the hands of the Government. They have promised legislation. They say that they recognise the problem and that they will act to resolve it.
I hope that when the Minister responds he will be able to give comfort to my constituents and let them know that they can enjoy the benefit of the open space, but that the noise nuisance can be controlled so that they do not constantly have to suffer from a nuisance that they believe their local council should be able to control.