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10 Apr 2002 : Column 62WH

Aircraft Noise (Gatwick)

1.30 pm

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I very much appreciate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), being present to discuss issues of serious concern to my constituents.

It is two years since I raised the issue of aircraft noise in the Dunsfold area. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who was the Minister at the time, was extremely helpful, and I am sure that he still remembers in detail the important points that were made. I hope that the present Minister has been able to consider some of the issues that I raised on behalf of my constituents.

People live in south-west Surrey because it is a particularly beautiful part of the country. There is real concern about development pressures and quality of life. There is anxiety that the Government may impose entirely unrealistic and appalling housing quotas on the area. There is pressure from traffic congestion, although it is hoped that improvements on the A3 at Hindhead will relieve some of the problems.

Over recent years, the number of serious concerns about aircraft noise has grown. When I raised the issue in the previous debate, I talked about noise preferential routes—NPRs—and the importance of raising the minimum vectoring level to 5,000 ft. I also talked about the speed of arriving and departing aircraft, the importance of enforcement and encouraging aircraft to adhere to the 250 knot limit below 10,000 ft. My third point concerned altitude levels and particularly those of arriving aircraft. I said that continuous descent procedures could be modified and that there should be greater enforcement. Finally, I mentioned the disturbance caused by night flying, which is identified time and again in Government reports about noise.

I am pleased to say that the then Minister responded helpfully to the debate and that the airlines, the British Airports Authority and others were extremely helpful. Lord Marshall made it clear that British Airways would be happy to comply with any restriction that required aircraft to fly at 250 knots until below 10,000 ft. As regards night noise, British Airways said that it would introduce a voluntary ban on departures scheduled after 11.30 pm and arrivals scheduled before 4.45 am.

Enthused by such activities, Bridget Bloom, John Burgess and many others from the Quieter Skies Campaign—for which I have the highest regard—organised a meeting of the most phenomenal proportions in Dunsfold in March 2001. At a time when fewer and fewer people seem enthusiastic about political gatherings, people from all over the south-east attended a spectacular meeting at Dunsfold village hall, which was the happy recipient of a lottery award for improvements. Points were made about increasing passenger numbers, the growing disturbance, the difficulties of non-adherence to NPRs, departure height issues, landing approaches and heights, and the problem of old aircraft. I am pleased to say that, once again, there were encouraging responses all round.

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Aircraft noise has been deeply affected by the serious situation following 11 September. It would not be right or proper for me to speak today without referring to that. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions held hearings on the issues. Roger Wiltshire, the secretary general of the British Air Transport Association, said:

Virgin and British Airways gave evidence that their losses had been around 20 per cent., and that British Airways had relinquished 300 slots at Gatwick.

Inevitably, there has been encouragingly less noise. That is partly a temporary phenomenon, due to the effect of 11 September on the airline industry, but it is also a result of a more profound difference. Following the detailed lobbying and representations to the Minister's predecessors, as well as work with BAA and the airlines, I am pleased to report significant improvements.

The Quieter Skies Campaign has assiduously documented the changes. For example, a document produced by it records:

It also states that there is less perceived noise because of the continuing move to modern aircraft. I am pleased that Virgin has now eliminated all its old 747-200s. The document also records that

Recent figures for 2002 show a dramatic improvement, with

Those changes are encouraging.

Easterly take-offs, which are normally higher, show a marginal improvement in the period. Only 13 per cent. of flights were under 5,000 ft, compared with a previous figure of 16 per cent., and the average overhead height was slightly below 7,000 ft. I give enormous credit to the group. Its vigilance in monitoring the situation, taking matters up with the authorities and clearly stating that all breaches should be properly identified and chased up has made a significant impact.

I am pleased that several people contacted me before the debate. British Airways has been in touch about its continuing commitment to the code of practice for continuous descent approach, the stringent departure noise limits and other such measures. Alison Addy of BAA has been enormously helpful, and has talked about BAA's work for and commitment to further improvements. Those include ongoing work to reduce noise, the imposition of higher landing charges on

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noisier aircraft, the fining of aircraft that exceed noise limits, and the supplementing of restrictions on which aircraft can operate at night through a further voluntary ban. Also relevant are the establishment of the flight operations performance committee and the publication of a continuous descent approach code of practice.

The Minister may say that it is unusual for Opposition Members to raise subjects for debate, in Committee Room 10 or in Westminster Hall, in the light of so much encouraging good news. However, the real anxiety in the area concerns the future of aviation in the south-east, the future of Gatwick and the string of leaked documents, comments and reports. I pay tribute to the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign and Brendan Sewill, who has been most assiduous in documenting the issue and alerting councillors, Members of Parliament and others.

A new runway at Gatwick would be the most deplorable event. Such a runway would be designed to increase the airport's capacity from the present 30 million passengers to 80 million or 100 million—around three times its present size. There would be three times as many aircraft in the sky and three times as much noise, three times as much pollution and three times as much airport-related traffic. It would mean more houses, more congestion and more air pollution. I ask the Minister to be aware of the mounting concern over air pollution.

I am sure that the Minister and others will be aware of the Gatwick legal agreement. Some leaks have suggested that Ministers have found a way around the agreement. I would like the Minister to clarify the situation and how he envisages the future of Gatwick. When will there be further announcements and further consultation?

People in the south-east not only mind about the quality of life and the local environment but are deeply concerned about opportunities in more economically disadvantaged parts of the country. One way to compound the difficulties of the south-east and exaggerate the problems elsewhere would be to impose willy-nilly a new terminal at Gatwick, with all the ensuing difficulties. The expressions of worry throughout my constituency about aircraft noise, not only in Dunsfold but in Farnham—concerning Farnborough airport—and the complaints about noise from Chinook helicopters would be as nothing compared to the outrage and problems that would emerge.

As well as being concerned about the series of leaks on the future of Gatwick, the Minister should know that a growing number of voices in my constituency are deeply worried about the threatened erosion of local democratic accountability for planning decisions. Dr. Jenny Masding, chairman of Alfold parish council, has written to me about the planning Green Paper "Delivering a Fundamental Change". There is great anxiety that there is no mention of parish or town councils in the Green Paper and concern that their role is being undermined and threatened. No one disputes the need for reducing the time taken to conduct planning inquiries, but there is real anxiety about the erosion of local accountability. In particular, there is concern about the future of the work of the county council, which in my constituency has been very effective.

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I refer also to the comments made by Mr. Thwaites of Waverley borough council about the development of further air traffic and the importance of the planning procedures and local accountability. There is a real sense that this Government have been characterised by centralising and imposing their will willy-nilly on local bodies and agencies. The effects of such an imposition on this area would be devastating beyond all belief and entirely irreparable.

I thank the Minister for being present today to answer some of those points. There are many welcome changes such as the reduction in aircraft noise, which has occurred partly as a result of the tragic and regrettable events in the United States but also because of changing practices and a co-operative approach. How does he clarify his own responsibilities in the area? Good practice is all very well, but the Minister has responsibilities. I thank him and the Government for recognising the importance of tranquillity measures in the rural White Paper; he will know the link with the ambient noise strategy. However, aircraft noise issues pale into insignificance in comparison with what is now the real anxiety about the future at Gatwick. I have been asked by colleagues, by Francis Maude, Peter Ainsworth and Crispin Blunt, to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton) : Order. The right hon. Lady should be aware that she should address her colleagues by their constituencies and not their names.

Virginia Bottomley : I stand corrected, after 18 years, with profuse apologies for such deeply regrettable and reprehensible behaviour.

The Minister is aware of the issues and of my appreciation of the Quieter Skies Campaign and of his predecessor's contribution. However, deep and widespread anxiety now exists and I hope that he will take note of my points and offer some clarification and answers to my constituents.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) on having secured the debate. I understand that she secured a similar debate in January 2000, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) responded. She is, rightly, concerned about aircraft noise, which concerns many people who live near airports around the country. I am pleased that she has raised the subject again and given the Government another opportunity to respond.

The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear again some of the points that were made last time. However, there have been many positive developments, some of which she alluded to. I hope that I can reassure her on the points that she raised; all reasonable efforts are made to keep the disturbance from aircraft to a minimum and we continue to seek ways to improve the noise climate even more.

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We need to minimise the impact of airports on the environment. At the same time, we must ensure that land use planning and conservation policies take account of the economic benefits of maintaining a strong, competitive airline industry and providing sufficient airport capacity where it is economically and environmentally justified. That involves striking a fine balance between aviation needs, providing jobs—Gatwick generates a substantial number of jobs in and around the right hon. Lady's constituency and serves the local, regional and national economy—and the need to minimise the impact on communities around airports.

The right hon. Lady is aware of my Department's broad role in respect of aircraft noise policy. Gatwick, along with Heathrow and Stansted, is designated under section 80 for the purposes of section 78 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. That empowers the Secretary of State to impose requirements on the operators of the airport, and of aircraft using it, in order to mitigate the effects of noise. The requirements that we impose include departure noise limits, noise preferential routes—to which the right hon. Lady referred—for departures, night restrictions and certain regulations pertaining to the management of arriving aircraft.

A noise and track monitoring advisory group oversees the operation of the noise and track keeping system. The core of that system was updated a few years ago with a more modern computer system. The group includes representatives from the Department, the airport, consultative committee members, local authority officers representing the local community, National Air Traffic Services and the airlines. The group examines ways of improving the noise climate around the airport, and of monitoring and reporting. Gatwick also convenes a flight operations performance committee in which airline representatives and air traffic controllers examine technical issues and seek ways of improving performance.

Noise is the most prominent environmental impact of aviation locally. At Gatwick, the general trend in the daytime noise climate has perhaps surprisingly, although I think the right hon. Lady concedes it, seen a diminution of noise over the years as older, noisier aircraft have been replaced by quieter ones. That is despite a large increase in the volume of aircraft movements. It is best illustrated by the annual noise contour reports, produced on behalf of the Department. Those noise exposure contours show the equivalent continuous sound level experienced on the ground between 7 am and 11 pm during the busiest summer months. In the past 12 years, the area of the 57 dB Gatwick contour has more than halved. The right hon. Lady's constituency of South-West Surrey now lies outside that contour, and I am sure that she welcomes that reduction in the noise.

The right hon. Lady referred to noise preferential routes. It has long been recognised that the balance of environmental advantage lies in concentrating departing aircraft along the least practicable number of specified routes. Since 1968, the Department and its predecessor Departments have stipulated noise preferential routes for aircraft departing from Gatwick. As far as possible, those routes are designed to avoid built-up areas and so minimise disturbance to those on the ground. However, it must be accepted that some

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dispersion from flight paths is inevitable because of navigational tolerance, aircraft characteristics and, not least, the weather, especially the wind, which can be particularly significant. In practice, that means that there can be a swathe of tracks up to 1.5 km on either side of the nominal centre line of a route, with the greatest likelihood of dispersion when aircraft are turning. However, the right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that compliance with the swathes has improved from more than 95 per cent. of departures in 1998-99 to more than 99 per cent. today. There is no financial sanction for deviations, but causes of and trends in significant track deviation are thoroughly investigated.

Once aircraft departing Gatwick have reached 4,000 ft on westerly departures, air traffic control may, if traffic conditions permit, assign them a more direct course to their destinations. The release height for those departures was raised to 4,000 ft two years ago, and that may benefit the right hon. Lady's constituents. That practice, known as vectoring, is intended to speed up the flow of traffic, which has the benefit that aircraft are able to clear an area more quickly and at higher altitude. That may result in more track dispersion once the required altitude has been achieved, but the amount of noise experienced by people on the ground will of course be relatively less than at lower altitudes closer to the airport. The vectoring height for easterly departures remains at 3,000 ft, and I assure the right hon. Lady that the possibility of raising the height to 4,000 ft is kept under review. The right hon. Lady mentioned her contact with the Quieter Skies Campaign. It has requested that the vectoring height be raised to 5,000 ft. That remains a difficult proposition and it is unlikely to happen in the near future.

It is inevitable that areas so close to the airport will experience overflight. The right hon. Lady's constituency is situated between 15 and 25 miles west of Gatwick airport. Two departure routes overfly the area when the airport is operating towards the west, as it does for about 75 per cent. of the time. Departures from Heathrow and elsewhere—for example, those navigating via the Midhurst beacon—will also overfly the area on both easterly and westerly departures, usually at higher altitude, but they will not climb above 6,000 ft until cleared to do so by air traffic control. That is to avoid conflict with Gatwick air traffic.

It is a fact of modern life that the airspace over the south-east of England is very congested. Overflight at altitudes of 4,000 ft and more over a large proportion of the region is inevitable. We are not complacent, however, and we actively seek improvements when possible, but the noise heard on the ground must be taken in perspective with that from other sources endemic in modern life.

Maximising the use of continuous-descent approach is of prime importance in reducing the noise impact of arrivals. Pilots at Gatwick are requested to use continuous descent as best they can, but air traffic control constraints—particularly the need to maintain clearance from Heathrow departures—mean that 100 per cent. adherence is not possible. At night, there is an additional requirement not to join the extended runway centre line below 3,000 ft closer than 10 nautical miles from touchdown. I accept that that may bring more

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traffic over the Dunsfold area, but that rule benefits other areas that would otherwise be overflown more noisily and at lower altitude.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned night restrictions. The Department appreciates that aircraft noise can be particularly disturbing at night and we operate a night restriction regime limiting the number and sort of aircraft that can take off and land. That regime is reviewed every five years or so through public consultation. There is a movement limit between 11.30 pm and 6 am, backed by a quota system in which noisier aircraft score more than quieter ones against the overall total. The system is designed to ensure that the overall level of noise from aircraft using the airport at night will not worsen, although the total number of night flights may increase as airlines substitute quieter aircraft for noisier ones, but only up to the movement limit set for Gatwick airport for night flights per season.

I turn to the national airports policy. The right hon. Lady is concerned, naturally, that in addition to noise disturbance on communities, the expansion of airports will have an impact on air traffic management and local infrastructure such as housing. I can assure her that any increase in traffic will be met with improvements and increases in air traffic control. There would be no increase in movements without the necessary air traffic control to cope with it. I assure her that safety is always the prime concern. That is fundamental to our planning and any changes in the use of airports and airlines in the south-east. If there is more development, there will also be more environmental measures to ameliorate or control that development.

My Department's work on a new air transport White Paper is well under way. Major infrastructure projects take a long time to come to fruition, so we must look a long way forward. Our aim is to provide a better framework to assist planning by all those concerned, including airports, airlines, local authorities and local residents, and to ensure that all relevant factors are taken into account. I do not pretend to know precisely what the aviation industry or even Gatwick airport will look like in a decade or more, but I do not share the right hon. Lady's vision of environmental measures being abandoned. I assure her that appropriate measures will be in place.

The right hon. Lady is aware of the South East and East of England Air Services study of airports in the south-east and east of England, which will inform the new policy. The study will take full account of the potential for airports in other parts of the country to attract a greater proportion of demand than at present. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will welcome that.

Projects for which planning applications have been made, or are expected to be made shortly, are not within the scope of the study because that would lead to duplication and delay. The study examines a range of scenarios based on those projects either going ahead or not going ahead. Implications of possible developments for the planning of airspace capacity, air traffic control and surface access to the airports are included. The Government have also consulted on proposals to reform the land use planning system and will announce their conclusions in due course. I assure the right hon. Lady that local people and local authorities have a say about any changes. She will agree that the procedures for terminal 5 did not reflect well on the planning system.

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We want to avoid delay, which merely causes uncertainty and pours money into barristers' pockets without helping local people.

The right hon. Lady referred to leaks, but speculation might be a more appropriate definition of what she read in the newspapers. I ask her not to take that speculation too seriously. The SERAS study will be published shortly and at the end of the year it will be converted into

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a White Paper. The right hon. Lady's constituents and local authorities in the area will have an opportunity to contribute to both parts of the process.

Much work has been done to minimise the impact of noise on the communities around Gatwick airport. We shall continue to examine ways in which to improve the noise climate in the wider policy issues and in the details.

Question put and agreed to.

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