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Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to speak in this debate on the Civil Aviation Bill. For many of my constituents, particularly those who live in Thamesfield, East Putney and Roehampton, the issue of aircraft noise at night is of great, and growing, concern. I want to make it clear from the outset, however, that, like the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), I am not against aviation or against Heathrow. I fully understand the importance of the aviation industry to the UK, and the opportunities that it gives to so many of us to travel. I also fully recognise that Heathrow is very important for the local economy, in terms of the employment that it provides.

My worries about the Bill are specifically related to its potential effect on night flights, which already have a severe impact on many of my constituents. I know that
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many other hon. Members have similar concerns. The Bill proposes a fundamental change in the way in which aircraft noise from planes landing at designated airports such as Heathrow will be managed. At present, the noise created by night flights—flights landing at airports such as Heathrow between 11.30 pm and 6.30 am—is controlled in two ways. The first is a noise quota system that measures the estimated total noise created. The second is the calculation of the absolute number of movements overhead.

At present, an average of 16 flights land at Heathrow between 11.30 pm and 6.30 am every day, with the majority landing from 4.30 am onwards. These planes fly directly over my constituency and, indeed, over my own home. However, rather than strengthening the controls over noise, the Bill proposes to take away one of the two means of control currently in place. Clause 2 will give the Secretary of State the power to change the noise regime, if he so chooses, and to remove the movements limit element altogether, so that we should rely instead only on the noise quota measure.

I recognise that the air transport White Paper said that the Government intended to introduce legislation to make such changes, but they are strongly opposed by me, my constituents, the London borough of Wandsworth and many other boroughs and interests around Heathrow. I am sure that the Department for Transport will explain that the justification for this change is that removing the movements limit will provide an effective incentive for airlines to use aircraft that are less noisy. I understand that, but less noisy aircraft are still noisy and they still wake people up. I find it hard to understand the logic of a policy that suggests that a less noisy aircraft is somehow, miraculously, not noisy at all. This policy could enable airlines to increase the number of night flights, possibly significantly, when our objective must surely be to limit, and gradually to phase out, the number of night flights coming into airports such as Heathrow. I will come back to other aspects of the noise quota system—the one noise control that will remain in place—to demonstrate just what a discredited system it is.

I should also like to take this opportunity to point out that the Bill does not give any indication as to when such a power to remove the movements limit might be used by the Secretary of State, and under what criteria he might judge it appropriate to launch a consultation to change the powers. Given that the Bill proposes to introduce these powers, I can only assume that there is an intention to use them, which can only mean that we will have more planes flying overhead than at present.

Just as worryingly, the Secretary of State will be aware that, only on 10 June, his Department issued the second stage of consultation on night flights into Heathrow, just a day after the Civil Aviation Bill was published, on 9 June. The Department for Transport is taking both documents forward simultaneously. My constituents might have expected these two documents to have some consistency between them, but they do not. The night flights consultation document makes no mention whatever of the Civil Aviation Bill's proposals, and shows the existing regime of a mix of movement limits and quota limits continuing at least until 2012. The Bill therefore seems wholly inconsistent with the tone and apparent objective of the night flights consultation.
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Of course, I cannot talk about the Government's strategy—I use the term loosely—on civil aviation without referring to the previous White Paper, "The Future of Air Transport". That document said that it was the Government's intention to "bear down" on aircraft noise. It also said that the Department for Transport's basic aim was to

But the proposal from that same Government in the night flights consultation is that we should see a 10 per cent. increase in planes landing at Heathrow during the night period. That consultation also proposes that my constituents should have to bear an increase in the night flight regime, from 2,550 movements in the current winter season to 2,820 by 2011–12, and a similar increase in summer flights.

That is bad enough, but the Bill also proposes to give the Secretary of State the power to take away any need for movement limits whatever. My constituents will be left with a noise control system that the Secretary of State could, at any point—without specifying why or when—change to rely solely on the quota count system. That system is arguably fundamentally flawed, which leads me to my next concern regarding the Bill.

We are used to fine words from this Government, but as ever there is little of substance behind them. The Department for Transport may say that it wants to "bear down" on aircraft noise, but it is placing confidence in a quota count system that is based on estimated noise, rather than on actual noise. How can we possibly justify, let alone explain to our constituents, a system for monitoring aircraft noise that is based on estimates of the noise level that an aircraft makes, rather than on the actual noise that it makes. That is surely absurd.

To explain why the quota count system using estimated noise is so discredited, research was carried out by the London borough of Wandsworth to show that the level of night noise at Heathrow is understated by 74 per cent., owing to the misclassification of the louder quota count 4 and quota count 8 747-400 aircraft landing at Heathrow between 4 o'clock and 6 o'clock each morning. Those planes had, in fact, been classed as quota count 2 level planes, which are supposedly much quieter. The planes that have been so badly misclassified make up an amazing 80 per cent. of the current night flights into Heathrow over Putney. I look to the Minister to give the House an assurance that her Department will now take steps to move to a noise monitoring system based on actual, not estimated, noise.

The issues do not end there. We need to measure actual noise more effectively, but having done that, we must at last define what level of actual noise constitutes "excessive". The London borough of Wandsworth, which has campaigned tirelessly for a reduction in night noise, has repeatedly asked for a definition of "excessive noise", but to date has not been given one by the Government. This issue has also been pointed out to the Government not only by other hon. Members but by the inspector carrying out the terminal 5 inquiry. He said in his report that he

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His report went onto say:

I agree.

The issues do not end there, however. We do not even have up-to-date information on how aircraft noise at airports such as Heathrow affects the well-being and health, both short and long term, of local people. In fact, the last large-scale social study of the impact of night noise on people was carried out in 1985, 20 years ago, in the aircraft noise index study. Surely it is time for an updated review. I believe that the sleep disturbance study of 1993 was also debated in the House. It was heavily criticised at the time of its publication and failed to consider adequately the experience of residents on the ground.

No study of which I am aware has examined the impact of night flights or aircraft noise on people such as my constituents in Putney. I am not aware of any permanent noise sensors monitoring aircraft noise in my constituency, but they are badly needed. If they are there, the data are certainly not being made publicly available. It takes only one noisy plane to wake someone up.

Given the Government's reluctance to provide me with facts and data, I have done my own search instead of relying on estimates. I have found only one piece of research that considered actual noise created by aircraft landing at Heathrow and passing over Putney, although even that did not examine the impact of that noise on my constituents. That report was carried out in 1999 by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and was innovatively titled, "Noise from Arriving Aircraft". It did consider maximum noise levels experienced in a number of locations, including one noise sensor in Putney, and I have a chart of the output from that sensor with me.

For the Boeing 747—again, I remind the House that 80 per cent. of night flights coming into Heathrow are Boeing 747s—the maximum decibels created were up to 80 dB. That comes right at the end of the chart that I am now showing the House. In fact, no aircraft monitored carrying more than 100 passengers was recorded at less than 65 dB. However, the 80 dB noise that my constituents experience can be contrasted with the World Health Organisation's guidelines as to what noise will prohibit a good night's sleep:

While I fully understand that the WHO levels are in fact for internal noise, the average home will provide only about a 15 dB reduction by way of sound insulation. Therefore, people who wish to have a window open, even slightly, for ventilation, are experiencing levels in excess of what the WHO would advise.

From the only piece of evidence available, it seems that my constituents must endure noise far in excess of that which the World Health Organisation believes is the maximum tolerable for a good night's sleep. The WHO has also stated that there can be significant health impacts from disturbed sleep. In the short term, there is an increased risk of accident; additionally, blood pressure and stress hormones can be affected. In the
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longer term, however, the World Health Organisation says that persistently disturbed sleep can lead to cardiovascular problems, worsened cognitive performance and immune system problems. I would urge the Minister to study carefully and take a lead from the World Health Organisation guidelines, which would suggest that night-time noise at airports such as Heathrow is already excessive, in the context of my constituents having their sleep disturbed. I also look to the Minister to give this House an assurance that her Department will undertake a full study of what determines "excessive" noise and to make its findings and subsequent policy known to the House at last.

Even the Government's former aviation Minister, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), seems to support my position. In an article on this topic in the Evening Standard, dated 14 January, 2003 he said:

I hope that the latest aviation Minister will have more success. The previous Minister ended his article by saying that any further concessions to the industry should be conditional on an end to night flights. I do not expect that to happen, but I find myself in agreement with a former Labour minister.

In summary, the Bill represented an opportunity to bring actual aircraft noise fully into the Department's decision making. That opportunity has been missed. The Bill represented an opportunity finally to define what our Government believe is "excessive" noise. Again, that opportunity has been missed. I believe that it is incumbent on a Government making such major proposals related to aircraft noise, affecting hundreds of thousands of people in London, including my constituents in Putney, to base those proposals on hard evidence that is not only accurate but up-to-date. That evidence is absent from the Bill.

The Bill proposes not to tackle the issue of aircraft noise and the resultant health impacts, but to do the exact opposite and remove a fundamental check on worsening aircraft noise that has been in place for a number of years. The Bill gives the Secretary of State power to lessen controls on noise created by aircraft, and thereby opens the door for aircraft operators to have as many planes landing during the night-time as they wish. The Bill implies that quieter aircraft are less disruptive than noisier aircraft and that therefore there is no more need for a movements limit. The World Health Organisation evidence, however, suggests that all planes carrying 100 or more passengers will wake up residents beneath the flight path as they land.

It is time the Government initiated a large-scale study not only of actual noise experienced by people such as my constituents in Putney, but also of the impact that that noise has on sleep disturbance. The Bill emphasises the lack of balance in this Government's aviation policy, placing the economic interests of airlines and airport operators over the livelihoods of people who each night
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suffer the consequences of noise from aircraft. The Department has placed much store on the need to balance the social impact of night noise with its economic benefits, and it needs to do so as a matter of urgency. Let us find out what the economic benefits of night flights truly are. So far, I have seen no detailed report justifying aircraft operators' claims about their contribution to London's economy. I will listen to the Minister's response with great interest, and I hope that, as a minimum, she will assure me that those studies will be undertaken as a precondition of the legislation being implemented.

On the specific issue of night noise at least, it is time that the interests of local communities were at last placed on an equal footing with those of the industry. Finding the right balance is long overdue. The best decisions are based on facts and data, which, in this Bill, are badly needed but missing.

Before increased powers are conferred on the Secretary of State via the Bill, I look to the Minister to give the House assurances on actual noise monitoring being put in place in areas near Heathrow such as Putney, an assessment of the impact of actual noise on people experiencing it, a definition of what constitutes excessive noise according to this Government, and a full review of the economic case for night flights as a matter of necessity. Failing to give those assurances and carry out that action puts the Bill on a dangerous path along which to progress.

7.49 pm

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