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David Taylor: The Minister is right to note that there have been attempts at improvement, and noise preferential routes have had an effect. However, is she aware that her predecessor, together with the airport, imposed the 10-point plan that is the framework within which the airport operates? The relevant local authorities and community groups in the area were not in favour and thought it a weak and relatively toothless document.
Ms Buck: I am aware of the 10-point plan and that not everyone is satisfied with it. I am extremely conscious that even now not everyone is happy with NEMA's performance, despite the improvements. We need to continue to bear down on it, to work with it and to ensure that the improvements continue.
The continuous descent approach, which seeks to minimise the noise of arriving flights, is achieved by 70 per cent. of aircraft. However, NEMA is not complacent. It is aware that it has to keep driving for even better performance. It has indicated that it wishes to take advantage of the noise control powers proposed in clause 4 to take tougher local action to protect the noise environment. I do not doubt that it will.
This year's master plan, due later this year, will recast NEMA's 10-point plan on noise amelioration, setting out details of its further plans to minimise noise impacts and to respond to community concerns. The results of a recently announced MORI poll, described by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, clearly show majority support for the airport in its locality and that concern about its impact on noise centred on those areas affected by recent routeing changes. It is true that the airspace change at NEMA means that some people are overflown more frequently than before, and those people will, of course, be dissatisfied with that state of affairs, but I ask hon. Members to remember that overall the route changes have significantly reduced the number of people overflown at a height that is likely to cause disturbance.
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The airport is doing its best to engage with the local community. It operates an open-door policy to show its operations to those who are interested and to talk through their concerns. I urge any hon. Member who has spoken and who has not made a visit to contact the managing director of the airport. I look forward to meeting MPs in the vicinity later this week to discuss the issues.
Mr. Todd: As a frequent visitor to the airport, I meet the authorities regularly. The Bill gives them powers to fine operators and to establish their own noise control environment without a process for auditing whether that is an appropriate scheme for noise control or for penalties. Why did the Government decide to evade any independent process and leave it entirely to any airport, not just NEMA, that is not designated?
Ms Buck: We reserved the right to designate airports and to intervene if they fail in their duty to bear down on noise and to act as good neighbours. However, as a starting pointthis is not a new position, but a longstanding policy of Governments of both political coloursit is for the local airport to work with its local partners to ensure that there is a local solution.
In our White Paper "The Future of Air Transport", the Government signalled their support for growth of NEMA strategic night freight business, but that was not unconditional. We said that it would need to be accompanied by stringent controls on night noise, in particular, and increasingly generous noise insulation and other mitigation measures. That remains our position.
There have been calls to designate NEMA, as demonstrated in the last two interventions, by highlighting the number of night flights compared to those at the designated London airports, but it cannot be compared on an equal basis with the designated London airports. It serves a different market and the nature of operations is not the same. Nor should it be assumed that should the airport be designated there would be more stringent controls on noise or night flying than those already in place or planned by the airport operator itself.
The provisions in clause 4, which, as I said, NEMA intends to make use of, will place beyond all doubt the power of airport operators to establish and enforce both noise abatement operational procedures and operating restrictions for their airports. Putting responsibility for those aspects of the balanced approach to addressing aircraft noise in the hands of airports rightly gives them the incentive to manage and respond to local pressures. It must be right that individual airports should lead in deciding what elements of the balanced approach best provide the right solution in the light of local circumstances.
I want to get absolute clarity. My hon. Friend is saying that the only recourse is to turn to her for designation or to seek judicial review of the judgments that NEMA or any other airport might make on either its operating controls or its charging system for those who breach them. Is that correct?
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Ms Buck: There is a range of different measuresthe relationship that the airport will have with its operators and local community through its consultative committee, and the powers of the Secretary of State to intervenebut the default position is that it is better for those airports to work out local solutions to local problems.
Airports already take action to encourage and drive airlines to improve their operational noise performance. That has been working well. For example, more than 95 per cent. of flights at Manchester stick to noise preferential routes, and the percentage is even higher at Heathrow. Clearly, that has not happened by accident, but reflects the fact that airports are willing and able to work with airlines to improve their performance. Achieving adherence to noise preferential routes requires investment in procedures and training, which have a cost and time commitment associated with them.
Monitoring and managing noise is a crucial part of the day-to-day operational business of airports. We expect them to pay careful attention to that and to manage their responsibility with suitable professionalism and integrity. They know that it is important to retain the faith and good will of local communities. The Government have confidence that the system works well and do not consider that the additional regulatory burden and cost associated with the establishment of a commercial flights officer would be a proportionate response to a situation in which airport operators are working as hard as possible to be considerate to their neighbours.
Under section 76 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982, an aircraft flying at a reasonable height and in accordance with the provisions of the air navigation order or the rules of the air cannot be subject to legal action for trespass or causing a nuisance. That important principle has been part of UK civil aviation law since the earliest days of commercial aviation, and it has been upheld by successive Governments. Even if a commercial flights officer were able to identify flights from the often limited information that members of the public could provide, further action against the operator of that flight could be taken only if it had not been following air traffic control instructionsassuming, of course, that it was in controlled airspace at the time. It therefore seems to me that the additional regulatory burden that the creation of a commercial flights officer would impose on air traffic control providers in particular would far outweigh whatever limited additional benefit would result from his office, given that this would not involve any powers of enforcement.
I realise that that may sound unsympathetic. I understand the annoyance felt by members of the public when they are disturbed by aircraft noise, and their wish to know who has caused that disturbance, but I remain of the view that the right way to seek to achieve that is through the local airport, and that the industry should focus on keeping aircraft noise to a minimum and mitigating its effects.
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New clause 6 and amendment No. 17 relate to the issue of noise insulation. That will, I accept, be a matter of concern to those living close to our major airports, including Heathrow, although I think it only fair to point out that the noise environment around many of our airports has improved over time as new and quieter aircraft technologies have been introduced. Moreover, many people who have moved to the vicinity of airports in recent years will have done so with knowledge of the existing noise climate, and many of those properties will have benefited from previous insulation when noise levels were higher.
Lembit Öpik: I agree with the Minister about the new clause. For clarification, does she agree that, as it has been phrased, it would apply to all aerodromes, even small licensed ones with no regular flights? Will she confirm that the tone of her comments indicates that she is looking at large commercial airports, and that the Government do not regard general aviation aerodromes, which are small and generally used for training and so forth, as the main issue in this debate?
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