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Regulation by Secretary of State of noise and vibration from aircraft

Lords amendment: No. 5.

8 May 2006 : Column 60

Derek Twigg: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment 11 and the Government motion to disagree and Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof.

Derek Twigg: Clause 2 amends section 78 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982, which enables the Secretary of State to take steps to limit or mitigate the effect of noise and vibration connected with the taking off or landing of aircraft at designated airports. The current legislation—section 78(3) of the 1982 Act—requires that the operating restrictions set for that purpose include a numerical limit on aircraft movements. At present, therefore, the night-flying restrictions at the designated airports—currently Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted—are based on both a numerical movements limit and a noise quota set for each summer and winter season. The noise quota is designed to encourage the use of quieter aircraft. In the White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”, the Government said that we would amend the current legislation, so that operating restrictions could be set on a different basis in future—for example, one more directly related to the noise nuisance caused. That is what clause 2 will achieve.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): May I put it to my hon. Friend that, although it would be ideal if all aircraft were much quieter, the concern that my constituents and those of other hon. Members have is that any interruption to a sleep pattern is a problem and therefore the number of flights matters seriously. He will know that many of us wish to have no night flights, but I hope that he will give us some comfort about how the Government seek to proceed, given that there are so many objections to flying at all at night.

Derek Twigg: I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. As she says, there is a view generally about not wanting night flights, but there is always a balance to be struck between the economic importance and the social and environmental issues. In a few moments, I will come to the specific issue that I know that she has an interest in.

5.45 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) that the best solution would be a complete ban on night flights, will the Minister confirm that the present combination of number limits and noise quota limits will continue until 2013 under the new regime that is about to be announced?

Derek Twigg: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to those issues.

Lords amendment No. 5 removes subsection (2) of clause 2, which would enable a future Secretary of State to impose restrictions that limited cumulative amounts of noise caused by an aircraft using a designated airport. Such restrictions could apply without specifying a maximum number of movements.
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The restriction could, for example, take the form of noise quotas or a limiting noise contour area. The Secretary of State would not be prevented from continuing to set movement limits, but could consider alternatives—for instance, if they provided a more effective incentive to use quieter aircraft. Our intention is not to prevent future Governments from setting stringent controls on night flying at the airports, or from setting movement limits as part of those controls; it is simply to ensure that they have the power to set restrictions in the most effective way possible, whatever the future circumstances may be.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that the system is horrendously complex? So far, for instance, our Government have refused to designate East Midlands airport, which would benefit significantly from a regime of this kind. It would not be much of a consolation if the present limit of, say, 14 aircraft at a cap of 95 dB were to be replaced under a quota count system by 28 aircraft at 92 dB, which is approximately half the volume of noise. Why would the Government include the measure in legislation, linked to an assertion that they will not use it for the time being? There will always be that risk and that temptation.

Derek Twigg: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but it is important to have a number of tools at our disposal to deal with the issue of aircraft noise and the related environmental issues.

It will be for a future Secretary of State to consider any changes to the basis on which night flying restrictions are set after October 2012, and, in doing so, to choose whether to make use of the more flexible provisions that we seek to bring in. Any changes that were proposed as a result would, of course, be subject to full public consultation in line with EU requirements and the eventual decisions would need to be reasonable.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Does the Minister not understand that saying, “Trust me,” is not a satisfactory answer to people in my constituency living under the Heathrow flight path? They have had past assurances on the expansion of Heathrow, but now face terminal 6 and runway 3, the potential for additional night flights and the loss of runway alternation. At least a hard cap number gives people some degree of certainty, which is what they are asking for—if they have to live with night flights, which frankly every one of them would like to see gone.

Derek Twigg: The hon. Lady has made a point that other hon. Members have made, but clearly the Government have set out their thinking and their position on the tools to use to deal with the issues of noise, emissions and night flights.

I am aware that there has been concern that the Government might use the amended provisions immediately to bring in a night flying restrictions regime at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted on a completely different basis from that on which we have consulted—I am returning to the hon. Lady’s point. We have been considering the responses to the consultation
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on night flying restrictions at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports and will announce our final conclusions by the end of the month. However, in order to remove the uncertainty on an element that has given rise to concerns, I have decided not to increase night time movement limits at Heathrow during the period 2006 to 2012.

Mr. Redwood: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that assurance, which will reassure my constituents. However, it leads us to ask why we should legislate for 2013 now when all sorts of things could happen in the intervening period. We could have had another couple of Prime Ministers by then and planes could become a lot quieter, so is it not rather premature to legislate so far in advance, which will, undoubtedly, worry people?

Derek Twigg: We can argue about whether people want us to legislate now, leave things open, or have more discretion, and that is part of the debate that we are having today—I am sure that it will continue. However, it is important to reiterate that we have decided not to increase the night-time movement limits at Heathrow between 2006 and 2012.

Let me return to the point about consultation, trust and the way in which we can guarantee what future Governments will do. I mentioned the European Union requirements, but I can also tell the House that I cannot envisage a situation in which any Government would not consult on a change affecting the important issues of night flying or aircraft movements. There is already a track record on that. The fact is that there will be consultation.

Justine Greening: I fail to understand how the Minister’s argument stacks up. Surely keeping two locks on the Secretary of State’s ability to manage noise—one involving movements and the other involving what many of us would say is a fundamentally flawed noise quota system—is better than taking one away. Surely the Minister should leave the movements cap in place and perhaps allow a future Secretary of State to set it high enough that it would be ineffective. Why does he want to take it away altogether and remove a future Secretary of State’s ability to use it to curb movements in and out of airports close to my constituency, such as Heathrow?

Derek Twigg: What we think is appropriate is a matter of balance. There is obviously a difference of opinion about the way in which we should go forward. However, the option and the way in which we have set it out gives us the best possible approach on the problem with which we are dealing.

Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab): I thank the Minister and, especially, the Government for listening to my constituents. The concession that he has announced will be most welcome in Brentford and Isleworth and, indeed, the borough of Hounslow. A lot of people have written to me about the matter and we have held many meetings with the Department. I also thank the Minister for the assurance that there will be consultation on future changes.

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Derek Twigg: My hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) have put forward their constituents’ views vigorously and strongly, and we listened to what they had to say.

Susan Kramer: Does the Minister not understand that from the perspective of someone under the flight path, the number of flights is a completely different issue from how loud each aircraft is? His proposal essentially ditches the number of flights as an important measure. If people are woken during the night, it matters to them whether that happens twice or 10 times, and that is a serious problem for my constituents.

Derek Twigg: I do not accept that. It is important that we consider how we can manage the situation in the best possible way. We can discuss the fact that more modern aircraft are quieter and consider the number of aircraft that fly over a place during a specific period. I also understand that noise causes people nuisance in different ways. Some people might be affected by a one-off noise that is especially loud, while others may be affected by a period of noise over several hours.

Mr. Brazier rose—

Derek Twigg: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but would like to make some progress because I have been generous in giving way.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister has indeed been generous, so I thank him for letting me intervene. Will he just clarify to which airports his pledge on the night cap at the present numbers up to 2012 will apply?

Derek Twigg: I have made it clear that that will apply to Heathrow. We will communicate our intentions on Gatwick and Stansted later on.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Derek Twigg: If the hon. and learned Gentleman does not mind, I would like to make some progress with my speech. It is important that I repeat that I am aware of worries about the way in which the Government might use the amended provisions. However, I have made our position clear.

Lords amendment No. 11, which is a Government amendment, changes the commencement provisions of the Bill and prevents the relevant changes to the existing legislation from being brought into force before June 2012. It gives additional legal force to our commitment that there will be no change to our policy of setting night-time limits on both aircraft movements and the noise quota at each airport before 2012. Government amendment (a), which we are offering in lieu of Lords amendment No. 11, will correct the numbering of the provisions in clause 2 that cannot be commenced before June 2012, which will be necessary if clause 2(2) is reinstated in the Bill.

We, of course, understand the value of movements limits to residents around the designated airports at
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present, which is why we have proposed that they should continue to be set as part of the regime to apply from October 2006. However, a movements limit alone would be a pretty blunt instrument because it would not directly control the amount of noise permitted at night, and neither could it influence the types of aircraft used at night. Noise quotas are set alongside the movements limits at present to drive the use of the quietest aircraft available.

Mr. Garnier: Clearly the Minister and the Government as a whole think that designation under the 1982 Act is a good thing because they would otherwise abolish it. Why is he designating only Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow, but not Nottingham East Midlands airport, which has a number of flight movements now that is well in excess of the number of such movements in and out of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted at the time at which those airports were designated? There does not seem to be much logic attached to the argument.

Derek Twigg: The hon. and learned Gentleman spends a lot of time on this subject and has a great deal of knowledge about the previous Government’s relationship with those three airports. We listen to what is said. I understand that he has a difference of opinion on Nottingham East Midlands airport. It is important that the airport consults residents and the local community and involves them in the process. We think that the situation is best dealt with locally for such airports.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Why is the Minister dressing up the Government’s amendment as a concession? It seems to me that when the negotiations that are under way on flight numbers between October 2006 and 2012 are finished and the numbers are agreed, the Government will not have room to manoeuvre on flight numbers anyway. The amendment is not a concession, so why is he arguing that it is?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, but he will have heard from my hon. Friends that my announcement has been welcomed. However, I understand the point that he makes, and we listen to arguments that are put forward. I wish to make some progress because I have taken many interventions and hon. Members will want to make their speeches.

The Government try to take a balanced approach on controlling and mitigating the noise impact of night flying at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. We are not seeking more flexible powers to use immediately, but believe that it is right to ensure that they will be available, if needed. We do not believe that any future Government would use the powers unreasonably. If they were they to do so, they could be subject to a legal challenge. The Government remain convinced that it is right to amend the legislation in such a way.

Mr. Brazier: On Second Reading, in Committee and in another place, our Front-Bench spokesmen stated that the time had come to marry better the twin desires of extending the opportunities offered by world travel and bringing the airlines on board as partners in
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achieving serious environmental goals, whether they are global or for people’s local environments. However, from a reading of the Bill, it sadly looks more and more as though the Government’s idea of partnership is based on what is going on in Downing street. We wished to remove clause 2(2), because it was painfully apparent that we had to allow residents and airports to co-exist more harmoniously.

6 pm

The Government’s announcement a few minutes ago about Heathrow to 2012 is welcome but prompts questions about other designated airports and Heathrow after 2012. As hon. Members know only too well, the issue is the balance between numbers and quotas as a means of controlling noise. The mitigation of noise and vibration from aircraft taking off and landing at designated airports—Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted—is achieved, as the Minister said, by restricting the number of movements and by the noise quota. Noise can be a considerable impediment to the quality of life of people who live near an airport or under a flight path, as Members on both sides have made clear. If the noise of an aircraft taking off wakes someone, it does not matter if it is only just loud enough to do so or is extremely loud. Furthermore, as has been made clear by Lord Hanningfield, our Front-Bench spokesman in another place, the quota system itself, which is all that will be left, is highly technical and often incomprehensible to the people it is meant to protect.

Less noise does not always mean less disturbance, and that is emphatically the case if the system of measurement leaves something to be desired. While noise is measured in decibels, the level equivalent—Leq—is an index of aircraft noise exposure. It is a measure of the equivalent continuous sound level averaged over a 16-hour day from 0700 to 2300, and is taken during the peak summer months from mid-June to mid-September. The Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise—HACAN—and Clear Skies, a voluntary organisation that campaigns on behalf of people affected by flight paths, have issued a joint paper that makes interesting reading. It argues that the level equivalent system underestimates aircraft noise in three key areas. First, it can be misleading to average out aircraft noise, for the obvious reason that if someone is woken by noise, it does not make much difference how loud it is. Secondly, low-frequency noise is ignored by the measure. Thirdly, and crucially, the Leq classifications often underestimate the minimum level of noise that annoys people.

The HACAN-Clear Skies report claims that low-frequency rumbling is a significant component of aircraft noise. Including it in the measurement can increase the noise of a plane passing overhead by about 8 decibels. More to the point, many improvements in aircraft noise are primarily concerned with mid to high-frequencies. Perhaps the best way to illustrate its shortcomings is to cite the example given by Lord Hanningfield, who said that

perhaps I should say, “had”, given the sad loss of that great if noisy aircraft—

I urge the House to consider whether it would prefer to have the magnificent opportunity to see and hear Concorde in their skies again for two minutes or four hours of aircraft taking off every two minutes. Under the Leq system, on which we will be entirely reliant after 2012, the two events will be treated as equivalent.

Justine Greening: Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the Leq measurement partly stems from the fact that it works on averages rather than maximums? It is the equivalent of someone trying to avoid a speeding ticket and prosecution by saying, “Ah yes, officer, but I only did an average of 68 mph when I drove up the M1 to Yorkshire from London”. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the data should be used to protect residents on the ground.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend’s ingenious analogy shows how weak is the system, which will be the only way of controlling noise.

The frequency of flights through the night and early morning, when there is reduced background or ambient noise, is not considered. The same total noise exposure can be achieved with a few noisy aircraft or a larger number of less noisy ones. The removal of the night movements limit implies that as aircraft become less noisy, more flights can be accommodated in the same noise quota. For example, under the quota count system, one Boeing 747 could be replaced with four Boeing 777s. It is no wonder that hon. Members on both sides who represent residents in the vicinity of a designated airport are concerned about the proposal, especially as the relationship between airports and local residents is not bathed in trust.

Mr. Steve Charlish, who is well-known to my hon. Friends as chairman of the East Leicestershire Villages Against Airspace campaign group, sent a letter to the managing director of Nottingham East Midlands airport :

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