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2 July 2008 : Column 272WH—continued

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said, there is much to be gained from flights. It is a fact of life and much of the concern about flights arises simply because there is an increase in their number. That point was made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). However, that is not the issue that is to be decided in the consultation, or the specific issue faced by my constituents in the areas I have mentioned. The concern is that, although there will be more flights, whether or not the flight paths change, aircraft will, under the proposals, be flying lower over my constituency. The reason is that as a rule the change in routes has meant flights moving further south than previously. As
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a consequence they are caught up in Heathrow traffic and are kept lower to allow flights from Heathrow to fly above them.

I have two suggestions to make about that. First, greater consideration could be given to the idea of simply moving flights further north. Work on that issue has been undertaken by the Chiltern countryside group. The point of the suggestion is not simply to move the problem into someone else’s back yard—I say that with some nervousness, knowing who represents the constituency to the north-west of mine; once flights are moved a little further north they can climb more quickly. That is beneficial not just for noise pollution but environmentally. Once a flight has moved quickly up, it is more efficient. I am not aware of any disagreement on that.

The second possible solution to the problem involves the question of moving what is described as the Bovingdon stack. Bovingdon is a village in my constituency where arrivals for Heathrow are stacked. I have spoken to residents and the concern in Bovingdon is not particularly noise from the stack, which flies several thousand feet above; the impact is that flights departing from Luton are kept lower than they would otherwise be. I know that the question of moving the Bovingdon stack is being considered, and, indeed, if the third runway at Heathrow were ever to be implemented, it would have to happen. That is not an argument one way or the other, but given that the work has been done it is a pity that NATS has not included in its process the possibility of moving the Bovingdon stack. If it did, that might solve some of our problems.

That leads me to my final criticism of the consultation document, which is that it does not offer alternatives. It is very much a question of “Take it or leave it; here are our proposals”. Those are either to stay as we are, which is not ideal for the purpose of dealing with flights over populated areas—a move is clearly in the best interest of such places as St. Albans, Hatfield and parts of Hemel Hempstead—or to go with the proposals. The detailed work done by NATS suggests that there are alternatives that would benefit those areas over which there are currently many flights, which would not result in more low-flying planes over the likes of Tring, Berkhamsted, Wigginton, Aldbury and Northchurch. It is therefore possible that we can do better. I hope and urge that NATS will be prepared to look again for improvements—and if the Minister can influence it in any way I ask him to take whatever action is necessary. There may be detailed technical points that it would not be appropriate to make today, and which it would be difficult to deal with without benefit of a map. However, changes could be made that would address my constituents’ concerns and, I hope, reduce flight paths over other constituencies.

3.29 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke). He named a number of places that I know particularly well, as I was a borough councillor for Aldbury and Wigginton. I have probably met the very same people who have been lobbying him about the aircraft issues that he discussed. It shows that the issue is ongoing, and that a solution—although that is probably the wrong word to use—does not seem to be on the
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horizon. I hope that this debate will provide another opportunity for the Government to clarify where we are going.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), who brought an interesting angle to this discussion. As the shadow Minister for tourism and for gambling, I take a particular interest in our flight paths, not only because of who is inside them and how people can get from the plane through the airport to their destination efficiently, but because we have one of the best horse racing industries in the world. We can say proudly that we hold eight of the top 12 international races. As my hon. Friend mentioned, those will be threatened if we are not careful about protecting the industry. It is the sport of kings; I hope that it does not become a sport of the Government to ignore that important industry.

The industry is important not just in the Newmarket area, but across the country, as my hon. Friend explained with some clarity. There are now some 60 horse racing tracks in the country. It is a thriving sport, but it is under threat. He mentioned football. From a betting perspective, racing is growing in popularity, as are international events abroad. If we do not harness, look after and nurture the racing industry, it will disappear. What has been identified today is Departments’ lack of thinking about the knock-on consequences of avoiding considering the bigger picture.

We have had issues with the Tote, the levy and on-course bookies. The Government could be accused of not taking horse racing particularly seriously. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to rectify that, and say that he is interested in learning more about the impact on the racing industry of flights over the Newmarket area and elsewhere.

I should put it on record that I am a pilot. I am not a commercial airline pilot—I would have to declare that in the Register of Members’ Interests—but a private pilot. I am aware of the issues of stacking, the length of flight paths and how long it takes to go on to finals to land at a runway. Like many other pilots around the world, I am flabbergasted that the UK decided to base our main international airport downwind of our capital city. That is madness, because it means that almost every single flight must go across the capital, upsetting the city every time.

The frequency with which flights now land at international airports, particularly Heathrow, has increased. Landings now take place every 60 seconds. We saw the chaos caused when a little fog crept into the UK only a year or so ago. There is no more capacity at Heathrow. Perhaps there is a bigger debate to be had about why we are investing so much money in particular airports and not looking at the bigger picture. The future is to spread out passenger and cargo airlift requirements more evenly around the country. It is not Conservative policy, but I would like to see an airport along the Thames estuary, where aircraft can land at will, upsetting no one but a few fish and birds. However, as I said, that might be for a different debate.

My hon. Friend focused on the impact on horse racing and raised some important questions about the consultation. I reiterate: what other options were placed on the table? What other considerations were put forward? We might be able to say, “Maybe Newmarket isn’t the answer. Maybe we could consider something else as
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well.” From my experience of the airlines, there is nothing wrong with having a stacking system over the sea. It could easily be done. Planes would simply have a long ride-in time on finals. It would not be a problem, but we do not even know whether that was considered, because the consultation does not allow it. I hope that the Minister will heed our requests to see the full set of evidence, so that we can make that judgment ourselves.

The future was mentioned. If things are busy now, where will they be in five to 10 years’ time? We must consider that in advance, not just for the sake of the horse industry but for Britain as a whole. I have huge concerns about the lack of long-term planning. The plans are based around airports, without any thought for what other advanced countries, such as the United States, have done in building new airports. JFK in New York, for example, is that city’s main international airport, but additional airports have been built to take extra capacity, so that everything does not happen at one airport.

That also has security implications. If something happens at Heathrow—whether it be natural, like the fog, or a security alert—London comes almost to a standstill, because there is no capacity to shift flights elsewhere. The matter is critical for our tourism industry. According to surveys of the business and international community, the biggest concern is what is now called the Heathrow experience. It is so frustrating to come through Heathrow that people deliberately avoid it to come through other airports.

I plead with the Minister to consider what is happening, to be honest about aspects of the consultation and to be aware of the importance of the racing industry to the UK. In my intervention, I stressed that it is much easier to be aware of noise in the countryside than in urban areas. That factor must have been considered in the consultation, but as I said, we are not fully aware of what evidence was presented.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I hope that things do not end here. I hope that the Government will begin to open their eyes to the bigger picture and take evidence from other parts of the industry, instead of simply arguing that tucking away stacking locations in rural rather than urban areas upsets fewer people.

3.37 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate on such an important issue. Although I am not from London, I spent four years at university living under the flight path, including some time in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I am well aware of the significant impact of flights on people living around London, and I believe that more can and should be done to reduce noise and air pollution from aircraft.

On the recent consultation by NATS, I want to make one point clear. Moving the flight paths around London will not solve the problems caused by air traffic. Aircraft will not produce any less noise or pollution, and their impact on people and the environment will not change.
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It will simply move the problem from one area to another. According to the November 2007 Government study “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”, 2 million people live within the 50 dB area for Heathrow. According to the World Health Organisation, 50 dB is a noise level that causes annoyance. However much the Government want to distance themselves from the study’s results, it shows that 2 million people live with annoyance-causing noise levels. An estimated 258,000 residents experience Heathrow noise levels of 57 dB or above, the level at which Government restrictions on noise begin and which constitutes serious annoyance according to the WHO.

However we look at it, noise is a significant and growing problem that the Government must take seriously. As the number of flights has grown in recent years, the problem has become more annoying, disturbing and intrusive. In Luton, for example, the number of noise complaints tripled between 2005 and 2006.

I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about the effect of aircraft noise on our young people, and I am conscious that many schools under flight paths are greatly disrupted by the constant impact of aircraft noise. In 2005, a team from Barts and the London NHS trust found that each 5 dB increase was linked to children being up to two months behind in their reading age. Surely that alone should convince the Government that they cannot shut their eyes to the effects of noise pollution on the population, and that strong regulation is needed to ensure that schools are protected from excessive noise pollution. Will the Minister confirm what plans are under way to tackle that problem?

I am very sceptical about claims that the plans will reduce the noise burden from aviation on the capital and its surrounding areas. The proposals state that moving the approach for London City airport will increase the number of people affected by noise by up to 11 per cent.; that changes at Stansted will affect 9 per cent.; and that many will suffer from more noise owing to the more intensive use of airspace—a point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The dilemma is that although the proposed changes to airspace use will undoubtedly benefit some people, others, especially those living in quiet rural areas with very little background noise, will suddenly have aircraft flying above them. Owing to the relative tranquillity of those areas, the new disturbance will arguably be more noticeable—a point made by other hon. Members.

The Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, which has been mentioned already, is an area of particular concern. Should not the skies of that beautiful area be protected as well as the ground? We therefore support the campaign to require aircraft to fly at higher altitudes over the AONB to limit the impact of noise and air pollution, or to be rerouted altogether. We are also concerned that the redrafting of airspace above London might be designed simply to create more capacity in our skies to allow for expansion on the ground. Under the proposals, Stansted would have two stacks rather than one. Do the Government envisage that Stansted will need two stacks because its planes will not be able to fit into the one it has already? Is it a coincidence that the air capacity of Stansted is planned to be increased just as BAA submits its planning application for an additional runway?

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Wherever planes go there will be disruption and increased noise. Unless we stem the growth in the number of flights being taken, we cannot make a significant dent in the noise and air pollution that areas will have to suffer because of aircraft noise. The inescapable fact is that tinkering with flight paths does not solve the problem. If there is further expansion in the south-east, the number of planes, and therefore noise, will continue to increase significantly. That is why the Liberal Democrats oppose expansion of airports in the south-east. Clearly the Government disagree and continue to pursue the “predict and provide” policy with airports that the UK used to have towards roads. The history of that disastrous roads policy should indicate to us that using the same principles for airports will have the same effects. Of course, if airport space is provided, it will be filled. By increasing capacity in the airports and the sky, the Government are encouraging the generation of more flights, and the emissions that they cause—at a time when the Government have pledged to reduce our carbon emissions.

We are against further airport expansion in the south-east, but I should make special mention of the Heathrow expansion. We have put it on record previously, but it does no harm to reiterate that the Liberal Democrats are unequivocally opposed to the third runway, to the sixth terminal and to the end of runway alternation. The Government’s proposals to use mixed mode would create 60,000 extra flights passing over London each year, while a third runway would increase the number of flights by 50 per cent. to 720,000, both of which would be contrary to the Government’s promise that flight movements would not increase above 480,000. The noise that extra flights at Heathrow would create would place an additional, and in some cases unbearable, burden on the residents under flight paths. The abolition of runway alternation and introduction of mixed mode alone will take away the respite from passing aircraft.

We are all now aware of the reports that the consultation paper on the Heathrow expansion was reverse-engineered and that evidence was chosen and “reforecast” to obtain the results that the Government wanted—that a third runway would not adversely affect the air or noise pollution. Even the Environment Agency does not believe that the Department for Transport’s consultation document is robust enough to support the construction of another runway. If the figures have been fiddled on that paper, how are we to know that future consultation papers dealing with airport expansion will not be changed in the same way?

The fifth terminal was given permission on the understanding that it would not lead to a third runway, but already—only a few months after the terminal has opened—proposals for another runway have been put forward. The Government are quick to talk about sustainability, but when it comes to standing up to BAA they seem to lack conviction.

Our position on the expansion of Stansted is the same: we cannot and should not sustain more planes in the south-east. Stansted handles about 190,000 flights a year, but BAA wants to increase that to 260,000 on the existing runway and then, by opening a second runway in 2015, raise the capacity to more than 500,000 flights a year. Again, the impact of those flights on the community around Stansted should not be underestimated.
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Thousands of people will have their quality of life damaged by increased numbers of overhead flights, and much more needs to be done to protect their interests.

Although the rest of the Government’s policy is designed to drive down carbon emissions by making a 60 or 80 per cent. cut by 2050, aviation is not included in that target. We firmly believe that it should be. Air transport already produces about 5.6 per cent. of emissions, and the proportion of carbon emissions from aviation has doubled since 1990 and is well on its way to producing a quarter of UK emissions by 2038. If urgent action is not taken now, air traffic will prevent the UK from reducing its carbon emissions to tackle the urgent problem of climate change.

As I stated at the beginning of my contribution, only by taking a stand against unlimited expansion can we tackle the problem of air traffic over London and its surrounding countryside. The NATS proposals do not do enough to protect residents around London. While recognising that there will always be some disruption caused by air traffic, the Government have a duty to ensure that communities get a fair deal that minimises the impact of aircraft noise and ensures that noise and pollution do not continue to make their lives unbearable.

3.47 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. We have had a good debate so far, and in particular I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), not just on obtaining this debate, but on a very thoughtful and powerful opening speech, in which he made clear the real concerns of his constituents and his constituency’s principal industry about the proposals. We also heard interesting contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who is himself a pilot. We also heard a characteristically blunt contribution from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

John McDonnell: I was being mild mannered

Mr. Brazier: Blunt, but effective.

The NATS proposals for terminal control north involve some of the UK’s busiest airports. Work started in 2004 when it was assessed that current capacity was unlikely to be able to accommodate the future growth of air traffic within the region. NATS itself says:

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk gave a detailed account of the statistics for aviation growth in the south-east as a whole and, in particular, from Stansted and Luton. I shall not repeat all his statistics, but like him I admire the aviation industry. Aviation contributes more than 2 per cent. of our gross domestic product and employs 200,000 people directly and a further 600,000 indirectly. It remains one of the few areas of engineering in which UK plc still has a world-leading presence.

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