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Helicopter Flights (London)

Volume 455: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]

First, may I reassure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that although this debate could last for three hours, I do not intend to make it last any longer than it would in other circumstances.

I sought this debate because I received many complaints from local residents in my constituency about the noise of helicopters overhead. To provide a flavour of those complaints, Mrs. Wisdom of Barnes said:

“I really do find it intolerable that very few helicopters, if any, keep to their designated route.”

Mr. Keers of Barnes—hon. Members will realise that Barnes is an Achilles heel in its vulnerability to helicopter noise—said:

“This year the noise from helicopters going to and fro from Battersea has become intolerable. To make matters worse the helicopters frequently seem to be in holding patterns over Barnes resulting in continuous and unbearable noise.”

I sympathise with the concerns of Ms Le Poer Trench, because I have had a similar experience to hers. She said:

“This morning, I felt I was in ‘Apocalypse Now’ under attack. It’s true noise pollution.”

In reply to our letters urging the Government to try to find a way of tackling the problem of helicopter noise, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), told us in October 2006 that

“where standards are concerned, further progress is dependent upon international negotiation and agreement…No significant technology advances are in prospect…Considerate flying is the key to legitimate operations not causing unacceptable disturbance”.

We were provided with contact details for the British Helicopter Advisory Board, but it appears that existing bodies do not take responsibility for the environmental impact of helicopters that fly across our communities, and certainly not for the noise that they create.

I very much welcome the investigation into these issues that was published by the Greater London authority last October, entitled “London in a spin—a review of helicopter noise”. The Minister met members of the GLA and staff who produced it to try to begin to develop a response. We are delighted that she did so, and my role tonight is to engage in a pincer movement, and keep up the pressure to secure action to deal with an increasing annoyance.

I would love to tell the House the number of helicopter movements across London, but there is no comprehensive database that keeps count of such movements. Battersea heliport, which is the main heliport in London, has planning permission for 12,000 commercial movements a year, but police, air ambulance and military helicopter movements are not included. The GLA estimates that about 13,000 flights were made to and from Battersea heliport in 2006. There were 11,000 flights in 2003, so the trajectory is for a significant increase every year. The Civil Aviation Authority produces data on helicopter take-offs and landings, but it does not include flights into or across London from airfields around the capital such as Biggin Hill, Denham and Fairoaks.

The pattern of flights is particularly annoying. We suspect that corporate entertainment is a major cause of aircraft movements, as there are clusters of flights during events such as Ascot and the Farnborough air show, causing disruption for several days. National Air Traffic Services does not keep data on low-level traffic over London, as it focuses on safety and does not think that it should keep track of movements. The British Helicopter Advisory Board, which the Government recommended we contact to achieve action on the problem, does not collect data at all. Each organisation seems to regard the others as data-collecting agents, and they disagree about increases in flights and who is responsible for those flights. As the GLA was forced to conclude, there is no joined-up collection or monitoring of data.

There is a lack of standards, too. There is an attitude in government that anything that business wants in aviation it gets, regardless of the impact on the community. My constituency suffers significantly from noise from Heathrow, and my residents believe that the Government’s approach to aviation is one of predict and provide, particularly in the expansion of that airport. There are genuine fears that many more helicopter movements will be permitted in future. There is no incentive to reduce helicopter noise, because there are not any regulations to encourage the use of newer, quieter helicopters. Many fleets are 30 years old and have little new technology, so they continue to disturb people.

When we raised the issue of expansion and additional helicopter movements across the city, we were told that business needs those things. That argument is always made about anything to do with aviation but, interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) told me that when he entered the House, there were several helipads in his constituency, including one by the Oxo tower in the middle of the river and one at Chambers Wharf. The argument was repeatedly made that it would harm business in London if those heliports were closed. Following pressure, public inquiries and general activity, they were indeed closed, and the economy of London and Southwark did not collapse. Many spurious arguments are made to justify the constant expansion of helicopter capacity which, it is claimed, is necessary for the survival of London as an economic centre.

New proposals have been made for increased helicopter capacity in east London, perhaps at City airport, and many people believe that we have a growing helicopter culture. Regional Airports Ltd has told the GLA that it wants to be able to shuttle people to and from the London Olympics by helicopter from Biggin Hill. There is a great fear that that practice would set a precedent for regular shuttles to the City.

Residents are disturbed by helicopter noise, but it is hard to determine that objectively, because there are not any standards by which to measure it. In testimony to the GLA, Phil Roberts of the CAA is reported to have said that data on the human response to helicopter noise are limited, so it is difficult to define an objective measure. We have managed to find methods of measuring noise from fixed-wing aircraft, and I urge the Minister to make progress on defining a standard for helicopters. It is important, however, that we do not repeat a key mistake in the measurement of fixed-wing aircraft noise, which determines average noise. No one ever hears average noise—people are disturbed by individual events. If the Minister concedes that point, and helps us to make progress on a standard for helicopter noise, I believe that we will not import the problem of averaging, which makes it almost impossible for residents to engage in a reasonable discussion about aircraft noise with the Government, BAA and other parts of the aviation industry.

There are concerns, too, about consultation, the history of which is not a happy one. In 2004, when the CAA reduced the minimum altitude for helicopter flights over London from 1,500 ft to 1,000 ft, it conducted an extensive consultation. The only problem was that all the consultees were from the aviation industry. We must start to consider residents and to understand that they have a vested interest in a good environment for the city. That means that they must be listened to on issues such as noise.

The designated route in the London control zone is essentially the route of the Thames, although the police and ambulances obviously have greater freedom. What enforcement is there of that route? The comments that I quoted earlier reflect a great deal of helicopter activity around Barnes, which is a holding point. It is also where there is a loop in the Thames. As a resident, I frequently see helicopters abandon the route and start to take what they think is a clever short cut, which takes them across the Wetlands centre—the largest urban waterfowl sanctuary in Europe—as well as disturbing people under the flight path.

As I was coming into the Chamber for the debate, I was approached by various colleagues. Apparently, there have been three complaints recently from Kingston and Surbiton about helicopter noise. What helicopters have been doing in that area, disturbing residents, is beyond me. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) constantly receives reports of helicopter noise over Hampstead heath and experiences it directly over her own house, so she is conscious that that traffic is increasing and increasingly disruptive. The GLA received many reports from residents in Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, so the problem is widespread over London. Anywhere that the Thames happens to wander, there seems to be a helicopter noise problem. The Thames is at the heart of this city, so the impact is not just in one or two isolated places.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation recommended an altitude of 1,000 ft across Europe as a consistent measure. However, that is not at all appropriate for London. The French ignore the rule altogether for Paris, because they do not want Parisians or tourists to be disturbed. It is time that we started to find ways to ignore that standard for London. I have spoken to people in the industry, and some concern has been expressed that the reason why the UK has not resisted the 1,000 ft minimum altitude is that it wishes to protect the higher airspace for increasing numbers of fixed-wing flights. That underscores the fundamental problem with aircraft and helicopter noise of all sorts in this city.

What practical steps can residents take in order to avoid living in a zone disturbed by helicopters? There is no way to find a noise map to see where the problem is. Even if people decide to try to avoid the problem, there is nothing that they can do. If they want to make a complaint, what do they do? Increasingly, members of the public are turning to their Members of Parliament, but it is exceedingly difficult to work out whether a specific type of complaint should go to the Department, the CAA, National Air Traffic Services or the airport operator. There is very much a “Not my job, guv” attitude towards such flights.

Where do we go from here? I broadly support the GLA recommendations, and I am sure that the Minister is familiar with those. We need a proper review of noise and a comprehensive data collection and monitoring mechanism. Residents need a clear and simple way to complain and to get answers. We must have proper consultation procedures. I strongly support the proposal for a heliport consultative committee. There should be such a committee for Battersea, as there is at airports.

In some ways I would go further than the GLA report. That mentions the annoyance caused by media and advertising flights. Nobody can claim that those are central to London’s economy. I would like to see them banned, given the volume of other users. There are suggestions that helicopter capacity could be increased at City airport and other places. There may be better locations for a heliport than Battersea. If Battersea residents could express their opinion on that, they would no doubt think it was a delightful suggestion. If there is new capacity, it must be instead of, not in addition to, Battersea, which is the threat that we think we face.

I hope that the Minister will give a commitment tonight that the issue will be taken seriously. Noise pollution, especially from the air, is an increasing blight over one of the finest capital cities in the world—the finest, I would argue. Residents should not have to suffer from such disturbance. Other than police, military and ambulance movements, we are dealing with a luxury service which serves a small number of people while disturbing a very significant number. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) on securing the debate on a subject which I recognise is of concern to many people, including her constituents.

A gentleman by the name of Igor Sikorsky who built the first helicopter said that the helicopter approaches closer than any other vehicle to the fulfilment of mankind’s ancient dreams of the flying horse and the magic carpet. No doubt Mr. Sikorsky was somewhat biased in his view, but there is no doubt that the helicopter’s ability to land and take off in relatively congested areas is a great benefit to many, making the helicopter a key mode of transport in many circumstances.

In particular, the helicopter is a key tool in emergency and military situations. We know how many lives have been saved, perhaps in our own areas, by air ambulances. There was substantial media interest recently in the role of the Yorkshire air ambulance following the crash involving the “Top Gear” presenter Richard Hammond last year. This led to a campaign to raise funds for the Yorkshire air ambulance charity. To date some £200,000 has been pledged as part of that campaign, showing that the public appreciate the positive role that helicopters can play.

Surely the Minister recognises that the overwhelming cause of noise in London is the commercial helicopter, rather than police or ambulance helicopters. I would be very interested if there were more than 12,000 movements to and fro. That would account for the commercial movements out of Battersea alone. That number has never been acknowledged before as involving police and ambulance helicopters.

The difficulty, which I shall address, is that much of the discussion is anecdotal, important though that is. I shall deal with the GLA report, which I recognise plays a useful role.

Just as helicopters are important to the emergency health services, they are critical to the police, and no one would challenge the need for them to be used in key police operations. Helicopters are a feature of life today and we cannot wish them away. To some extent they could be seen as a sign of the successful economy that the Government have delivered. Of course we must ensure that there is safety for those in the air and those on the ground. That is our first priority, and I am proud of the UK’s record in this regard.

Clearly, helicopters have a particular local environmental impact through the noise that they make. It was therefore timely and welcome for the Greater London assembly environment committee to look into the issue of helicopter noise, and its report, for which the Department for Transport provided evidence, gives valuable food for thought. I was pleased to hold a constructive and productive meeting with members of the environment committee to discuss their findings. I will comment later on the action that we agreed to take forward, but first I shall clarify a few points.

The hon. Lady suggested, erroneously, that the Government’s policy on aviation was to predict and provide. The fact is that the issue is not all about predict and provide; it is about balance, economic development, the environment and the interests of local communities. The progress report on the air transport White Paper has been well received in all quarters—by “quarters”, I mean stakeholders all across the country rather than, as has been suggested, only those involved in the aviation industry.

The hon. Lady has referred to the so-called reduction to 1,000 ft in the height at which helicopters can fly. That was done in 2005, and was based on the need for improved aviation safety, which is paramount.

I reassure the hon. Lady and her constituents that we take the measurement of aircraft noise seriously. We take account of the operational noise made by aircraft in setting noise objectives, and we are very conscious of its impact on local communities. My Department has a broad role on overall helicopter noise policy, but it is not involved in overseeing or approving helicopter operations. There are, of course, regulations under civil aviation legislation governing flight by helicopters over London, which are the Rules of the Air Regulations 1996 and the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Specified Area) Regulations 2005.

The rules of the air stipulate that, except where there is CAA permission in writing, no craft shall fly below a height of 1,000 ft over congested areas. The specified area regulations require that helicopters do not fly over central London below a height that might present a potential safety risk in the event of a power unit failure. For single-engine helicopters, that includes the use of specified routes and prohibition from the central London area, because of the requirement to be able to alight safely in the event of power unit failure. The helicopter routes have been designed to maximise safety by avoiding built-up areas as much as possible, and to minimise environmental impact. It is important to point out that twin-engine helicopters have the potential to maintain height and to continue flight in the event of one engine failing, and so can be authorised to fly other than on the designated routes, providing that that is in accordance with the rules of the air.

If the Minister cannot provide this information today, perhaps she will provide at a later point: is there a list of the number of flights permitted to depart from the designated route? That is news to many of us, and it would be helpful to understand how many flights are getting that exemption.

I am happy to come back to the hon. Lady on the general point, but for example, deviation is common on emergency operations. The issue is broad, and I am happy to return to her on it.

On compliance with the regulations, all helicopter flights in the controlled air space over London are subject to an air traffic control clearance, and single-engine helicopters flying routes are subject to particular visibility minima. Air traffic controllers monitor compliance with air traffic control clearances and instructions, while the CAA, which is responsible for the enforcement of aviation legislation in the UK, will investigate any reported breaches and take enforcement action as necessary.

Police helicopter activity is governed by the provisions of the police operators certificate, which exempts the police from certain parts of the rules of the air regulations. Overall responsibility for policy on police helicopter operations lies with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. No legal action can be taken against pilots for noise disturbance, providing that they observe the rules of the air and fly in accordance with normal aviation practice.

The hon. Lady asked about complaints from the public, and referred to complaints by her constituents. The Department for Transport receives a number of complaints about the noise arising from helicopter operations, especially in the summer months. In responding, I can comment on the Government’s overall policy, as I have just outlined, but we do not oversee day-to-day operations. Complaints are also received by the CAA. As the hon. Lady will know, however, there is no central complaints database. If the problem is a long-term one and the owner and/or operator of the helicopter is known, complainants may be referred to the British Helicopter Advisory Board, which has helpfully produced a number of documents. Those documents are available on its website, and they provide assistance to members of the community.

Complaints thought to be about police helicopters are matters for the relevant police air support or helicopter unit. One of the areas highlighted by the GLA environment committee, with which I have great sympathy, is that there could be a clearer complaints procedure for members of the public. The Department will work with interested parties to seek to deliver a more straightforward process. Local authorities can also play their part by helping their residents understand how to raise concerns. I intend us to work to help to alleviate the frustration experienced by the hon. Lady’s constituents and others who have found it difficult to find the right route by which to complain.

Improved technology means that helicopters are less noisy than they were, and we seek reductions in noise at source by encouraging industry developments in aircraft and engine technology. The noise signature of helicopters does indeed differ from fixed-wing aircraft in that the noise derives not only from the engines but from the main and tail rotors, particularly from their tips. Therefore, silencing an engine alone will do little to improve the level of disturbance.

Since 1 August 1986, all new and modified versions of existing designs of helicopters to be flown in this country have been required to meet noise certification standards. The current requirements for helicopters are laid out in the Air Navigation (Noise Certification) Order 1990 and are based on the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s annex 16. We in this country helped to establish, and have adopted, that international standard. However, where standards are concerned, further progress is dependent on international negotiation and agreement, which can then be implemented by the European Union and in national regulation. No significant technological advances are in prospect, but I assure the House that we will continue to seek reductions in source noise where possible, as we do for all aircraft. I should also say that most complaints that we receive relate to the unwanted presence of helicopters. It is rare for people to say that a slightly quieter helicopter would not bother them.

In December, I held a most constructive meeting with the Greater London assembly’s environment committee. Its report made 14 recommendations, which I have studied, eight of which suggest action by the Department. However, committee members were realistic enough to recognise that it was important to identify key priorities, as I asked them to, so that our attention in the Department can be focused on the areas of most importance. One key priority that they identified was the need for a clearer complaints procedure. As I confirmed to the House, that is a point that we recognise and are taking forward.

The other key priority that we agreed was the need for better data. At present, it is true to say that there is little co-ordinated information collection, meaning that concerns about increased noise tend to be somewhat anecdotal. I assure the House that the Department will work with the CAA and National Air Traffic Services to collect more comprehensive data, liaising as appropriate with the environment committee’s officers. It is right to proceed in that way. Instead of launching a flurry of activity to try to address a problem the detail of which is not clear enough, we should first establish an understanding of the actual position and the trends. That will enable us to inform decisions on next steps. It will not be straightforward to collect the further information, but we shall pursue it. I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that this represents a considered and sensible response to the points that she and the London assembly’s environment committee have raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight o’clock.