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NATS (Luton)

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

I am here to talk about the NATS proposals and plans for the airspace over Luton. It is a supreme irony that we are discussing the proposals just after an announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, relayed on our local radio, about noise maps for Luton. The noise maps form part of the national ambient noise strategy, which has an EU basis and whose purpose is to consider ways to manage noise issues and effects, including road, rail and air traffic noise, and to make noise reduction proposals as necessary. That is some timing: my constituents are being asked how their lives could be made more tranquil when we are in the middle of the biggest—and, I hope, the noisiest—row about noise and environmental impact that Luton has ever seen.

NATS proposes to change the flight paths over my constituency and swathes of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. According to NATS’s own estimate, the number of households adversely affected will increase by 111 per cent. under the plans. Let me make it clear that we are not discussing proposals from London Luton airport. I support the airport: it is our major employer, and it brings direct and indirect economic benefits to our town and the region. Like the rest of us, the airport authorities are consultees to the plans. I hope that as good neighbours, they, like my constituents and many colleagues and fellow MPs, will reject the plans. To do otherwise would alienate the local community, which broadly supports the airport, and scupper any good will for growth.

The NATS plans came as a surprise to many. Looking at the proposals, many of my constituents asked how NATS could possibly be mandated to create a detrimental environmental impact on Luton and the surrounding areas. NATS’s stated objective is airspace safety, but it also has a requirement to minimise impact on residential areas. NATS itself says:

“NATS has aimed to position routes to minimise the noise experienced by people and in particular to avoid centring routes over more densely populated areas.”

An innocent reading of the NATS leaflet on the Chilterns and Luton suggests that the good folk of my constituency and the surrounding areas will sleep soundly in their beds, in more ways than one. Many in Luton have not been able to lay hands on that leaflet, but it says that the noise preferential routes for Luton

“would be changed to minimise the population overflown, reduce future delay”

and so on. Nevertheless, buried in its documentation, NATS itself says that the Luton airspace area will be worse off—indeed, it will be one of the areas worst affected by the proposals.

Many of my constituents feel that we have been duped and dumped on, and we demand an alternative. We have been duped because the press releases and leaflets that NATS has issued have been wholly misleading about the impact on my constituents. When NATS launched the proposals in February, it claimed that the new routes would reduce the number of people overflown by 20 per cent. That is not the case. The real impact is a massive shift of aircraft noise from some areas to Luton and the surrounding areas.

At a meeting with NATS that I attended on Friday, the very real possibility was mentioned of a hybrid P-RNAV—precision area navigation—route, which would enable NATS to keep its overall big picture and avoid excessive noise over the hon. Lady’s constituency and mine. Will she commend that to the Minister as a workable way forward?

Indeed, I intend to do so when I explain the problems and the solutions. To say that my constituents have been duped by a sham consultation is an understatement. Meetings have been held with NATS—I am told that it consulted various local authorities, including Luton, in 2000 and 2006—at which the proposals were so unclear that no real response could be given. NATS has proposed no viable option, although, as the hon. Gentleman said, we believe that there is one. No alternatives at all have been proposed for our area, unlike other areas affected by NATS’s proposals. There is no mitigation for Luton, even though, according to NATS’s own documentation, the proposals are clearly worse for Luton than for any other area in the airspace review.

I was astounded to hear from NATS—a private company—that it does not believe that it needs to consult with those directly affected, namely local residents. It consults only with its key stakeholders, relying on councils to do the other consultation for it. Why should the poor council tax payer take on that burden? Some councils have done so, some have not, and some do not have the capacity. As a result of that and the misleading leaflets, my constituents, particularly in Luton itself, have been blissfully unaware of the potentially devastating impact on their lives. They could be sleepwalking into a nightmare.

The consultation has been misleading. It has signally failed to inform residents and thus to encourage responses from them. If they did not receive this hefty tome—none of my local residents did—or if they could not translate it, as it was so complex that even London Luton airport had to get an expert consultant to decipher it, the only way that they could possibly know about the impact of the proposals is by scouring the NATS website, assuming they have a computer. My hard-working constituents do not spend their days scouring the NATS website. We have not been properly consulted.

Even an especially keen constituent who got through all that and asked for the sound exposure levels would have to ask for that document separately. It says that the noise levels over the centre of Luton will be more than 80 dB. I am told that that is as high as in a noisy factory, where an employer would be legally required to provide hearing safety equipment. The areas in Luton nearest to departure and landing areas will be overflown at 90 to 1,000 dB, which is so loud that it is off even the scale that NATS uses in its document. By its own admission, NATS’s proposals disadvantage Luton and the surrounding areas.

It has not escaped our attention that the proposals look dangerously familiar. They are very similar to those put forward a few years ago, which would have taken much of the air traffic over the Harpenden and St. Albans area and routed it across Luton and the surrounding areas. We successfully fought off those proposals, but when I questioned NATS representatives about the consultation, they told me proudly, “Oh yes, we pre-consulted with certain councils, and as a result of that consultation”—pointing to the map—“we amended our proposals to take traffic away from St. Albans, Harpenden and Wheathampstead and move it over to Luton.” They pointed out the difference between what they had proposed to consult on and what they have proposed to us today. That is the nub of the issue. We are being dumped on by our neighbours. As a result of the pre-consultation, NATS has listened to some areas and not others.

In my constituency, the villages of Caddington, Slip End, Woodside and Aley Green will bear the brunt of increased aircraft noise if the changes are approved, and large swathes of the top, south and centre of Luton will be hugely affected. Some 70 per cent. of all the flights from the western end of the runway will be diverted over the rooftops of south Luton and closer to those villages.

The number of people suffering high noise levels around the airport will increase from 3,000 in 2006 to 10,000 when the new routes are introduced. As NATS itself agreed, none of that takes any account of further airport expansions in any of our surrounding areas. All of the assumptions are untested; the impact could be even more detrimental, because by its own account NATS has used a set of assumptions to change flight paths that cannot be assessed properly until after any airspace changes have been implemented. An addendum to the main document shows that 18,000 people will continue to be overflown by departures from Luton, to whom will be added a further 50,000. The day noise contour is about 57 dB, but no night flight noise contours have been given, although NATS has confirmed that there will be an increase in night flights.

All of that poses one question, to which I received no serious answer in the meeting that I held with NATS, which many of my fellow MPs from Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire attended. How, with these proposals, is NATS meeting its requirement to minimise the impact on residential areas, when it is shifting the impact, especially on the westerly departure route, from non-residential to residential areas? How is it meeting the Government’s requirements under the Transport Act 2000 to minimise the impact on residential areas? Clearly, there is no point in NATS telling me, as it did, that it will consider the overall regional impact but cannot provide a proper assessment for Luton and the surrounding areas, which are so densely populated. We are talking not just about decibels, but about people’s lives being turned upside down.

We need answers to some key questions: what is the point of making the changes now, when new runways at Stansted and Heathrow are currently under consideration, which means that the proposals will have to be changed again? If Brookmans Park is the bottleneck, which NATS says it is, why not just change flight paths affecting that location? If new routes are required to show the environmental benefits resulting from the change, why is the replacement westerly departure route to be implemented, when it is actually far worse than the existing route that it will replace? If the proposals go ahead, does NATS realise that Luton airport will be under significant pressure to close at night, which would reduce capacity by 10 per cent., thus negating the main aim of the changes, which is to increase capacity?

In my constituency, at least seven schools will be affected by the proposals, including our new academy, which is currently under the flight path and will be rebuilt as a brand new facility even further under it. Children at schools in the Farley and South area will have their learning affected by high decibel levels, with all the implications for their education.

Although it is argued that the proposed routes will create no additional air pollution—even though some of the new flight paths are significantly longer than the existing ones—the proposed routes will move pollution over people who do not suffer from it at the moment. Why?

Furthermore, having identified a problem at Luton, why did NATS not investigate the consequences of its proposals on night sleep disturbance? It could have done so. The sound exposure level contours were provided after the main consultation, and the populations under them could have been calculated, but NATS chose not to do so.

Let us consider the wider implications. The World Health Organisation has recommended a 60 dB external maximum noise level to avoid sleep disturbance. The 80 dB contour area, proposed here for the noisiest aircraft at Luton, is huge, and the approximately 70 dB contour is itself 10 dB noisier than the recommended level and twice as loud as the world health limit. As the WHO said, the health of populations cannot be guaranteed when noise exceeds 55 dB. And this in an area that already has some of the worst health deprivation, certainly regionally, if not in the UK. How can NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority justify the proposals, if the plans, as we have identified, are likely to affect 30,000 people in Luton and the surrounding areas at night?

We are one of the Government’s growth areas, so the proposals will impact on Government policy on development. We are regenerating Luton: the massive public and private sector regeneration in the town is estimated to exceed £10 billion by 2030. Frankly, Luton, which is a good place to live and work—that is how we try to promote it—will be blighted by the proposals, as people in our town centre, university and major companies will all find that the quality of their life and work is adversely affected. Of course, none of that was taken into account by NATS.

As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) indicated, however, there is an alternative—it is a modest ask—that NATS itself says is viable. However, it was not included in its consultation document. That compromise will allow the retention of the existing westerly departure route, which will mean that the impact will be broadly the same as before the proposals, and less damaging to my constituents in the surrounding areas.

We are told that the main constraint to the proposals is that the new technology—P-RNAV—does not allow any turns to be made until the craft is at least one mile from the end of the runway, which means that P-RNAV cannot be used on the existing route immediately west of the airport. However, NATS representatives confirmed, both at the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred and subsequently, that it is possible to design a hybrid situation under which P-RNAV comes into operation two to three miles from the airport, thus allowing the existing system and noise preferential route to be followed for departures and arrivals.

There is no doubt that the current dispersal of aircraft within the current NPR is better for the local residents most affected than a concentration along the proposed new route would be. The highest concentration of residential properties is within the first mile at Luton, which should represent sufficient grounds for NATS to reconsider its proposals. NATS said that it would discuss that alternative with the CAA, but in case the latter needs reminding, it too has strong environmental requirements laid on it by Government under section 70 of the Transport Act.

I believe that my constituents, and many others in the surrounding areas, have been duped by the proposals and dumped on. We are now demanding that the CAA accepts the alternative, viable proposal, which will do what both NATS and the CAA are charged with doing by the Government and what the present plans patently do not do—namely, minimise the impact on Luton and the surrounding areas.

I begin by apologising for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), but important ministerial business has kept him away from the Chamber today. If, because I do not possess his level of expertise in this area, I cannot answer any of the points raised by my hon. Friend Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), I assure her that they will be answered in due course in correspondence. I hope that she accepts that.

As well as congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate, I compliment her on the way in which she made her case. Clearly she feels extremely strongly about this issue. If she makes her arguments as eloquently and passionately in her response to the consultation exercise launched by NATS, it will be difficult for NATS not to take into account her reservations and the points that she rightly makes.

Before responding to my hon. Friend’s specific points, I shall begin by restating that the Government’s commitment to sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment is at the heart of the Department for Transport’s aviation policy-making process, but a balance needs to be struck. As she rightly said, we need to tackle the environmental challenges, recognise the value of aviation in enabling people to take advantage of business and leisure opportunities and allow the industry to compete internationally. The role of any decision maker on airspace changes is to find the right balance.

I turn now to NATS’ terminal control north airspace change proposal. I must make it clear from the outset that that proposal is still subject to consultation under the CAA’s independent airspace change process. I understand my hon. Friend’s anger and that of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). My hon. Friend feels that she has been duped. She also asked if it was a case of whether NATS goes ahead with the proposals. She was right to ask that question, because a consultation exercise is under way and no final decisions have been made. I therefore do not believe that she is justified in feeling duped. The consultation exercise has been extended to 19 June.

My hon. Friend asked how the CAA can justify the proposals, but the CAA is not expected to justify the proposals, because the consultation is still going on.

I urge the Minister to look at the literature submitted by NATS, which suggests that the proposal offers a distinct advantage to the residents of Luton and its surrounding area. However, when one reads NATS’ own documentation, that is patently not the case. To me, that is duplicitous.

My hon. Friend’s comments are now on the record, and I am sure that they will be noted by the relevant parties.

As part of the regulatory process, the CAA may consider seeking the Secretary of State’s views on the environmental aspects of the proposal and then her approval for any change. Therefore, it would be premature and inappropriate of me to comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is still subject to the rigours of the independent airspace change process. That said, it might be helpful if I give some background on the proposals and the current consultation, and explain the procedures by which changes to UK airspace are made.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, NATS launched a 13-week consultation on the proposed terminal control north airspace change on 21 February. This area of airspace is one of the most complex in the world, with routes in and out of many major airports, including Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as smaller airports such as Southend and RAF Northolt. The current airspace infrastructure has accommodated growth at those airports over the past 20 years, but increasing traffic has led to congestion in the airways, resulting in delays and extra fuel burn, which impacts on the environment.

The proposed changes are designed to reduce delay while maintaining safety and improving environmental performance. I must stress here that the proposal is not associated with, and does not assume, any future development at Heathrow, Stansted or any other airport. It represents business as usual for NATS which, under the terms of its operating licence, is obliged to make the most efficient overall use of airspace and to meet reasonable levels of overall demand. To meet that requirement, it constantly reviews its airspace management, including procedures and applications of technology, and makes proposals for airspace changes where it believes they are necessary.

NATS’ consultation on the terminal control north airspace change proposal is the largest of its kind to be undertaken. The affected region has a population of 12.6 million people. As my hon. Friend pointed out, NATS is directly consulting more than 3,000 primary stakeholders, including MPs, county councils, borough councils, district councils, parish councils, environmental organisations, chambers of commerce, business organisations and aviation stakeholders.

At a meeting on Friday, NATS was gracious enough to concede that it had consulted Bedfordshire county council and South Bedfordshire district council on a route other than the one that it is now proposing.

I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue that in his own way. I do not want to be drawn into the rights and wrongs of how this particular consultation is taking place, lest the Government be accused of trying to influence it in some inappropriate way. I hope that he will understand that. His point, though, is clearly on the record.

Furthermore, in the run-up to the launch of the consultation, NATS arranged briefings for local MPs and national and regional media to set out the proposals and explain their likely impacts. To make the information more accessible for the general public, NATS has divided the consultation region into five areas. Consultation materials for each area have been colour coded to make it as easy as possible for people to locate the information directly relevant to their own location. The materials include a consultation document, an information DVD, summary leaflets for each of the five areas and a dedicated website.

My hon. Friend has concerns about the level of technical detail in the consultation document and supporting materials. I am sure that she agrees that it is appropriate that such information is made widely available to allow all parties to formulate their opinions on the proposal. In response to concerns expressed by some primary stakeholders and members of the public that there was not enough time for them to consider the details of the proposals, NATS recently announced that it would extend the consultation period by a further four weeks. Therefore the consultation, which opened on 21 February and had been due to end tomorrow, will now close on 19 June, giving interested parties and local residents a total of 17 weeks to consider the proposals and register their views.

I think that it might be helpful if I now say something about the procedure for making changes to airspace in the UK. Planning and regulation of all UK airspace is the responsibility of the independent aviation regulator, the CAA. The CAA must manage the airspace to meet the needs of all users, having regard to national security, economic and environmental factors, while maintaining a high standard of safety. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA’s airspace change process, known as CAP 725. Following review and consultation, a revised version of CAP 725 was published in March 2007.

The new guidance clarifies the roles and responsibilities of an airspace change sponsor, such as NATS, and those of the independent regulator, the CAA. It also provides significant detail on the activities of a consultation exercise, including what impacts are to be taken into account, how they should be measured and who should be consulted. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting on a proposal for an airspace change, ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety standards, improves capacity, and mitigates, as far as is practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department’s environmental guidance to the CAA.

Informed by the consultation, the airspace change sponsor must then submit its proposal to the CAA. The CAA then assesses the formal proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives. The CAA will then either approve or reject the proposal. If the CAA considers that a proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment, it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport of the likely impact. It must also advise of plans to minimise that impact and to refrain for making the airspace change without first securing the approval of the Secretary of State. To put it clearly, airspace changes are only made when it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue or when the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative.

My hon. Friend raised the valid issue of aircraft noise. Let me assure her that I recognise that, at local level, noise is a significant concern. That is why the CAA’s revised guidance on the airspace change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. Furthermore, the guidance states that airspace changes should aim to introduce modified routes that overfly as few people as possible. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the development of UK airspace has to take place within a number of immobile constraints, such as the geographic location of airports. For that reason, it would be impractical to prevent altogether overflying of populated areas, including schools.

I wonder whether the Minister could ask his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), to write to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and myself to say whether there is any objection to aircraft flight paths going over a wider area, so that the same people do not have constant noise all the time. Do the Government have any objection in principle to that? Will he get his colleague to write to the hon. Lady and me?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will write to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend in due course.

In closing, I repeat that I cannot comment on the terminal control north airspace change proposals while they remain subject to consultation under the independent airspace change process. I therefore urge my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman and all other interested parties to register their views with NATS, the sponsor of the change, by responding to the ongoing consultation which, as I have said, will now remain open until 19 June. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that she has run and on her clear concern for her constituents and their quality of life.