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Night Flights (Heathrow)

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on night flights at Heathrow.

The debate is timely because it takes place during noise action week, which is organised by the charity Environmental Protection UK. Noise action week highlights the impact of excessive noise on our communities, and it encourages communities and organisations, including business and government, to work together to find solutions. I hope that today’s debate is a constructive contribution to that goal.

The Government are assessing the noise action plan for Heathrow and will shortly consider the new agreement on the number of night flights allowed at the airport from 2012 to 2017. The Department for Transport also has an open consultation on the Government’s future aviation strategy, “Developing a sustainable framework for UK aviation”.

My position on Heathrow is clear. With a constituency next door to Heathrow, where some residents work, and as a former frequent business traveller, I appreciate the value that Heathrow brings to our area and the importance of the aviation industry to the economy and for creating jobs for the future. I am proud of our engineering capability and our world-class airlines. I want tourists to come to this country, and businesses to come and invest in the UK economy. For that, we need great airports, supported by the best customer service from the airlines.

My aim is to ensure that Heathrow continues to thrive but, at the same time, that we take into account the quality of life of people living and working around the airport—local residents, businesses, schools and community groups. That is why I was delighted that one of the first decisions by this Government was to stop the third runway at Heathrow and to maintain the runway alternation that allows local residents some respite from aircraft noise. I thank MPs in west London, including my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who is present, HACAN—Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise—which is an action group representing people living under the flight path, Hounslow council, the 2M Group, the Mayor of London and the then Opposition team responsible for transport, for working with me during the campaign against the third runway.

I cannot commend the Government highly enough on their decision. We did what the previous Government did not have the courage to do. The decision was an example of a listening Government. I was told, when I started on the campaign against the third runway, that the task was impossible—politicians told me, residents told me—but I do not believe that anything is impossible. Being told that only makes me more determined. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for all she did to achieve that decision.

Today, I wish to address three basic themes. First, is noise, particularly from night flights, an issue at Heathrow? Secondly, are night flights necessary? Thirdly, I have some considerations for the Government on the issue of night flights at Heathrow. My constituency of Brentford and Isleworth stretches from Chiswick to Hounslow Central and Hounslow Heath, and it lies under the Heathrow flight path, so I am well aware of the problems caused by noise, particularly for residents who are frequently woken during the night. I receive lots of correspondence on the matter, and a constituent from Isleworth summed up the sentiment of many people in a recent e-mail to my office:

“As someone who doesn’t sleep easily, I am writing to you to complain about planes landing early in the morning—six flew over this morning at around 4.30 am. This seems like a totally unreasonable time to be woken in the morning.”

As part of my campaign against the third runway at Heathrow, I took the then shadow Transport Minister—now my right hon. Friend the Minister—to Grove Road primary school in Hounslow Heath, where the pupils clearly explained the impact that the aircraft noise, both at night and in the day, has on the quality of their learning.

When we talk about night noise from aircraft at Heathrow, we need to be clear about our terminology. A “night flight” takes off or lands at Heathrow between 11 pm and 7 am. The Government set strict quotas for how many night flights are allowed at Heathrow, but those quotas apply only between 11.30 pm and 6 am. A number of factors influence the number of flights: noisier planes take a higher quota; figures are different during summer and winter; and the noisiest planes are restricted altogether from scheduled take-offs and landing during the night flight period. On average, over a year, 16 flights are allowed per night. No restrictions apply after 6 in the morning—indeed, that is one of the busiest hours of the day. People such as my constituent from Isleworth could, if they are light sleepers, be woken up on many occasions during the night and in the early morning.

Does that really matter? Yes, according to several respected studies. New research from Warwick medical school, published in the European Heart Journal in February this year, studied the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people across eight countries. The study found that chronic lack of sleep produces in the body hormones and chemicals with a severe impact on health. It concluded:

“If you sleep less than six hours per night and have disturbed sleep, you stand a 48% greater chance of developing or dying from heart disease and a 15% greater chance of developing or dying from a stroke.”

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for a review of the number of night flights. As a resident of Old Windsor, I must declare an interest—I am right underneath the flight path. On behalf of my constituents, I want to reinforce the point that only one noisy night flight is needed to ruin a night’s sleep—it is not about average volumes or levels. One noisy flight can damage a night’s sleep and induce those stress hormones.

Absolutely, I could not agree more. We want to legislate against that lack of sleep and disturbed sleep. The World Health Organisation and the HYENA—Hypertension and Exposure to Noise near Airports—report from Imperial College London also found that, even if people do not wake up, there is evidence that noise from night flights causes immediate increases in blood pressure.

The latest World Health Organisation guidelines suggest that night-time noise should be kept at no more than 55 dB to ensure no adverse effect on health, which is roughly equivalent to being in a noisy office—certainly my office, although that is because they work so hard. However, more than 20 miles from Heathrow, the noise of night flights can exceed 70 dB, which is roughly the equivalent of driving down a busy street with the window down. The effect is more pronounced given that the background noise level during the night is low. Ironically, this week, owing to the volcanic ash cloud, we might get some respite and peace because of flight cancellations.

Secondly, are night flights necessary? There are no scheduled take-offs between 11.30 pm and 6 am, and the first flight to Heathrow is scheduled to arrive at 4.30 am. Which planes, therefore, are flying to Heathrow during the night quota period, and where are the passengers travelling to and from? Are they really benefiting our local and our national economy?

Around a third of the passengers arriving on the very early flights to Heathrow transfer directly to other flights across the country and beyond, so the economic benefit to our economy of such flights might be limited to BAA and the airlines with which those passengers are flying. This year, a CE Delft report commissioned by HACAN concluded that a ban on night flights at Heathrow is likely to be beneficial to the economy, as the economic costs of the ban would be outweighed by the savings on the health costs of sleep disturbance and stress from night-flight noise.

A European Commission report in 2005 stated that airlines, when restricted on flying at night,

“seem to be able to adapt their schedules and get over slot availability, congestion and connections and fly by day.”

Can we conclude that night flights are operationally convenient for the aviation industry, but not essential?

In the consultation by the Department for Transport on future aviation strategy, it is recognised in the document that

“night noise is the least acceptable impact of aircraft operations”

and that

“it continues to be a major concern for local residents.”

Night flights are not only an issue for UK airports such as Heathrow. No major airport in Europe has a night ban on flights, and many airports, such as Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid, have more night flights than Heathrow. However, rather more than an estimated half a million people are overflown by Heathrow night flights—more than any other place in Europe. Given the dense residential population around Heathrow, surely we should set the standards for other airports to follow, with our residents, businesses schools and community buildings benefiting from best practice in noise control and mitigation.

A report commissioned by Hounslow council from Bureau Veritas demonstrated that, far from leading the way, Heathrow’s neighbouring residents, schools and community buildings receive a worse deal in funding for insulation against the noise of aircraft than people near many other airports in the UK, including Gatwick, Birmingham, Liverpool, East Midlands and London City. The most generous scheme internationally is at Nice airport, which provides support for insulation for those impacted at the 55 dB and above. A similar scheme at Heathrow would stretch from Windsor in the west to Barnes in the east.

Thirdly, I have some issues for the Government to consider. Heathrow airport makes a significant contribution to the local and national economy, which is desperately needed now more than ever. However, the issue is the quality of life for people who live under Heathrow’s flight paths. Their sleep is affected night after night, and their health and ultimately their life expectancy are impacted by noise. Illness caused by sleep deprivation hits business, and is also a major burden on the NHS, as taxpayers’ money is used to care for them. Quality of life and health must be considered, and I urge the Minister to do so when preparing the night flights agreement for Heathrow airport.

Aircraft are becoming quieter, which is welcome and should be encouraged, but should be used to benefit our residents, not as a way of arguing for maintaining or increasing the number of night flights. We are used to conflict in the aviation industry, and I hope that the Government’s future aviation strategy will be a first step in a more productive and professional relationship between Government, industry and other relevant groups.

How far can we go? First, in the short term, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who has campaigned hard on the matter, I would like stronger enforcement of current quotas, especially for flights that come in early, before 6 am, from the Pacific rim—Hong Kong, Singapore, Johannesburg, Lagos and Kuala Lumpur. Secondly, if quotas are not adhered to, there should be more transparency and publication of which airlines continue to breach quotas, and higher fines for persistent offenders. Thirdly, in an ideal world, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), I would like a ban on night flights. However, I recognise the significant challenge of reducing flights between 6 am and 7 am, and I understand the resistance from business to changes during that period. I certainly do not want the debate on mixed-mode operations to be reopened. There will no doubt be consideration of operational efficiency at Heathrow, whether it is possible to reschedule those flights later in the day, and what impact that would have on Heathrow’s competitiveness against other airports throughout Europe. Landing between 6 am and 7 am allows people time to go home, get ready for work, and be in the City at 9 am for a productive working day.

I would like a commitment from the Government significantly to reduce or eliminate scheduled night flights at Heathrow. I recognise that that may have to be achieved in stages, but we could put a mechanism in place now to assess feasibility, and set reduction targets more regularly. The final step is to fight for the very best noise mitigation for those who are worst affected.

Finally, night flights have a serious implication for the health and well-being of those who live under flight paths, which has an ongoing effect on spending on the national health service. We have an opportunity fundamentally to improve the quality of life of many thousands of people, and we must take that responsibility seriously. In the light of the recent evidence that I mentioned, I urge on the Government stronger enforcement of the current quotas, more transparency on breaches, and stronger fines for repeat offenders. They should consider carefully the issue of night flights as they prepare the 2012-17 night flight agreement for Heathrow; consider whether we can significantly reduce or eliminate scheduled night flights between 11.30 pm and 6 am; and encourage effective noise mitigation and insulation support from the BAA and the airlines. I believe that such action will allow us to create a really strong partnership between local residents, who will have enhanced quality of life and better health outcomes, and a world-leading aviation industry that we can all be proud of.

I want to say a few words to urge the Government to take action in a certain direction. As a long-time campaigner against the third runway and for a reduced number of night flights, I very much welcome the work by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) both as Minister of State and in opposition as shadow Minister to ensure that the third runway did not proceed. The policy approach and the way in which it was adopted were bold, courageous and elegant, and they reflect her status.

On night flights, I understand that a lot of work is being done to review, research and consider the evidence, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) drew out two key issues. First, there is an impact on the economy around the airport and on the economy at large if thousands of people are struggling with health concerns because they are woken during the night.

Secondly, we should consider carefully whether night flights are necessary. There may be a commercial way of shifting flights in the early hours of the morning, between 4 am and 6 am, to a little later in the day. On behalf of Windsor, I urge the Government to consider the evidence carefully, and as a former shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, I am keen that that is done. If the Government have more bold and courageous policies in them, they should try to reduce those flights, not necessarily immediately, but over a period, because I suspect that any economic disbenefits would be overcome by the economic benefits for people who live and work around the airport.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing this debate on this important issue, on which she has campaigned so hard for so many years. I also congratulate her on a powerful and well-informed speech, and I welcome the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who is another steadfast campaigner on behalf of his constituents on noise issues generally and night noise in particular.

My last visit to Brentford and Isleworth ironically coincided with the day on which air space was shut because of last year’s volcanic ash crisis, but I recollect my earlier visit to Grove Road primary school with Councillor Barbara Reid, who is another leading campaigner on these issues, which gave me a real and personal insight into the impact of aircraft noise in the constituency.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth said, this is a timely debate, but I must acknowledge at the outset that we have a long and detailed process ahead of us before final decisions are made on the new system of controls on night flights at Heathrow. She will appreciate that there are some questions that I simply cannot answer now because that could prejudge the outcome of the consultation. However, the debate has provided valuable input into that decision-making process, and all the points that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor made today will be carefully considered as part of the consultation process and in the run-up to the decisions.

I agree that night noise is widely viewed as one of the least acceptable impacts of aviation. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth set out with clarity the quality-of-life concerns that many of her constituents have about night flights. I am aware that it remains a key concern for people under the flight path in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor. I assure my hon. Friends that the local impact of aviation on communities around airports and under flight paths is important for the coalition, and that is why one of our first decisions in Government was to scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow, and to make it clear that we oppose new runways at Gatwick and Stansted. I thank them for their kind words about my role in that decision.

In September last year, I confirmed that there would be no revival of Labour’s proposals on mixed mode. I also confirmed that the airport will start to use alternation when operating with easterly winds, which will ensure a fairer distribution of aircraft noise around the airport. As has been said today, we recently published a scoping document kicking off the debate on how to deliver a sustainable future for aviation, which harnesses the economic benefits that my hon. Friends mentioned in relation to Heathrow and aviation generally, but does so in a way that also addresses the environmental impact of aviation, including its noise.

There have been controls on night flights at Heathrow for many years, with limits on movement and noise quotas to restrict the level of noise emitted. Restrictions prevent the noisiest aircraft from landing at night, and Heathrow operates a policy of runway alternation overnight to give residents a degree of predictability on flight paths and some respite periods. Even with those restrictions, however, I appreciate that night noise continues to be a key concern for local communities, as my hon. Friends have made clear this morning.

As has been pointed out, current protections are time limited, and in the coming months the Government will need to make a decision on the regime that will replace the existing controls when they expire in October 2012. That provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at the issue and explore the scope for a more effective night noise regime. The scoping document already mentioned began an extensive process of public engagement that will ultimately culminate in a decision about a new set of rules and controls for night flights over Heathrow. During that process, we will seek evidence on how best to balance the economic benefits of night flights against the social and environmental costs that they undoubtedly impose on communities that lie under the flight path. We want to hear from the widest possible range of stakeholders about how the current arrangements are working and what elements people would like to see changed, and I welcome the comments made this morning by my hon. Friends on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth referred to the recent HACAN report, which suggested that a ban on night flights at Heathrow would produce a net benefit to the economy. I recently met John Stewart from HACAN to discuss that report, and my officials will give it proper consideration alongside other representations that we receive on night noise. Such representations will help inform the debate on policy development, and we must analyse evidence on the social impact of night flights, and the health issues mentioned by my hon. Friend.

One important issue for consideration is whether it is possible to deliver a more extended period of respite from night noise. I recognise that flights that arrive between 4.30 am and 6 am tend to be the most controversial, and we need to analyse carefully any evidence on the potential benefits that are derived from such early morning arrivals, and properly explore the operational scope for change.

My hon. Friend mentioned her concerns about enforcement, and when we look at the shape of the new regime we will certainly consider arrangements for its administration, transparency and enforcement. Transparency can be a real help in such situations, and give communities that are affected by all types of noise from Heathrow the confidence that rules are being complied with. Aircraft that breach departure noise limits are fined by the airport, and the revenue is used to finance local community projects. It is important that appropriate steps are taken to ensure that the current regime is properly enforced.

Does the Minister think that it might be worth looking into the levels of the fines imposed? They need to be a real deterrent or else airlines will keep breaching the existing noise limits.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That issue should be included when considering the new regime, and the airport is already looking at that matter in relation to current arrangements. There may well be a case for change.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the importance of mitigation and insulation as a fall-back method for dealing with the problems of noise. BAA has recently launched a local consultation on noise mitigation schemes, which could potentially broaden the scope of the existing schemes. It is important that my hon. Friend takes part in that consultation, and I will ensure that BAA is given a copy of this debate in Hansard so that it is made aware of the concerns felt by my hon. Friend’s constituents, and their desire to see a stronger and more effective regime in terms of insulation and mitigation.

Another issue for consideration is how we create the right conditions and incentives for airlines to deliver technological improvements that will support the policy goals we wish to achieve. As I have said, the current regime already bans the noisiest planes, and UK technology and know-how plays a major role in making commercial airliners quieter and more fuel efficient. Developments such as the A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner also help to mitigate the effects of noise. As well as encouraging the aviation industry to reduce noise by improving aircraft technology, the Government are working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation to seek improvements in air navigation and airspace management in order to deliver quieter approaches and climbs.

Having obtained and considered responses on the broad themes regarding night noise that are included in the scoping document, we will then develop more detailed proposals for a new night noise regime. We plan to issue a consultation document on that next spring. Carrying out that process in the most effective way possible may require a limited roll-over of the existing regime. We have not made a final decision on that, but if we decide to run the current regime beyond its expected termination date of October 2012, we will need to consider whether to use temporary movement and quota limits to maintain the trend in progressive noise reduction required under the existing regime.

My hon. Friend referred to noise action plans, which are a requirement set out in the EU environmental noise directive. Seventeen major airports have been asked to produce such plans and noise maps, and we are in the final stages of considering whether draft plans submitted by Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham and East Midlands airports meet the requirements of the directive. The directive does not require a complete reassessment of airport noise policy, but the plans have been a useful exercise and have prompted airports to reassess their approach and strengthen existing measures. Such plans will, I hope, be an important tool in maintaining the pressure on airports to take action on the issues of noise, insulation and enforcement mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The plans that emerge from that process should be seen as a starting point rather than an end conclusion. They should be treated as living documents and serve as a driver of good practice and help improve performance on local noise management and mitigation. As such, they should be subject to regular review and be adaptable to changing circumstances, including the new night noise regime.

I conclude by restating the Government’s commitment to addressing the local environmental impacts of aviation, and state that we acknowledge the concerns that local communities have about night flights. We now wish to move forward to develop a better night flights regime, and explore the scope for change. It is important that we engage fully with all interests and understand all the differing views, and today’s debate has provided a valuable opportunity to bring this important subject before the House and highlight some of the key issues.

Although I cannot give my hon. Friend all the answers she needs, I view this as one of the most important issues that I will face as a Minister. I have listened with care to all the points she raised, and I will continue to listen as the debate unfolds over the months to come. I urge her, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and their respective constituents, to take part in the consultation process on which we have recently embarked. I am confident that broad engagement from my hon. Friends and their constituents will strengthen and improve the eventual outcome of this important matter.

Sitting suspended.