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Heathrow: Noise Mitigation

Volume 600: debated on Monday 19 October 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

I applied for the debate this evening so that I could outline the adverse impact that recent changes to flight paths have had on my constituency. I also want to suggest a number of solutions that I believe should be introduced to mitigate the airplane noise impact for my constituents and the constituents of other right hon. and hon. Members whose constituencies are close to Heathrow.

Last year NATS decided to consolidate flight paths to the north of my constituency, but failed to notify the communities affected, Heathrow airport or me. It took a year’s worth of complaints from local people for NATS finally to admit that it had made changes to the so-called Compton route. Its consolidation of the Compton route is supposedly for safety reasons, although in my opinion NATS has failed to fully explain its decision. I would like to know what the reasons are, and if they are not credible, the Compton route should revert to its former setting.

Late last week Heathrow published its analysis of flight path data over my constituency. It asserts that things are broadly the same as before and that my constituents and I are misled. However, by looking closely at the published data it is possible to deduce that Sandhurst and Crowthorne in my constituency have a higher concentration of low-flying aircraft. My constituents, such as Ms Claire Simpson who lives in Crowthorne and Ms Lisa Davison in Sandhurst, are apparently unable to hear themselves speak in their gardens, such is the deluge of low-flying aircraft. This is unacceptable around 15 miles from Heathrow, particularly for residents not previously affected.

I fully support my hon. Friend. There has been a major change. We now have a motorway in the sky with much lower planes flying far more persistently. All we ask is to go back to where we were before the trials.

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend.

Heathrow is very forthcoming about the effect that the changes to the Compton route have had. Indeed, it would like to see the change reversed too. However, Heathrow failed to acknowledge that the changes to the Compton route have also pushed arrivals 1 km downwards to accommodate departures. These are having a huge noise impact, particularly when pilots are using limited thrust on take-off to save on fuel. If more thrust were used on take-off, aircraft would be at the highest point of their allocated altitude when over my constituency. I would appreciate the Minister’s suggestions as to how his Department could deliver this change.

I applaud my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The problem for Teddington Action Group is that despite the trials there are increasing flights on the route, they are more concentrated, they are flying lower, and there are louder aircraft—the A380s. Eleven minutes ago I got tweets saying that already tonight there is noise over Teddington. My concern is that regardless of the trials this cannot be mitigated and is already increasing.

I would argue that it can be mitigated—there are different things that I will come to—but I recognise that the frequency of flights has increased. The types of aircraft are important in terms of where they fly and how high they are in the sky.

Dealing with arrivals will require more action. I was surprised to learn through correspondence with the Minister that NATS prioritises noise mitigation only for flight path designs up to 4,000 feet. The Minister goes on to say in the next sentence of his letter that flight path designs up to 7,000 feet are being considered too. Which measure does he favour? Seven thousand feet would be better for my constituents.

To further deal with noise from arrivals, I would like to see a clear definition of the continuous descent approach that would require a greater adherence to the 3° path from 8,000 feet down and not just at 4,000 feet, when NATS at Heathrow takes over. This would raise the height of planes above my constituency.

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s introducing this debate. My constituency is also significantly affected by noise from Heathrow. I welcome the opportunity to hear what happens in his constituency when flight paths are changed. Is he aware that in my constituency there can be no variation of landing paths because all planes are locked into the landing arrangements at Heathrow and for 70% of the time planes are flying over a built-up area all the way from Kew to the runway?

Clearly, for the constituencies close to the airport, mitigating noise becomes difficult. The glide approach, with an aircraft using engines less, would be quieter, even in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Some changes can be made. I am realistic enough to know that the constituencies in close proximity to Heathrow will be impacted to some degree, but the impact could be less if we gave some consideration to these suggestions.

Connectivity is very important for the whole of the United Kingdom, not just for Heathrow but for Belfast—Aldergrove—and Londonderry. The importance of having these connections and the benefit to the economy is great. Let me say for the record that my party is fully committed to the expansion of Heathrow. Heathrow has revealed some methods that can go a long way towards addressing the issues of noise for people who live in the area. Perhaps we can hear some of the hon. Gentleman’s ideas on how to reduce the noise in these areas.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I will be passing through Belfast airport soon, and I shall be able to admire the country that he has the privilege to represent a part of.

As I said, I would like to see a clear definition of the continuous descent approach that would require a greater adherence to the 3° path from 8,000 feet down and not just at 4,000 feet, when NATS at Heathrow takes over. This would raise the height of planes above the constituency. Planes are noisiest when there is a faster level of negative vertical speed. Furthermore, I have concerns about arrivals that have not been stacked or that come out of the Ockham or Biggin stack at 8,000 feet and have to descend to about 4,000 feet for their final approach. If NATS were mandated to take noise mitigation seriously, that would become much less of an issue for residents on the ground.

Another area with scope for improvement is the way in which certain noisy aircraft are dealt with. Has the Department for Transport considered banning such aircraft from taking off and landing between 9.30 pm and 7.30 am? The retrofitting of noise-reducing devices to Airbus A320s is being actively encouraged by Heathrow, but about 20% of A320s operating at Heathrow have yet to have them installed. Will the Department issue guidance on this? One airline operating a few A320s without the retrofit can have a huge noise impact.

With old planes, as they get sold on and have a life of 30 years or more, a ban might be the only way to actually get them retired from service. That is particularly applicable to new, low-cost, long-haul carriers. In addition, aircraft manufacturers could do a great deal more: no manufacturer offers streamlining for its landing gears, for example. Manufacturers could also modify their advice for airlines on operating techniques to reduce noise, including additional use of speed brakes located on the upper side of aircraft, which, if used instead of flaps, would further reduce noise.

I very much hope that the Minister will be able to bring about a resolution to at least some of the problems I have outlined. It is quite easy, as Members can tell, to get bogged down in the detail of the issue, but the best solution most certainly involves a far more robust mandate for NATS or, perhaps, the Civil Aviation Authority.

I have long been a proponent of Heathrow expansion, primarily based on the economic benefits it would bring for my constituency of Bracknell and the Thames valley region, and on its wider implications for the UK’s long-term prosperity. Heathrow expansion offers the best prospects for stimulating the local economy by supporting and creating jobs. An expanded Heathrow would also play an important role in the continued economic success of the Thames valley, ensuring that it retained its position as a hub of innovation, productivity and prosperity.

I am determined, however, that current usage of Heathrow airport, and any future expansion, should not come at the expense of the health and wellbeing of local communities. In particular, when Heathrow is on easterly operations, some residents in the Thames valley can be blighted by aircraft noise for up to 19 hours a day. That has happened a lot recently.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make progress.

As outlined earlier, the situation has been further exacerbated by the changes implemented by NATS, which narrowed the Compton departure route corridor, resulting in greater concentration of aircraft activity over densely populated areas in my constituency.

Over the past year, I have held regular meetings with Heathrow executives, held a public constituency meeting following NATS flight trials, and made representations to Heathrow Airport Ltd, NATS and the CAA. During this time, it has become clear to me that much more attention needs to be paid to the mitigation of noise and that a relevant body should be made statutorily responsible for its reduction. NATS, which controls the airspace around Heathrow, currently has no responsibility for mitigating aircraft noise that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.

As I have said, there are many issues at play, including old aircraft and poor piloting, but in the short term NATS could do the most to alleviate the issue, particularly around Heathrow, where it vectors the aircraft much too far from the airport, which subjects many more communities than necessary to excessive noise.

As I have outlined, there are solutions to mitigating noise around Heathrow. The Government should seriously consider them, as I believe that the UK’s future as a trading nation and tourist destination depends on our ability to meet the increasing demand for airport capacity. For the good of the country, we have to move forward and build the airport capacity that Britain needs. Over the coming years, I will continue to campaign on behalf of my constituency to ensure that Heathrow can increase its capacity. But rest assured that I will also campaign vigorously to mitigate the impact of excessive noise on my constituents’ lives.

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to participate briefly in it. Although Henley-on-Thames is a little further up the River Thames than his constituency, it is also very badly blighted by noise pollution from aircraft, particularly those on easterly operations, which appear to do the equivalent of a handbrake turn over Henley, with all the attendant noise that brings.

I invited Heathrow, NATS and others to a public meeting to look at this problem. They willingly attended it, for which I am very grateful to them. However, their solution was that everything depended on the air patterns—whether aircraft were on a westerly or easterly approach. I can understand the logic of that, but it does not answer the whole question.

The fact that the landing routes have changed is a big contributor to the difficulties my constituents face. It affects the whole of Henley. Emails from my constituents say that they are woken up early in the morning, particularly with the old 747s that are among the noisiest aircraft in the skies, and late at night. It is necessary to do something about that. I approve of what my hon. Friend has said about steepness of the descent. That would keep aircraft significantly higher as they come in to land over my constituency, which would be a major improvement. Something needs to be done about older aircraft, because when the big 747s come in they are powered in such a way—I do not know whether the pilots do it deliberately, but they certainly seem to—that it creates an enormous noise.

Like my hon. Friend, I am looking forward to the results of the inquiry into the future of Heathrow. We need the capacity and we need to build something there, but if we are going to do so, we must solve the mitigation problem first.

I fully support my two hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Henley (John Howell). Like them, my constituency is newly blighted by the change in operating procedures. I beg the Minister to tell NATS that it must go back to the system it operated before the trials of about a year ago.

My constituents feel very misled. They were told there would be trials. The trials were unacceptable, and when we complained, we were told they had been cancelled. However, instead of going back to what we had before—people could live with that and had bought their houses on that basis—we have had a new concentrated motorway in the skies, with more, lower and noisier planes day after day, in a way that is completely unacceptable.

I expected to support the expansion of Heathrow, but I do not see how I can possibly do so unless the airport understands that this is a huge mistake, and unless it and NATS between them put it right and go back to how it was before. They want our trust and support, but they have to earn it. They have just shattered that trust very badly by how they have behaved, because not only have they made such a change, but they implied for quite a long time that there were no changes. They said it was all in the mind, that we were dreaming it, and that we were going out at six in the morning to look at the skies and realising, when we saw planes, how noisy they were. It is not like that: this is a fundamental change in what they are doing. It was not scripted, advertised or consulted on. It has damaged the lives of my constituents, who feel they are owed an apology and that things should be switched back, which might start to restore some trust with the local community.

So far, this is a disgrace, and we are looking to the Minister to put it right, because he, like my hon. Friends and me, needs public support. We have just got their votes in the general election, and they now expect us to do our job, which is to tell NATS that this is not acceptable and that it must do what it used to do.

I wish to put on record that, despite what my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Henley (John Howell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) have said, such is the experience closer to Heathrow for Twickenham, Teddington and Hampton, I do not believe there can be mitigation, regardless of the new trials. It is only because of the Teddington action group that a report was produced on 15 October showing the trend even without the trials. The trend is about 83 dB for A380s. As my medical colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, will know, 57 dB causes medical problems. There is no mitigation for 83 dB. There cannot be mitigation when aircraft are flying at 1,413 feet. There is no mitigation when most of the noise pollution at a medically dangerous level is happening before 8 o’clock in the morning and after 8 o’clock at night. I am assured by my residents that it is happening right now.

I believe in the aircraft industry, but I am sorry to say that I do not believe in Heathrow or in the third runway. We must remember that the chief executive will not rule out a fourth runway or night flights. That is not acceptable. As talented as the Minister is, he cannot mitigate the effects for my constituents.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this debate on the mitigation of noise around Heathrow airport. I thank other colleagues for their contributions and for the way in which they have described the problems that aircraft in the air cause for people on the ground.

I assure the House that the Government are acutely aware that noise is a major environmental concern around airports, and especially for the communities surrounding Heathrow. I remind the House that, as is set out in the aviation policy framework that was published in 2013, our overall policy is to limit and, when possible, reduce the number of people in the UK who are significantly affected by aircraft noise. That remains our overarching policy, and the aviation industry is fully aware of it.

Is the Minister aware that 300,000 people who are not currently overflown by flights into Heathrow will be affected severely if runway three goes ahead? The third of my constituency that is not currently overflown by landing paths into Heathrow will be directly underneath the new flightpaths. Those people did not know that they would be living in such a noisy environment when they bought their homes. Does the Minister agree that that is not fair and that runway three should not be imposed on those 300,000 people in London and beyond?

May I reassure the hon. Lady that although the Airports Commission has made its report, the Government are yet to make a decision on it? We hope to do so by the end of the year.

I will spare the Minister a lecture from the perspective of those who live around Gatwick because I know that he is in an invidious position as he considers the Davies commission’s report. However, I want to put it on record that the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friends in this debate also apply to Gatwick airport.

I am well aware that the vectoring trials at Gatwick, which involved performance-based navigation —the accurate navigation that is now available—provoked a lot of concerns similar to those regarding Heathrow that we have heard about. One of the problems seems to be that although the ability to fly aircraft more accurately limits the number of people who are affected, those who are affected often experience a greater incidence of aircraft. There is a debate to be had about whether we should fly accurately down navigation lanes and limit the number of people who are affected, or go back to the situation that we had in the past when, because aircraft could not navigate as accurately, the planes flying out of the airports were more dispersed and noise was spread around.

I ought to make some progress as time is fairly limited and I want to answer some of the points that have been made in the debate.

In the case of Heathrow, the airport, the CAA, the airlines and NATS are aware that noise is a significant concern for the communities around the airport that needs to be acted on. Heathrow is taking steps to cut back and mitigate its noise impact. Under the European Union’s environmental noise directive, it is required to produce a noise action plan that sets out its intentions to mitigate noise.

The House will be interested to know that last year the airport published its “Blueprint for noise reduction”, setting out 10 practical steps that it is taking to mitigate noise in 2015. Earlier this year the airport also established the Heathrow community noise forum, which is made up of representatives from local authorities around Heathrow—including that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell—as well as representatives from NATS, British Airways, the Department for Transport and the CAA. One of its principal aims is to help to build trust with local communities—I know that that trust has been tested—by keeping them informed of developments, and seeking to improve the overall level of understanding about Heathrow’s operations and airspace. That good initiative by the airport will bring about real benefits.

Under powers set out in the Civil Aviation Act 1982, the Government set noise controls at Heathrow, including restrictions on the number of flights allowed during the night, and specified the routes that departing aircraft need to follow. The controls also cover minimum height levels and maximum noise limits that departing aircraft must adhere to at certain points near the airport. Communities can be affected by noise disturbance from either arriving or departing aircraft—or indeed both—but, as I will set out, it is more difficult to lay down limits for arrival aircraft.

The routes used by aircraft and the height at which they fly are significant factors that affect the noise experienced by people on the ground. The departure trials last year at Heathrow and Gatwick, and the public response to them, as indicated by the number of complaints received, clearly show that people notice changes in airspace use and—as my inbox would attest—are quick to make their feelings known.

The Government understand communities’ concerns and are considering how the airspace change process can be improved. The CAA is also aware of concerns about the airspace change process and is carrying out an independent review into whether that can be improved. I assure the House that those trials ended last year, and the information gained is vital to increase our knowledge for future airspace change driven by the CAA’s future airspace strategy.

Changes to the UK’s airspace structure are required, which we must accept while we are seeking to address the impact of such changes as much as practicable. Aviation is a success story, and the public like the opportunity that it affords for holidays or to meet family and friends living far away, as well as for business travel, which is vital for our economy. However, the basic structure of UK airspace was developed more than 40 years ago, since when there has been a dramatic increase in demand for flights. The future airspace strategy is critical to ensuring that the industry is efficient and able to minimise its overall environmental impact.

When considering the implications and impact of aviation on communities affected by noisy environments, will the Minister also consider the impact of sleep deprivation and that on children’s learning in schools when their classrooms are overflown every 60 to 90 seconds?

I am aware of the problems. Indeed, I visited two schools in the hon. Lady’s constituency with her predecessor and saw the problems at first hand. Although double glazing can help in winter, in summer windows need to be opened and children in the playground can be affected. I appreciate the impact that noise can have on people on the ground, and the Airports Commission report sets out a number of suggestions, including a ban on night flights.

We are discussing the noise of aircraft that arrive in the early hours, particularly the early flight from Hong Kong. It is all very well saying to people that aircraft are quieter than ever before, but the flight either wakes someone up or it does not, and if they are woken up, they stay awake. I understand that many people are sensitised to noise because of the length of time that they have been subjected to it.

The plan is to modernise UK airspace and to deliver our contribution to the European Commission’s single European sky by 2030. That ambitious plan is designed around the use of modern technology, including more precision-based navigation. This technology has the potential to bring about significant benefits: for the industry through greater efficiency, safety and resilience; for the environment through fewer emissions; and for passengers through quick journeys and fewer delays. The technology also gives the aviation industry an opportunity to deliver improvements to communities near airports. More precise navigation means that planes can be directed away from populated areas and can ascend quicker, which means less noise for people on the ground, but that can happen only with modernisation. Without that, none of the benefits will be possible. Of course, modernisation brings challenges too, which is why it is important that the Government listen to the concerns of communities so that they can share the benefits when possible. The CAA, NATS and the wider industry also need to listen to communities and to ensure that they can have a say in changes that will affect them.

As is set out in our aviation policy framework, the Government believe that in most circumstances it is desirable to concentrate aircraft along the fewest possible number of routes in the vicinity of airports, and that these routes should avoid densely populated areas as much as possible. However, the aviation policy framework goes on to add that in certain circumstances, such as when there is intensive use of certain routes, and following engagement with local communities, it may be appropriate to explore options for respite. Such engagement is crucial for delivering results that work for communities and the aviation industry.

I now turn to how Heathrow’s operations impact on the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. I understand that he has already had communications with Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd about this matter. As he is no doubt aware, his constituency will be impacted by noise from both arriving and departing aircraft from Heathrow. I understand that noise from arrival aircraft is the primary concern for residents in his constituency.

For safety reasons, and to ensure safe separation between incoming flights, there are no set routes or heights for arrival aircraft before they join the final approach path. This can result in a large spread of arrival tracks, which can vary from day to day and are dependent on such issues as how busy the schedule is and wind direction. There are, however, techniques that can be deployed to mitigate some of the noise impacts. These include continuous descent approach, whereby aircraft adopt a steady angle of approach. This reduces the noise impact on residents living further away from the airport.

The Government want to maximise the benefits of a strong aviation sector. This is good for the economy and for bringing not only investment and employment to the UK, but wider benefits to society and individuals. However, the Government recognise that that needs to be balanced against the costs to the local environment that more flights bring, with noise being the prime example.

I once again thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on such an important subject, which I know is close to his heart, as indeed it is for many of his constituents and residents living across the south-east.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).