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Noise Pollution and Military Aviation

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered noise pollution and military aviation.

Thank you, Sir Edward, for the opportunity to raise a matter of long standing in north and west Wales but which is particularly difficult at present. There is a long history of training pilots locally at RAF Valley, and I want to say right at the start that this is not about pilot training as such. Some of my constituents argue that the purpose of that training is unacceptable, but, given the narrow scope of the debate, that is something for another day. The debate is about the current level of noise and the future prospects for peace and quiet for my constituents and others across our extraordinary natural environments in north and west Wales, as well as for the future of our outdoor tourism industry, which so depends on the tranquillity of the national park and the areas beyond. I note the huge pressure on the outdoors industry with this lockdown. The last thing we need is for outdoor centres to reopen but find a drop in their historical level of business because visitors are put off by aircraft noise.

I thank the senior officer at RAF Valley for meeting me at Westminster some time ago to discuss the matter. I also thank the Minister and his staff for answering my many written questions over the last few months. However, I assure him that my pen is poised should the debate not elicit full and satisfactory answers.

It is well over a year since I raised this matter with the Ministry of Defence and senior personnel at RAF Valley, but constituents continue to report frequent and unacceptable noise levels from the Texan T1 despite assurances that steps were being taken to equip the aircraft with what was necessary to allow them to fly over the sea, which would reduce the impact on populated areas.

I will proceed with my understanding of the genesis of the issue—of course, I stand to be corrected if I have got something wrong. The Texan, as I understand it, is a sophisticated new training aeroplane able to mimic the characteristics of a range of other aircraft in service and is therefore very valuable to the RAF in training. The Texans are now based at RAF Valley on Ynys Môn. “Ynys” in English is “island”, a point to which I will turn immediately. For safety reasons, the new aircraft cannot be flown over the sea without special precautions. Of course, Ynys Môn is surrounded by the sea on three sides. I have been told many times that the necessary safety equipment—a particular harness, a lifejacket and a life raft—is being developed, that the restrictions are temporary and, of course, that this is a priority for the MOD. I quite understand that, given how it now has these new and very useful aircraft available. However, in the meantime, the Texan is being flown over a restricted area of north and west Wales—restricted because of other flying activity. I understand it is also being flown over the Isle of Man and the English Lake district. Both of those places are, of course, over the sea from Ynys Môn and, as I said, precautions have to be taken before flights over the sea.

In a letter of 7 December, the Minister wanted to stress that although my constituents might perceive that the restrictions on Texan flights result in a disproportionate concentration of overflight in their areas, that was not the case. He then referred to flights over the Isle of Man and the Lake district. These are my first questions to the Minister. What proportion of Texan flights take place respectively over the three areas? Is that proportion as planned, even if the number of flights are greater? That is, of course, if they are greater; I am not sure. I contacted a colleague from the Lake district and asked about flights over his area. He said he was unaware of any flights by the Texans.

I understand that the Texan is noisier in some respects than the jet aircraft that usually overfly our area, even those that have flown over what is notoriously called the Mach loop near Machynlleth, which generates a large number of complaints. The reason the Texan is noisier, as I understand it, is that it is a turboprop plane.

My next three questions to the Minister are these. First, is there some further way of lessening the noise in the short term, for example by varying the height at which the aircraft are flown? I was told by RAF personnel, and I think by the station commander at RAF Valley, that they fly at around 5,000 feet, which means the noise generated is distributed very widely. Has that been considered? I am sure it has.

Secondly, what are the possibilities of halting, varying or even reducing the manoeuvres performed in training, noticeably what I believe is the dive and climb? That manoeuvre produces the characteristic, rather chilling howl that the aircraft make. There might be a fairly loud background hum a lot of the time, but that is interspersed with this howl, which disturbs many people.

Thirdly, and importantly, whatever changes are made to the operation of the Texan aircraft, can the Minister assure me that any such changed procedures would not lead to a reduction in work for ground staff at the Valley? The Valley is a significant and valued local employer, whatever one might think about the activities there. As I said, my constituents’ views of the training at the Valley are mixed, to say the least.

As I said earlier, the Minister has assured me that the safety work is being undertaken. I know nothing of the technical aspects of that safety work and I am sure the work is extremely complex. Of course, I would not want the safety of our air personnel to be compromised in any way by a rushed job, but it does seem to my constituents to be taking a very long time. I picked up this issue about a year ago and have been given repeated assurances that the work is being done and that it is a temporary measure. What progress has been achieved so far? Can the Minister give me an idea of an end date?

I now come to a broader set of questions that have sometimes got lost in concentrating on the noise problem. First, what was the process of approval for the purchase of this aircraft? They seem to have been bought and then later had their use restricted because of safety concerns. It seems strange that new aircraft were bought but were then deemed not to be suitable for use where they are located.

Why was the safety problem not foreseen before the aircraft were acquired? I hope that the safety problem was not foreseen but disregarded. Would the Minister throw some light on that matter? Were those who assessed the safety of the operation over the sea not part of the process? My understanding is that there was a sequence whereby the aircraft were acquired and then the people responsible for safety stepped in and said they cannot fly over the sea. Now, perhaps I am wrong in my understanding, but I would be grateful if the Minister could explain.

I come next to a question that I have already referred to: the aircraft were located at the Valley on Ynys Môn, surrounded on three sides by the sea—it is an island, after all. I know that locating them at Valley is very useful for the RAF. Certainly, for my constituents in Arfon, and more so for people in Ynys Môn, Valley is a vital economic interest, not least because the prospects for large-scale employment locally, such as Wylfa B, have subsequently disappeared. Some explanation of the decision to locate them at Valley would be helpful, if that is possible. I can appreciate that there might be some security or confidentiality considerations.

I come on to the cost of change and modification. Has that been budgeted for? Was that budgeted for in the initial costings of the Texan? Or is that an additional cost? If it is an additional cost, who is paying it?

The Minister might be relieved that I am coming to the end of this long series of questions, but I have a few more, which are about assessments before the new machines were purchased. I think the arrival of the Texans was something of a surprise for my constituents and for the local population throughout north and west Wales—I understand they are flown over the Ceredigion constituency as well. What assessment was made at the start of the acquisition process of the health and wellbeing effects on local populations that would be overflown? I cannot say that I recall being informed or contacted or asked my opinion about this as a local MP. Is there a standard procedure or does the RAF and the MOD act off their own bat? Given that this area is a national park, what assessment was made of the possible effects on wildlife?

There is also the economic impact on tourism in general, but particularly the effect on outdoor tourism. This is an area that depends on tourism. People come here because of the peace and quiet. That is particularly so for outdoor tourism. The area sells itself, very successfully, on the basis of peace and quiet, on the extraordinary natural environment and the beauty of the area, of course, and in some ways on the remoteness of the area, although of course we are not remote from the large conurbations of north-west England. The remoteness is disturbed by aircraft flying over—there is a paradox there. There is a question around whether that was assessed at all. I do not know what the procedure is in the MOD or in general, but if such assessments were made, were they public documents, so that people in north and west Wales could see for themselves that proper care was being taken of their interests?

When and if these aircraft are modified so that they can fly over the sea, should we assume that they will continue to be flown over the land? I take it that they will be, from the letter I received from the Minister, dated 7 December. If so, can he indicate the proportion of overland and oversea flights, or even their number? Are we going to have more or fewer of them? Will many be over the sea, or just a few? Will there be changed safety procedures for oversea flights? Will that lead to increased flights over other areas, such as the Isle of Man and the English Lake district? In other words, will the distribution be different?

In the very last of my long list of questions, I understand that there is an intention to bring in night flying. I have not heard those aircraft at night myself—it is possible that they have not flown over my part of the constituency —but I would like to know the MOD’s intention in respect of night flights. I understand that, at present, the intention is that 5% of all flights will be at night. I worry that those flights might be more intrusive, just because of the absence of other noise at night. Again, any information that the Minister can give to me or my constituents would be greatly appreciated.

I realise that I have posed many questions. I accept, of course, that the Minister might only be able to respond to some of them at this point, but I would hope for oral or written answers to them all. The people whom I and my right hon. and hon. Friends represent deserve no less.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to see him, albeit virtually. He is a constant advocate on this point for his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman was not wrong in saying that his speech contained many questions. He has already put many to me, to which I have responded with written answers, as he generously made clear. I have written to him in some detail on a couple of occasions, and will do so again. Try as I might to cover as many of his questions as possible, I may need to come back to him on some of the points of detail that he referenced. This is an important debate and I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to it.

For more than a century, the Royal Air Force has defended the skies above the United Kingdom and projected Britain’s power and influence around the world. Today, the RAF remains at the heart of the Government’s approach to conflict and crisis management and remains heavily committed to operations at home and abroad. Of course, our aviation branch is not just the RAF; our Royal Navy and Army aviators play a vital role, too, in ensuring our security at home and around the globe.

The fact is that our aircraft may be required to scramble at a moment’s notice to defend our airspace, in defence of our allies or to participate in operations, as they have done so often over the past 20 years. That is what makes the importance of their training so acute. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman absolutely said that in his remarks and that he does not wish to compromise safety. I know that he appreciates the importance of that.

Since 2012, we tragically have lost seven aircrew in accidents, at home and overseas. Our thoughts remain with the families, friends and colleagues of all those who have died in service. Sadly, we will never prevent all deaths, but our duty is to ensure that our pilots are as well trained as possible, to reduce such fatalities. The ability to train effectively in the benign and friendly environment of the homeland they protect keeps them safe for the dangers they confront on operations.

Flying skills, in particular for low-level flying, are highly perishable and the risk of skill fade cannot be underestimated. Those skills can be achieved and maintained only through practice in a range of environments. I understand what the hon. Gentleman would say, and I was going to make a bad pun involving “Hywel” and the howling that can be a factor of those aircraft. I do not know the straightforward answer to his questions, but I know he will appreciate that we need to be able to have that tactical manoeuvring agility, to test the pilots and to make certain that they are competent in all areas of manoeuvrability. However, I will take up his question with the RAF.

The planes are new, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and they were cleared as perfectly safe by American and European regulators. When those planes come into service, we want to ensure that they are absolutely right for our requirements of them, because we place such a high premium on the safety and security of our crews. Particular problems were identified, for which we wished to enhance security, and I will come on to those later in my speech.

The point that I want to make is that, in terms of decibel levels, this plane is quieter than the plane that preceded it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in the beautiful part of the country that he represents have noted that there is a low hum, which can perhaps be heard over a longer distance, even though the decibel level may be lower. I recognise that problem.

I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s other points. Even with vital live training, we take measures to ensure that disturbance is as limited as is practicable. The amount of low-flying training carried out, to which he referred, is strictly limited to that which is essential to achieve and maintain operational effectiveness. Military aircraft are subject to stringent restrictions on heights and speeds, and their operating procedures are designed to minimise disturbance. We ensure that most low-flying training takes place during daylight hours on weekdays, and wherever possible flying units will publish details of upcoming activity online, in local newspapers and on social media platforms. I should add that we sometimes have to do things differently, owing to the vagaries of the British weather, with which we are all familiar, but that is our intent.

I am saddened by the fact that there was a significant increase—by about 50%—in complaints about low flying in 2020 compared with 2019. The only small silver lining I take from that is that it is perhaps indicative of the amount of flying done on weekdays and during working hours, and that, given the amount of home working over the course of the past year, it is only now that this has become more apparent to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others. It is indicative of our attempts to schedule flying in such a way as cause minimum inconvenience, avoiding evenings, night-time and weekends where possible. However, we need to train at night, as the hon Gentleman referred to. I believe he is right in saying that 95% to 5% is the approximate differentiation between the two; if that is not the case, I will write to him to correct myself. It is critical, as he will accept, that we have proper training in night-flying skills. Where we do that, we try to ensure that night training is completed as early in the evening as possible, to minimise noise and inconvenience at night.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly particularly focused on training and noise pollution around RAF Valley. He knows, and generously remarked on, the fact that night-flying training has brought with it to Ynys Môn a sizeable part of the £3.5 billion of investment currently set aside for military flying training, and that the base is the second largest employer on the island. However, just as the RAF is important to the area, so the local community is important to us. We always wish to act as good neighbours.

I have three specific points on RAF Valley. First, where possible, we use synthetic training, which has a valuable role to play. It is environmentally positive and clearly eliminates noise pollution entirely. We cannot go wholly synthetic, because we cannot divorce flying training from real cockpits, but we use it where we can. That is a growing trend in our training programmes.

Secondly, while those living in the vicinity of flying units will inevitably see more military aircraft activity than other areas of the country, we make efforts, as the hon. Gentleman knows from my letters, to spread that activity as widely and as equitably as possible. He is right that pilots from RAF Valley also fly elsewhere in Wales, over the Isle of Man and into Cumbria. I do not know the exact proportions, but that is something I can look up. I will see what I can do and come back to the hon. Gentleman. There are occasions when pilots will fly elsewhere, refuel, engage in further operations and then return to RAF Valley. I will look into that. He will appreciate that, even if we have a perfect scenario, in terms of programmes, that will always be affected by weather conditions and the practicalities on the day, but I will see what I can do to give more comfort to the hon. Gentlemen’s constituents about how we look to share the inevitable noise around the country.

Thirdly, I know that the new Texan aircraft and training has been of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman. I responded to his parliamentary questions and, more recently, to a letter about safety equipment. There are three aspects to that safety. The first is to ensure that it can operate safely over water. To be absolutely clear, the Texan can operate over water, and does. As the hon. Gentleman rightly observed, it would not get far away from Ynys Môn if it could not go over water, and it does indeed go over the sea. The issue we have is the kinds of sea states that it can operate over to our satisfaction. We are doing our utmost to protect the crews should an accident occur.

There are three issues. On the life preserver and making certain that a light comes on automatically if it hits the water, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that that has now been sorted. My understanding is that the harness has now been sorted. The remaining issue is to ensure that an automatic life raft deploys in the event of it coming into contact with the water. That has not yet been fixed. Technically, it is difficult. It is a simple bit of kit, but the slot that it has to be placed into is smaller than on most of our other aircraft, so that needs to be addressed. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the timescale for that at the moment, but it is actively being looked into.

What does that prevent? It does not prevent the aircraft from flying over water, but it does mean that we do not fly over water when we have very rough seas—we are talking about the highest level of sea states. The changes we have already made have already significantly increased the amount of flying that has been conducted over water, so the problem has already diminished, and I hope to see it diminish further over time. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that there will always be a certain proportion of training that has to be conducted over land, for obvious reasons to do with the efficacy of the training programme. In any event, the areas immediately to the north of the base, over the Irish sea, contain some of the biggest civil airways, with stringent civil air traffic control procedures that limit our ability to fly in that environment.

We are doing what we can to address the safety concerns about flying over water, and progress has been made. We try to spread the flights further beyond that beautiful part of north Wales that the hon. Gentleman represents, and I will write to him further on that. I recognise that some people find the sound of military aircraft disturbing, and we are always keen to hear from the public about their concerns. That is why we have the MOD’s low flying complaints and enquiries unit, which is the first port of call for members of the public who wish to complain about low-flying military aircraft. Every complaint and enquiry is examined. Nothing is ignored; we investigate properly. Where members of the public allege that military flying regulations have not been followed, a full military police investigation will be conducted into the incident by the defence flying complaints investigation team. Disregard of military flying regulations is not tolerated, and the punishment for those found to have done so is severe.

The hon. Gentleman also asked some questions about the process of acquisition. It is very hard to draw widespread conclusions, but if anything, the decibels emitted from aircraft are falling over time. I think I am right in saying that the old VC10 would, amazingly, have to be 34 miles away from the listener before the noise would finally go. For the Voyager, which replaced it, it is 3.4 miles. That is one example. I hope that, by and large, military aircraft are getting quieter over time, but there are swings and roundabouts in that. As I say, in decibel terms, the Texan is quieter than the aircraft it replaced. I do not know whether there are technical means to quieten the engines beyond what has been proposed. I doubt it, but it is a fair question from the hon. Gentleman. It is a fair challenge, and I will certainly ask that question.

The Texan went through a normal acquisition process, as would be expected in the Ministry of Defence, going through the assets that we need to train our pilots to replace a 30-year-old aircraft and to ensure that it provides value for money. That would all have been undertaken. In parallel with that, we look at the more exacting requirements that we need to place on our aircraft, and again that would have been undertaken on this aircraft, hence the requirement for additional safety measures.

I have probably not heard the last from the hon. Gentleman on this subject. I look forward to further engagements. On the points that he raised that I have not been able to reply to in this debate, I will endeavour to write to him with answers. I recognise the sincerity of his concern on this issue. I trust that he and his constituents recognise the value that is placed on having incredibly good, highly trained, highly experienced pilots, who do the work they do in support of our country and to keep us safe. I thank him for the debate, and I look forward to writing to him and hearing from him again in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.