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Night Flights: Impact on Communities

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2022

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

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to have this debate on this issue. It is quite well attended, which is nice to see. I welcome the Minister, my former colleague on the Public Accounts Committee, to his place. It is a pleasure to see him here. I understand that he is going to be the Minister for Hammersmith Bridge, so I look forward to our many constructive communications.

Night flights are the most intrusive form of aircraft noise and there is clear evidence that they harm both the physical and mental health of residents who live under flightpaths. This summer, the delays and chaos at Heathrow airport resulted in an increased number of flights landing through the night. For my constituents and for many others across west and south-west London, that disturbance resulted in countless sleepless nights.

This disturbance is completely avoidable. Night flights are by no means essential for airport operations. These flights can and should be moved and it is within the Government’s remit to ensure that that happens.

I therefore have two asks of the Department for Transport. My primary call is for a ban on scheduled flights at Heathrow airport between 11 pm and 6 am. That is the only way we can be sure that residents will not continue to suffer from noise disruption. If the Government will not commit to that, they must commission a full independent analysis of the impact of night flights on the health of local communities, the environment and the UK economy to inform future policy development.

It is as if we were co-ordinated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing this important debate. My constituency of Twickenham is, of course, that bit closer to Heathrow and further along the flightpath, so I wholeheartedly welcome and support the two asks that she is making of the Minister today about trying to balance the economic benefits of night flights against the health risks and the distress that they cause to constituents. Does she agree that the Government could start by looking at extending the night-time restriction to 10 pm, from 11.30 pm, given the large number of frequent late-night departures that are blighting my constituents’ sleep?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We would like to see night flights restricted as much as possible to increase the amount of sleep that our constituents can get.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and an excellent point on an issue that is pertinent to her constituents with regard to Heathrow, and affects my constituents in Edinburgh and, I am sure, people surrounding every other airport in the country. Night flights are a constant problem. I find my constituents constantly facing the problem of disturbed sleep—more so now that flights are increasing again post pandemic—which has both a physical and an emotional impact on them. Perhaps what we really need is some way of being able to control this, because the airports themselves at the moment cannot seem to control night flights.

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. She is right, which is why we are calling for independent analysis and tracking so we can see exactly what goes on.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. I spoke to her earlier in relation to this. Belfast City airport is an example of where things can happen. It is in a built-up area. Local residents were unhappy with night-time flights, which are not allowed into Belfast City airport after 9 pm and there is a fine if that happens. Does she not agree that, although people may live under a flightpath, it does not mean that they should simply be expected to live through ever-increasing mayhem? It is a case not of buyers’ remorse, but of mental health impact, which should necessitate regulation. Does she agree?

I agree 100%. It is important to think about the mental health impact as well as the physical impact.

The hon. Lady may not know this, but my staff and I became somewhat expert on this matter in 2015 when there was a flightpath consultation by Edinburgh airport. My Livingston constituency has, I believe—although it may be debated—around 70% of Edinburgh’s flight traffic during the day, but also at night. What we learned from that experience was that there was a complete lack of community consultation. Would she include in her asks of the Government that community consultation, compensation, proper structures and oversight of that must be implemented? You would not put a road through somebody’s constituency without proper consultation. Why would you put a flightpath over people’s homes without consulting them properly?

That point is powerfully made. The Government set the current night flight regime at Heathrow airport, but the restrictions are simply not stringent enough and the true number of night flights is significantly higher than the quota allows. An average of 16 flights per night are permitted to land at Heathrow each year between the hours of 11.30 pm and 6 am, but flights may receive special dispensation not to be counted towards the overall quota if they are delayed due to specific reasons such as weather conditions or air traffic control disruption.

From July to September this year, 231 flights were granted dispensation. That is between two and three additional flights per night on average. In total, 475 unscheduled night flights arrived at or departed from Heathrow airport due to extreme delays and disruption. At times, my constituents would suffer almost continuous noise from aircraft overhead. That is partly due to the Government’s complete lack of long-term planning, which saw airports engulfed in chaos and flight schedules thrown into the air. However, it also proves that the current restrictions are insufficient to limit the impact on residents when disturbances to flight patterns occur.

The eastern fringe of my constituency, my home town, is directly under the flightpath of Glasgow airport. A local group in my constituency, the Whitecrook Aircraft Noise Association, has been fighting for years for local residents affected by noise to be given the necessary support to alleviate its effects. When the hon. Lady asks her questions of the Minister, one of the most important and basic questions is what the Government are going to do to stop night-time flights across our constituencies.

I thank the hon. Lady, my neighbour, for giving way. To answer her question, we know what the Government are doing: they are increasing the misery for our constituents. The southern part of my constituency is already under the flightpath and the whole of it will be if, God forbid, the third runaway is ever built. There is a totally cavalier attitude, particularly to depriving people of sleep. No other country, certainly in Europe, would put up with an airport like Heathrow’s being expanded and the transgressions that night flights in particular make on the people who have to live with them.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about expansion, and I will come on to that later.

The current night flight quotas are in place until October 2025. The Government have agreed to consult on proposals for the next regime over the course of 2023, but that will be of little comfort to many Londoners facing a further three years of disruption. Night flights are becoming an increasing issue across London. Data from the Civil Aviation Authority shows that night-time noise events from Heathrow affected 974,000 people in 2018—that is 140,000 more people than in 2006.

The hon. Lady may be coming on to this point, in which case I apologise, but over the years we have been arguing that this issue is not just about the numbers, but about the impact on physical health and mental health in particular, the stress and lack of sleep it causes and the consequences of those things for people’s quality of life. The Government have never really taken that into account, so I hope that she will be able to at least focus their attention on the real effects that this issue is having on people’s lives.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he is absolutely right. The Government state that their policy is to

“limit and, where possible, reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise.”

We can see from the numbers already that the policy is not fit for purpose, but he is correct that it is not about the numbers, but about the impact on those who are affected.

Long-term exposure to nocturnal aircraft noise is strongly linked to sleep disorders, and lack of sleep or disrupted sleep can have a direct impact on people’s health. One study found that, for each additional 10 dB of night-time aircraft noise that communities are exposed to, there is an increase of between 14% and 69% in their risk of high blood pressure, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

A World Health Organisation study from 2009 also found that an individual may suffer from negative health impacts of sleep disruption even if they do not wake up at night. Other researchers have found links between long-term exposure to aircraft noise and an increased risk of obesity, depression and cardiovascular issues—and I do not need to cite a scientific study to explain the impact that a lack of sleep has on mental wellbeing, as so many right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned it.

Does the hon. Lady mind if I make a bit more progress?

In children, sleep disruption makes it more difficult for them to retain focus throughout the day. Studies have suggested that that has a negative impact on reading comprehension and memory, which can have a knock-on impact on their academic performance and general wellbeing. The human impact of night flights only intensified over the summer months, during which temperatures reached record highs. Many Londoners were left choosing between keeping their windows shut and suffering with unbearable heat or opening them and hearing the full roar of jet engines overhead. This opposition to night flights does not arise purely out of annoyance or inconvenience.

The hon. Lady is being incredibly generous with her time. She is making the point that we have all been making: it is not about numbers; it also has to be about one’s quality of life. It is about family life, and we all have a right to that quality of life. Does she agree that the Government can no longer continue in this way? They must bring in this night flight restriction as soon as they possibly can, because my constituents in Battersea are also being impacted by this issue.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I thank her for intervention. What we are hearing from all parts of the House—well, certainly all the parties on the Opposition side of the House—is that night flights pose a real risk to the physical and mental wellbeing of thousands of Londoners and other communities across the country of all ages.

That brings me to Heathrow expansion. The Conservative Government’s constant mixed messaging and refusal to rule out Heathrow expansion is causing further anxiety for my constituents. Just four weeks ago, the former Prime Minister voiced her support for a third runway at Heathrow, having previously stated she would even support a fourth being built. That followed her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), stating that he would lie in front of the diggers to prevent such an expansion. I would therefore appreciate it if the Minister clarified the Government’s current position in his remarks. Will this Government, the third Administration in as many months, rule out Heathrow expansion?

I thank my neighbour, the hon. Member for Richmond Park, for securing this debate. The overflying flights into Heathrow go over her constituency before mine. Does she not agree that we need to be concerned not just about Heathrow expansion meaning a third runway, but the possibility that the airport will try to get more flights on the existing two runways in breach of the 480,000 cap? It could of course do that if it did away with alternation, which provides respite to our residents, and had more flights during the night-time period.

The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) makes an excellent point, and she and I share views on this issue.

I apologise to my hon. Friend.

Many of my Bath constituents have expressed concerns about the increasing number of flights taking off from Bristol airport late at night. Does she not also agree that the climate emergency compels us to look at an overall reduction in flights, particularly internal short flights where rail is available as an alternative?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. She is precisely right. Our concern relates not only to night flights, but very much to the fact that Heathrow expansion would lead to increased noise levels and around 6 million additional tonnes of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere each year. The UK cannot properly tackle the climate crisis if we continue to expand our airports, especially when we should be promoting greener transport.

I promise this is my last intervention. On the point of greener transport, does the hon. Member agree that freight flights, which are particularly noisy and polluting, should especially be banned at night? We discovered in studies and the work we did in my constituency that they were the noisiest and most problematic. We are all compelled to look for alternatives, as is the aircraft industry.

The hon. Member is particularly right on that. Where particular types of flight are known to be noisier, there should be additional restrictions. Members listening to the scale of disruption caused by night flights might wonder why they are still allowed to continue, and that is precisely the question to which I am seeking an answer.

Heathrow bosses have argued that night flights are vital to the UK economy, but there is a serious lack of evidence to back that up. The Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise and other campaigners’ groups have argued that the economic benefit of night flights is exaggerated. Heathrow claims that the direct benefit of night flights operating at Heathrow was £325 million in 2011, supporting 6,300 jobs, but its estimates are based on a report that expands the definition of jobs supported by night flights significantly and includes the many day workers who clock in before 6 am.

The positive economic benefits of night flights are not certain. Researchers at CE Delft found that a ban on night flights would only harm the national economy if none of the passengers who currently arrive on scheduled flights before 6 am were transferred to other flights. There is simply not enough data at present to claim that night flying is essential to the UK economy. The studies we have are more than 10 years old and have not taken into account the changes to the aviation sector since the pandemic.

London is one of the most overflown capital cities in the world. Millions of people across the city experience the negative impacts of night flights, such as on their health, sleep quality and mental wellbeing. What my constituents really need is a complete ban on flights between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am. That is the only way to prevent continued disturbance. Despite the vast amount of disruption caused by night flights, no independent analysis has ever been conducted to show the impact of night flights on London’s health, economy or society. If the Government refuse to legislate to ban night flights, they must at least look at tightening the current restrictions, to limit the human impact on local communities.

For the Government to make an informed decision, we need accurate, independent data on the negative impacts that these flights have on the surrounding communities, as well as the supposed economic benefits. Will the Government commit to commissioning a full independent analysis on the impact of night flights? The Department for Transport must listen to the concerns of local communities and take those into account to devise a night flights policy that works for both residents and the aviation sector.

I would like to take a moment to thank the Members who attended the debate and have added so much emphasis to what I wanted to say.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing this debate and on her informative, constructive speech. It has been a well-attended debate, with contributions from the hon. Members for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

On the Hammersmith bridge point, I have written to the hon. Member for Richmond Park today; she is correct about that. I did it just before I left the office. I enjoyed my time with her on the Public Accounts Committee, and it is nice to be able to communicate with her today in a slightly different way.

The hon. Lady asked for two specific things: a ban on night flights, and analysis of the full health impacts. I will go into detail on those in my speech. It is worth noting from the get-go that night flights do bring a positive impact to the UK economy and connectivity benefits with the world.

Is the Minister aware that, some years ago, the Government had to defend a case on night flights and did not have the evidence to justify the position he is taking on the economic advantage of flights arriving before 6 am? The reason the Government did not provide that information is that it did not exist.

My understanding is that the statistics from the York Aviation report in 2021 on the economic impact of night flights in the UK said that it was about £8.7 billion of gross value added to the UK economy, with tens of thousands of jobs supported in the UK.

The time differences of an interconnected global transport system, particularly with the far east, mean that it is difficult to avoid all flights at night and early in the morning. As I said, the recent research from York Aviation estimates that in 2019, flights during the night quota period had a total impact of over £8 billion. Heathrow airport accounts for a significant proportion of that value. However, we also recognise that the noise from aircraft at night brings significant negative impacts to the local community. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park made clear, exposure to aviation noise at night can impact on physical and mental wellbeing, and I agree with her that sleep disturbance can have a negative impact on health, increasing the risk of daytime sleepiness, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

We need to strike a fair balance between the positive and negative impacts of night flights. With that in mind, for several decades the Government have set noise controls, including restrictions on night operations at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Those airports are designated for noise purposes under the Civil Aviation Act 1982. That reflects their strategic importance and the need to balance the impact on communities with the impact on the UK economy and jobs. At other airports, noise controls are best set locally, and there are regulations in the devolved Administrations enabling them to look at some of the environmental impacts.

Last year, we consulted on night flight restrictions at the designated airports and on a night new night flight regime. Following that consultation, we announced that existing night flight restrictions at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted will be rolled over for three years. That will allow the Government to develop a more meaningful evaluation of the cost—which the hon. Lady asked for—and of the benefits of night flights, taking into account the effects of the pandemic and the extent and speed at which aviation demand returns.

You talk there about a full analysis. I just wonder whether you can confirm that that will include—

I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that that will be a full analysis of the health and mental wellbeing impacts and of all the other things we have been talking about today.

I thank the hon. Lady for that point, and I will address that exact issue later in my speech.

As the hon. Lady said, the night flight regime is now in place until October 2025, and we intend to consult in late 2023 on proposals for the next regime. I urge hon. Members who are interested in this issue to take part in that consultation, and I look forward to the hon. Lady’s feelings and those of her constituents being made known.

The night flight regime limits the number of flights for the purpose of noise management. The restrictions significantly reduce the number of flights that would otherwise operate because of the quota. At Heathrow, the number of movements permitted has not changed for many years. Although I admit that there are occasional extra flights, they are not something that the Government want to see expand in the future.

The new generation of aircraft, such as the A350 and the Boeing 737 MAX, have a significantly smaller noise footprint on departure and on arrival—it is about 50% smaller on departure and 30% smaller on arrival—than the aircraft they are replacing.

I am sorry, but I have to get through my speech.

Overall, aircraft noise is expected to continue to fall in the future. The last consultation on night flight restrictions did implement a ban on QC4-rated aircraft movements at the designated airports during the night-time quota period to specifically address some of the noise concerns. Prior to the pandemic, departing Boeing 747-400s were the noisiest aircraft in regular service at those airports. Although they could not be scheduled during the night quota period, they could still operate if delayed, although there were only very few of those delays. The operational ban on QC4-rated movements came into effect for the most noisy aircraft at the end of last month for the winter 2022-23 season. It will help in limiting the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise by preventing those aircraft from operating.

On the dispensations, I know that Heathrow would be keen to meet the hon. Lady and other colleagues to discuss the issue further. I am aware of the issue she raises. Section 78 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 sets the legal framework through which the Government set the night flight operating restrictions at the designated airports. That allows the airport operator, or the Secretary of State for Transport, to disregard certain movements, providing that they meet specific criteria. Those dispensations are granted by the Secretary of State and include flights by senior members of the royal family, UK Government Ministers or Heads of State on official visits. Humanitarian relief flights or exceptional circumstances could also be covered. Dispensations under a notice granted by an airport manager, which would include emergencies where there is immediate danger to life or health, are also included, as are delays as a result of disruption that lead to serious hardship and major congestion at an airfield or terminal.

This summer was particularly challenging from an air traffic control perspective and resulted in an increase in late-running flights. Widespread and prolonged air traffic disruption accounts for the majority of the 415 flights that the hon. Lady mentioned, which qualified for a dispensation at Heathrow. Any movements that are granted a dispensation in this way do not count towards an airport’s movement allowance. I appreciate that that creates uncertainty about the night flights that communities can expect.

It is very kind of the Minister to give way again. Will he elaborate slightly on some of those numbers and whether it might be possible for members of the public and Members of Parliament to get a better understanding of when dispensations have been granted?

I fully take on board the hon. Lady’s points and would recommend that she takes up the opportunity to meet with Heathrow officials, who have offered to meet her, because they will be able to explain in full detail. If she wants to write to me after that meeting, I will obviously write back with as many details as I have in the Department.

We remain committed to revising our night flight dispensation guidance—perhaps the hon. Lady can also write to me about that after those meetings. This will be done following a review of the number of night flight dispensations made this summer, because it was higher. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that all night flight dispensations granted by airport managers are subject to monitoring by the Department for Transport.

To respond to the issues the hon. Lady raised about night flights, there is a study currently under way. Exposure to aviation noise at night can impact on physical and mental wellbeing, as well as sleep disturbance. To better understand this, the Department has commissioned the aviation night noise effects study to examine the relationship between aviation noise and sleep disturbance and annoyance, and how this varies by different times of the night. The study is a collaboration between St George’s University of London, NatCen Social Research, Noise Consultants Ltd and the University of Pennsylvania. It is the first study of aviation noise effects on sleep disturbance in the UK for 30 years. The first stage of ANNE will involve a cross-section of 4,000 people who live near eight of the major UK airports, to assess the association between aircraft noise exposure at night and subjective assessments of sleep quality and annoyance.

I am very sorry, I am going to have to keep going. The second stage of the study—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can write to me, as he asks from a sedentary position.

The second stage of the study will involve an observational study of individuals recruited from the survey to assess the association between aircraft noise exposure and objective sleep quality. This will involve psychological assessments of sleep disturbance and sound level measurements in participants’ bedrooms. That evidence will be used to inform future policies for night flight aviation noise exposure, and assist with the management and mitigation of health impacts on local communities, as part of a wider assessment of the costs and benefits of night flying.

In conclusion, the Government recognise that noise from aircraft taking off and landing at night is often regarded by communities as the most disturbing form of airport operations. At the same time, we live in a fully interconnected and global world, and the aviation sector has material value to the UK economy. Night flights are an important contributor to that. The Government continue to strive to find the correct balance between the negative impacts of aviation and the positive economic benefits that night flights bring to the British economy, as can be seen from the fact that we are conducting this important study. The findings of the aviation night noise effects study and the consultation on the future night flight regime will be the next steps on that important journey. I hope that, going forward, that survey will also play into our consultation on night flights.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.