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Helicopter Flights: Central London

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the extent of helicopter flights over central London.

My Lords, helicopter operations in central London are strictly controlled, and last week’s accident was the first fatal helicopter accident in London since civil aviation records began in 1976. We are waiting for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch to complete its investigation to ensure that the reasons for the accident are understood before we consider whether any further measures are necessary. There is no reason to believe that helicopter operations over London are unsafe.

My Lords, the safety record of helicopter flying in London has indeed been very good, as the Minister said, but does he not agree that the number of new high-rise buildings around Vauxhall Cross has made the approach to Battersea heliport increasingly hazardous? Can he give an assurance that the inquiry into last week’s accident, which could have been so much worse, will include consideration of whether that heliport should continue to operate?

My Lords, it is not for me to prejudge the result of the investigation or to tell the Air Accidents Investigation Branch how it should conduct its operation, as I am sure the noble Lord understands. The Civil Aviation Authority is closely involved in the planning process, and it is unlikely that planning permission would be granted for a high building in the face of opposition from the Civil Aviation Authority.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the British Helicopter Association, which is the trade association for the helicopter industry. Does my noble friend agree that there should be no knee-jerk reaction to this tragic accident? We need to understand the facts. These are always complex, and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch will be able to deduce what all the reasons were. Does my noble friend also accept that helicopter flying into and over London provides health support through the work of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, security through police helicopters and some of the military, and also contributes to the wealth of the capital through general helicopter traffic in support of business?

My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend has said. In addition, I point out that the Civil Aviation Authority considered the operation of helicopters over London in 2005, and we are currently operating under the regime it recommended.

Are not these helicopters known to everyone as being incredibly noisy? Surely, apart from the police and health helicopters, there is no argument for having a commercial heliport in central London. There is a perfectly good public transport service within London. Cannot these very important people use airports instead?

My Lords, we are not aware of any horrendous problem with helicopter noise, although I have answered an Oral Question in your Lordships’ House about it. The number of helicopter flights over London has almost halved over the past few years, and the level of noise disturbance has reduced accordingly—although, of course, the economic situation may be impacting on that. It is also clear that helicopters benefit the city both by supporting the economy and by providing essential support to the emergency services.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how often the charts are updated and whether pilots are tested for their knowledge of the charts? That building has been there only a few months. I declare an interest in that I live right next to it. I have just been waiting for this to happen.

My Lords, first, I am confident that the charts are up to date. Secondly, when any new structure —or a very tall crane—is put in place, if it is necessary aviators are warned about it through a well understood mechanism.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the planning application for the very tall tower into whose crane the helicopter may have crashed was turned down by Lambeth Council following massive objection from local residents? It was then passed by the Planning Inspectorate. I declare an interest as a local resident. Do the Government think that the criteria used by the Planning Inspectorate should take more account of local objections before overturning local authorities’ planning decisions, and does not this disaster demonstrate that local people usually know what they are talking about?

My Lords, when we have a disaster such as this we need to look at the technical aspects and listen to the advice from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the Civil Aviation Authority. As to the planning system, that is a rather different question; we have debated planning quite a lot recently in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, one feature of the response to the crash was the speed and efficiency with which the emergency services dealt with the accident. Is the Minister aware that the fire appliance that arrived there early came from Clapham fire station, which, under the mayor’s proposals, is due for closure? Will the inquiry examine that point? Does not this crash indicate how dangerous it is to cut back on our essential emergency services?

My Lords, it is for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch to choose whether or not to comment on this matter. Provision of fire cover in London is a matter for the mayor under the legislation introduced by the party opposite.

Does my noble friend accept that many of the helicopter flights over London are carried out by the police when they carry out surveillance? It is an astronomically expensive way of doing it. Have the Government considered using drones for this activity?

My Lords, I am not aware of whether the police have considered using drones; that is a matter for them. I did ask whether balloons could be used rather than helicopters. The difficulties are, first, that balloons are more vulnerable to wind conditions and, secondly, that the helicopter needs to be able to manoeuvre over a street to get a good view of it. The advice I received is that a helicopter is the ideal way to undertake surveillance operations.