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Aviation Noise

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2016

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

This is a debate about noise, but it will not be a noisy debate, going by the number of Members left on the Benches.

On 25 June 2015, Edinburgh airport commenced the trial of a new flightpath. It was the first flightpath trial that had taken place in Scotland for nearly 40 years. The impact on my local community and the challenges that Edinburgh airport faced as a result of an outdated structure for implementing flightpath trials have shone a light on the issue of aviation noise and airport expansion that has led to this evening’s debate. I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on the establishment of what I will call IANA—an independent aviation noise association—not only for my constituents in Livingston, particularly those in the communities of Broxburn and Uphall, who have been affected recently, but for the constituents of many colleagues across the House who are affected by aviation noise and for airports that are trying to navigate their way through the myriad regulations.

When I entered Parliament last year, I had my own ideas about the issues on which I wanted to campaign on behalf of my constituents and the people of Scotland. I did not imagine for a moment that aviation noise would be one of them. However, as an MP with a constituency in close proximity to Edinburgh airport, I have become increasingly interested in the matter of aviation, its contribution to the economy and the impact of the additional flightpath, as have my constituents.

I thank the Minister for staying so late this evening to respond to the debate. I look forward to working closely with him and colleagues across the House on this issue. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who is the SNP transport spokesman, and other colleagues for staying late this evening to take part.

It is important to recognise the members of the Environmental Audit Committee and its former Chair, the former Member for Ogmore, for their work on “The Airports Commission Report: Carbon Emissions, Air Quality and Noise”, which was published in December last year. It is an excellent holiday read if anybody is looking for something to get on with. I and many Members across the House urge the Government to consider and implement the recommendations of that report.

I also thank my constituency team, in particular Stephanie McTighe who has worked with me tirelessly on this issue, and the House of Commons researcher, Louise Butcher. What the public do not always appreciate is that to get to the stage I am at today often requires a significant amount of research and many briefings, which we receive from Library staff. I am sure that Members will agree that they do an incredible job in supporting Members of this House and the democratic processes of this Parliament.

I also want to express my gratitude to my local MSP colleagues, Angela Constance MSP and Fiona Hyslop MSP, both of whom were reappointed today to another gender-balanced Scottish Cabinet; to the Labour MSP Neil Findlay; and to Derek Mackay MSP, who is the former Transport Minister and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned in the previous debate, has just been appointed Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government. Their combined campaigning, actions and negotiations with Edinburgh airport, which listened and learned a lot from the recent experiences, helped bring an early end to the flightpath trial over my constituency.

Over a number of months, Fiona Hyslop and her local team delivered a grassroots survey to thousands of homes to get a full understanding of how people on the ground felt. The Labour MSP Neil Findlay raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament, because, as you will know, Mr Speaker, members of the Scottish Cabinet cannot raise debates as individuals. None the less, my local MSPs have been steadfast in their engagement and support, and I would like to think that we have had, and will continue to have, a good cross-party approach to the issue.

I also thank Edinburgh airport itself for listening to the concerns of my constituents and the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who has stayed on this evening in support of the debate.

Most importantly, I commend and pay tribute to the local residents who were impacted by the flightpath trial at Edinburgh airport and mobilised into action. They deserve credit for their grassroots organisation, “Stop Edinburgh Airport Trial”—SEAT, as it became known. I would specifically like to mention George Woods, who led the group. George and his team have become familiar, welcome and friendly faces at my constituency surgeries and have worked tirelessly to represent and engage with people across the constituency. Together, they have turned their justified individual concerns into a necessary wider campaign about how we can better balance the needs of business with the rights of citizens.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—I asked her before the debate whether it would be okay for me to intervene.

Does the hon. Lady agree that Heathrow’s announcement that it would go above and beyond the conditions set by the independent Airports Commission for reducing noise levels and the number of flights coming in is an example of the potential for independent agencies and airports to work positively together so that we can have connectivity not only in Scotland but in Northern Ireland?

I could not agree more, and that reinforces the need for an independent aviation noise association.

Before the flightpath trial started, I saw occasional stories in the press about the fact that it would take place, but there was not a great deal of information about what that meant for folk on the ground. I should declare an interest: I grew up living under one of Edinburgh airport’s current flightpaths, and I use and enjoy aircraft travel for both work and pleasure.

Almost immediately after the trial started, the local MSPs and my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, started to receive complaints from constituents about the noise levels. The airport had stated that Civil Aviation Authority guidelines said that until the trial was live and aircraft started using the route, it would be unable to record the noise levels. It was suggested that noise monitors would be placed at various points along the new route to capture data and information.

One example of the complaints that were made was from my constituent David Jenkins, who wrote:

“This change to the flight paths has turned our outdoor garden experience into an incessant noisy environment and recently they have been passing every few minutes and their elevation is much lower and therefore much louder, than we have experienced in the past 32 years.”

Another was from Andy Marshall, who wrote:

“Very disappointed to be advised by the CAA aircraft noise is not covered by the environmental protection act nor the noise act. It seems the airport themselves deem what level of aircraft noise is acceptable!”

By mid-September, Edinburgh airport had said that it was gathering all feedback and concerns, which the CAA would review as part of the trial. However, it is fair to say that the airport was overwhelmed with communications from constituents and simply could not cope. In my view, that was largely because the CAA guidelines and its engagement structure are not set up for modern communications or the community engagement that people expect.

As you can imagine, Mr Speaker, significant attention was given to the issue, and there was significant action. The trial was due to last six months, but it ended in December as a result of numerous complaints and direct intervention from the then Transport Minister, Derek Mackay. It is therefore clear to me that the current system of managing and mitigating aviation noise is outdated, unsuitable for modern times and in urgent need of reform. Furthermore, as recent airspace trials in Edinburgh and Gatwick have shown, there is a troubling disconnect between airports and local residents when it comes to aviation noise.

The balance at the core of today’s debate is how we turn an outdated, complex, often little understood system for managing the noise impact of aviation into an opportunity for better engagement between our vital international transport businesses and local communities.

My overall goal in highlighting this issue is to draw together our collective experience and learnings so that we can prevent future communities and airports from having the challenging and difficult experience that mine have had. I think that Edinburgh airport was doing its best to work within the CAA’s “Guidance on the Application of the Airspace Change Process”—CAP725—with which I have become increasingly familiar. It is specific published guidance on changing airspace.

Essentially, the guidance requires that any intention to make a new route permanent requires a full community consultation only when and if an airport trial is found to be a success following its completion. It is not until that point that constituents affected by the trial are entitled to take part in a consultation process. To me, the guidance and processes are more than a little out of date. In Scotland, and I am sure across wider parts of the UK, people expect and indeed welcome proper public consultation and engagement.

I know from several meetings that I have had with Edinburgh airport that it understands and accepts that there should have been greater engagement, and it is my observation that it was caught between balancing the rules and regulations of the CAA and what the local public need and want. To that end, I am pleased to say that Edinburgh airport has confirmed to me earlier today that it plans to set up its own local noise board, which will have members of the local community involved. While all the details are not yet in place, it advises me that it absolutely sees the value in doing this and will actively work with the CAA on its recent experiences and plans.

I appreciate that more passengers travel through our airports, and as a result, airports have to increase airspace capacity to cater for this growth. I care deeply about Scotland’s connectivity to other parts of the UK and the world for the growth of business and trade, as well as the huge number of people who benefit from the 8,000 jobs at Edinburgh airport. I am also mindful of the fact that air travel is generally on the increase and, to that end, I think that it would be best for business and local communities to engage positively and see this debate as an opportunity to begin that discussion.

The “Policy for the Conduct of Operational Airspace Trials” on “Consultation” states:

“Due to the short term nature of temporary airspace changes and airspace trials, it will usually not be necessary or appropriate for the airspace change sponsor to consult on their proposals or to undertake the airspace change approval process.”

It goes on to say:

“Whilst consultation may not be required the Guidance places an onus on both the sponsor and the CAA to consider the environmental impact of an operational trial and establish the level of consultation/engagement required…The CAA will confirm to the sponsor the level of engagement/consultation considered appropriate in the circumstances.”

With regard to impact studies, the policy states:

“It is accepted that some trials will have an unavoidable environmental impact; however the CAA will require trial sponsors to mitigate that impact as far as practicable and limit the scope of the trial to that which is strictly necessary commensurate with its aims”.

It means mibbes aye, mibbes naw will we have proper guidelines.

Apart from the policy’s requiring neither consultation nor an impact study up front, that raises the question of whether the CAA can be truly independent in looking at noise complaints. The CAA’s functions are wide ranging. No one suggests that it does not do a good job in many areas, but its functions include: regulating civil aviation safety; advising and assisting the Secretary of State on all civil aviation matters; determining policy for the use of the UK airspace to meet the needs of all users; economic regulation of the designated airports, and licensing of air travel organisers.

As that list suggests, the CAA’s remit is vast. I find it difficult to see how the CAA can effectively manage noise issues and maintain neutrality when balancing its other functions. In January 2013, the CAA published a literature review on aircraft noise, sleep disturbance and health impacts. It concluded that findings were

“not conclusive and are often contradictory, highlighting the practical difficulties in designing studies of this nature”.

That highlights how conflicting the information is.

Furthermore, the Airports Commission’s final report stated:

“The CAA carries out a number of functions targeted at ensuring aircraft noise is taken into account, not only within the airspace change process, but also within planning applications, and aims to improve the transparency associated with monitoring and reporting aircraft noise. However, as the Interim Report highlighted, there are still real issues to resolve around the manner in which communities are engaged in processes which impact aircraft noise (most notably the airspace change process), and in holding those involved in these processes to proper account.”

My hon. Friend is making excellent points. On holding people to account for noise, does she agree that one benefit of being in the European Union is that we have two directives, the rather cumbersomely named D2002/30 (European Parliament, 2002a), which is devoted to air traffic noise and inspired by the “balanced approach” concept, and D2002/49 (European Parliament, 2002b), which is on environmental noise and specifying noise metrics? Is there a benefit to having European standards to which people must adhere?

My hon. Friend is a great expert in this area, and I could not agree with him more. That is why we need a unified approach across the UK, and local consultative bodies.

A further interesting point—well, interesting to me and my constituents—is that flightpaths in the UK are designed and drawn up in consultation with the local airport, the CAA, and predominantly the National Air Traffic Services. As I understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—NATS manages airspace above 3,000 feet, and under a previous Government it was part privatised. NATS is a public-private partnership between the Airline Group, which holds 42%, NATS staff who own 5%, UK airport operator LHR Airports Limited with 4%, and the Government who hold 49%. The Airline Group comprises a number of private companies, including leading companies and airlines, and its website is open and informative. I will not list all those private companies, but some are airlines. Call me a conspiracy theorist, Mr Speaker, but I cannot help finding it a little odd first that our airspace is part privately owned, and secondly that that part privately owned company has a significant hand in designing our flightpaths. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on whether NATS will remain part public, and on whether data on the design of flightpaths and future flightpaths could be made public. Indeed, if the new noise association is set up, it will have a key role in future designs.

The Edinburgh trial last year was merely the latest in a number of instances in which local residents have felt helpless in the face of airspace change and general airport operations that have had a severe and detrimental impact on their quality of life. The Airports Commission’s July 2013 aviation noise discussion paper stated that in terms of health effects from aviation noise, the link between noise and hypertension is “fairly well” established.

Except for airports where there is direct regulation from the Secretary of State for Transport—Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted—it is for airports to decide whether and how best to control noise impacts from their operations. I do not believe that that is in keeping with the spirit of public engagement, and it could be detrimental to our other airports and their business. At the UK’s major airports the Secretary of State may prescribe “noise preferential routes” to minimise noise disturbance, but it is the responsibility of airport operators to ensure that those routes are used, and there are no statutory powers to penalise poor track-keeping. I think that people across the UK will find that unsatisfactory, and it is imperative that the UK Government, their agencies and our airports, are more open, transparent and consultative.

I am not alone in that opinion. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who sadly could not be with us this evening, is a passionate and determined advocate for his constituents, and he represents a large number of people who live under the flight path to Glasgow airport. He has been contacted by a large number of residents, many of whom have been fighting for years to get support to install sound proofing in those houses that are adversely affected, to counter the impact of noise. He advises me that those calls have not been met with the most positive of responses, and he argues that a misconception and lack of understanding lies at the heart of the matter, and that if we are fully to combat the effects of aircraft noise, the establishment of an independent aviation noise association will be an important step.

In recent years the independent Airports Commission, chaired ably by Sir Howard Davies, the Environmental Audit Committee, and others, have called on the Government to create a new independent aviation noise authority as part of their recommendations, including a levy that could be used by local households—such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend—to spend on noise protections such as sound proofing.

The Airports Commission said:

“An independent aviation noise authority should be established with a statutory right to be consulted on flight paths and other operating procedures. The authority should be given statutory consultee status and a formal role in monitoring and quality assuring all processes and functions which have an impact on aircraft noise, and in advising central and local Government and the CAA on such issues.”

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

The Environmental Audit Committee reiterated the call from Sir Howard and urged the Government to establish IANA in the next year,

“whether or not it proceeds with expansion at Heathrow.”

Indeed, in the Committee’s view, there is no reason why the two recommendations—the establishment of IANA and Heathrow expansion—cannot be mutually exclusive.

We do not know the Government’s thinking on IANA. The Secretary of State said in 2014 that the Government would need to wait on the commission’s report before considering IANA. However, in the light of the report, and despite being asked, including in a letter I wrote in October last year, he has not subsequently addressed the matter even though it has cross-party backing.

Like all hon. Members, I accept the need for co-ordinated, UK-wide policy making on broad aviation strategy, but an independent aviation noise authority could put certainty and accountability closer to my constituents in Livingston and others around the UK. What are the Minister’s views on supporting regional noise committees either airport by airport or in a hub structure, such as the one proposed by Edinburgh airport? Perhaps it will be the trailblazer.

We know from bodies such as the Aviation Environment Federation that many communities report diminishing levels of trust with their airport operators and with airspace change sponsors, which impedes progress on reducing the health burden of aircraft noise on communities. It is clear from the recent trial at Edinburgh that the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS neither have nor foster direct access for local residents, which is required when it comes to informing residents and resolving issues about noise controls. The work of the Airports Commission showed that an independent noise authority would not only forge new relationships between local residents and airports over noise disputes, but could play a vital role in noise monitoring and management, which the CAA and NATS currently lack.

Finally, it is my firm belief that establishing an independent aviation noise authority sooner rather than later would benefit the whole UK and all our constituents, and would help to establish confidence in local communities between airports and local residents.

I have asked a lot of the Minister this evening, but he is more than equal to the task of answering those questions, of being bold, and of bringing forward the proposals into statute. I hope he can answer my various questions, but also that he will meet me and some of my local representatives and the airport to understand how we can make a noise association work for business and communities such as mine in Livingston and those around the UK. We have an opportunity to do the right thing for business and our communities. Let’s get on and do it.

To reply to the debate, I call the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, Mr Andrew Hanson Jones.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is not very often that my middle name gets a mention—good research.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) on securing this debate on an independent aviation noise body, and on the work that has clearly been going on locally by so many different people and bodies involved in the process. She will have noticed that I am not the Minister with responsibility for aviation—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), is away representing the Government at an international aviation conference—but she has asked to meet him and, on his behalf, I am quite sure I can guarantee to put that in his diary. While he is away representing our country in a noble fashion, I am happy to fill his diary.

The hon. Lady has asked many detailed questions, and the answers to some of them will be clear from my speech this evening. If there are other questions, I will ensure they are picked up from Hansard, and the Department will write to her so that she can have detailed answers.

The Government are acutely aware that noise is a major environmental concern around airports. We also understand that aviation noise is an issue of trust between communities and the aviation industry. As a result, we are considering policies very carefully. We acknowledge that there is growing evidence that exposure to aircraft noise can adversely affect people’s health. We closely monitor research in this field and relevant robust evidence is incorporated into the policy appraisal process. As set out in the aviation policy framework published in 2013, our overall policy is:

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

The creation of an independent aviation noise body was recommended by the Airports Commission in its report on new airport capacity in the south-east of England. The commission made this recommendation in its interim report and then reaffirmed it in its final report published in July last year. It recommended that the noise body should provide statutory advice to the Secretary of State regarding: proposed changes to noise preferential routes, the proper structure for noise compensation schemes, and that it should work with communities affected by development to create a balance between aviation growth and noise control.

I will make this point regarding balance now and then come back to it later. The Government are committed to ensuring that a proper balance is struck between the development of the aviation industry, the legitimate and valid concerns of the communities that are affected, and the environmental concerns that arise from a growing and strengthening industry. I understand, and the Government recognise, that the levels of trust from communities in industry bodies such as airports and NATS differs considerably across the country. It is important that any proposed noise body focuses on enhancing and bolstering those relationships, but does not introduce any unnecessary bureaucracy. It is clear to me that a noise body, as proposed by the Airports Commission, could indeed help to facilitate the strengthening of relationships between communities and industry. However, a noise body should not attempt to interfere where strong and trusting relationships between communities and industry already exist. It would need to make sure that it struck the right balance between community concerns and the legitimate needs of industry.

As hon. Members will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement to the House on 14 December last year on airport policy and the Government’s response to the commission’s report. In the statement, he set out the Government’s acceptance of the need for additional runway capacity in the south-east. However, before making a decision on the preferred option at either Heathrow or Gatwick, he made it clear that a package of further work is required. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, we have been considering our policies in the area of noise and airspace more generally. My Department plans to publish a consultation on national airspace and noise policy, which will include the potential role of a noise body. Department for Transport officials have engaged with stakeholders and are working through the details of the functions envisaged for a noise body. It is expected that this will be consulted on by the end of this year. The creation of a noise body is among one of the most important things that needs to be considered. The Government are fully aware of calls from MPs, the public and aviation stakeholders on the establishment of such a noise body. We will consider carefully the arguments put forward before making a final decision.

The use of UK airspace is not a devolved matter and the Civil Aviation Authority is the UK’s aviation independent regulator. However, we will continue to engage fully with the Scottish Government in developing proposals on national noise and airspace matters, and a possible noise body. The use of airspace is a UK matter, but environmental issues, including noise, are devolved matters. Edinburgh airport’s noise plan, required under European Commission legislation that sets how the airport will minimise the impact of noise, is required to be adopted by Scottish Ministers. The hon. Lady’s constituency, Livingston, lies approximately seven miles west of Edinburgh airport and will be impacted mainly by departure noise. As she is well aware and made clear in her speech, the airport, in conjunction with NATS, carried out a departure trial last year at Edinburgh airport. The trial was one of a series that airports, with the support of the CAA, have been undertaking to assess the practicable implications of the use of the primarily satellite-based navigation, known as performance based navigation. PBN has been mandated for use across the EU by 2024 because it offers significant benefits, including reduced emissions and delays compared to conventional ground-based navigation.

The trials were important to understanding the typical level of track-keeping accuracy and how different aircraft types and operators react to the use of new procedures. I understand that the trial involved a new standard instrument departure route to allow the airport to encourage and maintain safe and sustainable growth, while ensuring that punctuality was unaffected. I also understand that it ended early, on 29 October last year, as the hon. Lady detailed, following complaints from the public and local representatives.

The routes used by aircraft and the heights at which they fly are two significant factors that affect noise experienced by people on the ground. The departure trials in 2014 at Heathrow, Gatwick and Edinburgh airports and the public response, indicated by the number of complaints received, showed that very clearly. Trials are important, however, because the information gained from them is vital to gaining the knowledge necessary for future airspace change, as driven by the CAA’s future airspace strategy.

Change is required. The basic structure of UK airspace was developed more than 40 years ago, and since then there has been a dramatic increase in demand for flights. The future airspace strategy is the plan to modernise UK airspace to take account of the European Commission’s single European sky strategy and modern technology with more precision based navigation, as well as the increase in the number of flights. The environmental aims will be savings in fuel, which will cut carbon emissions, and a reduction in noise impacts, with considerations to share the benefits of noise reductions more widely.

Edinburgh airport is now considering the data from the trial, with a view to updating its plans, and I understand that the results of the trial are to be published later this year. Once the airport has revised its plans, we expect it to present the CAA with an airspace change application. The airport, now the fifth-busiest in the UK, proposes to update its airspace to cater for the increasing demand and to enable aircraft operators to benefit from PBN. It is important that all trials be publicised and communicated beforehand and that local politicians and local authorities in the vicinity of the airport be alerted so that the public are aware of them. I reassure the House that any permanent change to airspace in the vicinity of an airport will require public and transparent consultation. That was an important point the hon. Lady made, and I am happy to provide that reassurance.

Put simply, the Government want to see growth in aviation. It is good for the economy, bringing investment and employment to the UK and wider benefits to society and individuals, including around travel for leisure and visiting friends and family. It is imperative, however, that this be balanced against the costs to the local environment that more flights bring, noise being the prime example. It is vital that those affected by the changes can trust the information provided by those wanting the changes and making the decisions. The Airports Commission’s proposal for a new noise body might well help with that.

In concluding, I reiterate to the hon. Lady and the House that the Government will carefully consider the need for setting up an independent aviation noise body and its proposed role and functions. The message that has come across loudly from local campaigners, not just in her constituency but around the country, indicates how important the matter is and how seriously the Government will therefore take it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.