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The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate, and on the fluent and comprehensive way in which she presented her case, largely without notes, which is unusual in late-night Adjournment debates. She is probably fleeing from the attentions of the canvassers for the various candidates, and the Chamber may be one of the few safe places in the Palace of Westminster.
Aircraft noise is, as the hon. Lady rightly said, a subject of great concern to airport neighbours. The Government take aviation noise seriously and support measures to limit its disturbance of communities around aerodromes. Although I shall respond as far as I properly can to the points made about White Waltham specifically, much of what I say will be equally applicable to many licensed and unlicensed aerodromes around the country.
Let me make clear the role of my Department in respect of aircraft noise policy at aerodromes. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports are designated under section 80 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 for the purposes of section 78 of that Act, for noise regulation. Elsewhere, circumstances vary greatly between larger airports and the many small local airfields. The policy of successive Governments has been that aircraft noise is a local issue that is best resolved locally. We recognise the legitimate right of general aviation pilots to fly, but as the hon. Lady said, that right should always be balanced with the interests of the communities that are disturbed by aerodrome activities.
General aviation is an activity that is not only legitimate, but important. It would be wrong to conceive of it as a matter purely of weekend leisure flying, although that has its place. The Government are also mindful of the contribution of general aviation to the training of pilots,
Aerodrome and aircraft operators are expected to achieve as far as practically possible the minimum disturbance to the community. Often, with a measure of good will on both sides, matters can be improved by discussion between the aerodrome management and local interests. For example, such improvements could be made by designing circuit patterns with noise avoidance features when it is safe to do so and when that will not produce worse nuisance elsewhere. Improvements could also be achieved by controlling and notifying the times of relatively noisy operations.
As the hon. Lady said, White Waltham is a long-established airfield with a venerable history. From the early days of the de Havilland flying school in the 1930s, through its wartime and subsequent years as the headquarters of the Air Transport Auxiliary, and afterwards as a base for Fairey Aviation and the West London Aero Club among others, it is certainly well rooted in the community.
The aerodrome's proximity to Heathrow and its location below the congested airspace of the south-east mean that there must be rather tight constraints on its scope for modifying its procedures. However, it clearly indicates noise avoidance areas in its posted circuit procedures and pilots should be well aware of the need for considerate flying that avoids, for example, the residential areas of south-west Maidenhead, Knowl Hill, White Waltham village and other locations.
I understand that the airfield management has recently had silencers approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, whose involvement the hon. Lady mentioned, for the aerodrome's fleet of training aircraft, and that they have now been fitted. The possibility of fitting quieter four-bladed, rather than two-bladed, propellers is also being investigated with the CAA. I am told that the aerodrome has voluntarily restricted helicopter training activity, as the hon. Lady pointed out.
I want to say a little about international regulation of noise at source. Each light aircraft type coming newly into service must be certificated to show compliance with noise limitation standards recommended and published by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The effectiveness of the standards is kept under review and they are updated as much as is technically feasible and economically justifiable. The Government's policy is to regulate to put those recommendations into practice. That policy recognises that manufacturing and operating aircraft is nowadays a global business that needs global solutions wherever practicable.
The noise problems presented by light aircraft are rather different in character from those produced by large commercial aircraft. Often it is repetitive activities such as circuit flying or compass testing that cause the greatest annoyance. It is important that aerodromes should try to ensure that their circuits and procedures are designedthis must happen within the constraints of safety, of courseto minimise inconvenience to people on the ground. They should specify noise avoidance areas where appropriate and ensure that pilots respect the rules.
As the hon. Lady said, it is important that aerodromes consult local amenity groups, local authorities and others about decisions that are likely to affect the noise climate. They should listen carefully to their views, and act on them whenever possible. The best forum for that is often a consultative committee. Sensitive and responsive handling of concerns is in everyone's interest, including that of the aerodromes. Many aerodrome managers already order such matters well, but there is sometimes room for improvement.
Although noise control measures at White Waltham and other aerodromes are the responsibility of the aerodrome management, our policy is to encourage consultation as a means of reconciling local difficulties that arise from aerodrome operations.
Approximately 50 aerodromes nationally have been designated under section 35 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. That requires the aerodrome management to provide adequate facilities for consultation for specified categories of users, local authorities and local representative organisations on any matter concerning the management or administration of the aerodrome that affects their interests.
White Waltham has not been designated under section 35. However, I understand that the management has voluntarily established a consultative committee, which is structured along similar lines to the committees at many section 35 aerodromes.
No legal action can be taken against pilots for noise disturbance, provided that they observe the rules of the air and fly in accordance with normal aviation practice. I stress that the regulations primarily cover safety, but the height restrictions give some collateral noise benefit.
It is important to stress that the establishment and use of aerodromes are subject to normal planning controls. Many aerodromes, including White Waltham, predate current planning legislation. Even so, many have had to seek planning permission for subsequent expansions and alterations over the years. The planning authority may grant permission, subject to the relevant conditions, which might include noise-related requirements, that it considers appropriate. Conditions may, for instance, stipulate the number of flights permitted by day and limit the use of the site at night. The local planning authority has powers to take enforcement action if the terms of the planning permission are breached.
Local authorities can also require use of land to be discontinued by making a discontinuance order under section 102 of the Town and Country Planning Act. Such an order would have to be confirmed by the Secretary of State, and may involve the local planning authority paying compensation for the loss of existing use rights.
I understand that White Waltham sought planning permission for office and hangar developments, and in connection with the application proposed additional controls on flying activities. As the hon. Lady said, the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead recently refused planning consent. I am sure that she understands that it would not be appropriate for me to enter into a debate about the details of the case. I am outlining the objective circumstances that relate to it.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the use of silencers on light aircraft. Certification is carried out independently of the aircraft manufacturer, either by the CAA or its designates, and it is agreed internationally. It deals with noise on flyover, sidelines, the take-off phase and final approach. Some countries, such as Germany, have adopted national noise standards for light aircraft that are more stringent in some respects than the ICAO recommendations. However, it is our policy to use ICAO standards, and to work through that body to achieve more stringent global noise standards. National variations merely undermine the benefits of global standards.
Additionally, the safety regulation group of the CAA has concerns about safety when certain types of silencers are fitted to existing light aircraft. We would not want to take any risks on safety to achieve marginally lower noise levels. To comply with current requirements, some light aircraft may need to be modified by fitting silencers or mufflers. Such modifications require approval by the CAA to ensure that the modified aircraft continues to meet all the applicable safety requirements. The hon. Lady mentioned proposed new legislation in this regard.
The long-standing policy of maintaining a balance between the rights of general aviation pilots to fly and the interests of the communities that are disturbed by aircraft noise has generally proved successful. Nevertheless, the Government accept that aircraft noise can be disturbing and that sometimes more should be done.
Last autumn, we completed a public consultation entitled "The control of noise from civil aircraft". We think of some stunningly original titles. In this, we proposed providing aerodromes with clearer powers to regulate flying behaviour. The preference is still for local solutions and, where existing arrangements are working satisfactorily, the expectation will be that such arrangements will carry on much as before. However, if the Secretary of State believed that they had been ineffective, he would, under our proposals, be given a new power to require an aerodrome to agree a noise amelioration scheme with an appropriate local authority. That authority would then have powers of enforcement. Independent arbitration is proposed as one way of resolving any disputes that may arise. There were many detailed responses to the consultation, reflecting, as one would imagine, a broad range of views. They are being evaluated and considered, and our conclusions will be announced in due course.
The legislative proposals were intended not to supplant existing planning powers, but to strengthen the hand of aerodromes in controlling their existing operations, and to allow intervention when necessary if voluntary arrangements have failed. We would certainly not expect a local authority to regard itself, in anticipation of such legislation, as inhibited from exercising its current powersfor example, to pursue planning obligations or conditions in respect of noise either from, or affecting, new development.
I hope that that has been helpful to the hon. Lady in the pursuit of her cause on behalf of her constituents. She suggested that she might wish to write to me on further points, and I await that with interest and anticipation.