With permission, I will now answer Written Question No. 16.
Before undertaking any major programme of sonic bang tests it would be desirable to have a relatively small preliminary exercise. It has been decided that during the month of July Lightning aircraft from the Ministry of Technology's Aeroplane and Armament Establishment at Boscombe Down should be permitted to fly supersonically over various parts of Southern England in such a way as to create sonic bangs at intensities known from previous experience to be well below those likely to cause damage.
The flights will be confined to the hours of daytime, and will be monitored by technicians from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.
Is the Minister of State aware that his statement will be welcomed by all those who hope that the results of such tests will serve to allay public anxiety about the Concord? Will he, though, tell the House what discussions are to take place with the French Government about the results of these preliminary tests, and say whether the production orders for the Concord will not be confirmed until the results of such tests are seen to be reassuring?
I thank my hon. Friend for his first comment, and I congratulate him on the part that he has played in drawing attention to this very serious problem, particularly in an Adjournment debate about four months ago.
On the second point, the options on Concord do not depend upon supersonic flying over land because the economics of the operation of Concord will be even more favourable if confined to flying over the sea.
While agreeing in principle that it is sensible to have tests, may I ask the hon. Gentleman two main questions? First, could he say more precisely what areas are to be involved and why they have been chosen? Will it not, for example, be right to make sure that the tests are related to reality by having them take place in those areas which would be affected were a commercial supersonic service ever to be permitted?
Secondly, could the hon. Gentleman say something about what arrangements he proposes for the assessment of any damage which might occur, even though it is not expected, and compensating for the damage?
We shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the areas where these tests shall take place. We have considered whether it would be advisable actually to pinpoint where these tests are to be held, but we felt, on the other hand, that it would prove to be a better test of public objective reaction if there were no prior announcement of where the actual tests are to be held.
There will be an opportunity for any claims, although we are not expecting any serious claims to be made, to be considered by the Ministry of Defence Claims Commission.
Will my hon. Friend not agree that in the interests of objectivity, as well as social equity, it is essential to have any tests conducted away from areas where tests of sonic bangs have been conducted for some time? Bearing in mind that the Wash area is one such locality, it will be essential in trying to get reliable information to keep Concord tests away from this area.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the statement will be welcomed by all those who live in the North? Further, would the hon. Gentleman assure the House that it will be possible to suspend these tests at very short notice if this should prove to be desirable?
Yes, of course, if there were a very serious reaction to a test we would suspend it. But as the tests are being conducted at intensities which are fairly low, we are not expecting any such reaction to take place.
I do not guarantee that the next series of tests, if they are held, will not be held in the North.
What does the hon. Gentleman mean when he speaks of a major programme of sonic bang tests? When is it likely to take place? Also, would he say how far he expects the Lightning bangs to correspond with those which might be created by the Concord?
The character of the bangs created by the Lightning aircraft are not comparable to the bangs expected to be created by the Concord.
We are moving on to a major programme of tests, we hope in collaboration with the French and the Americans, both of whom have already conducted a great series of tests. We do not wish to make any decision about the next programme of tests until we have seen the results of the first tests.
Would not my hon. Friend agree that for those who live in west London and in those areas in the flight path into London Airport the position at the moment is extremely difficult? If sonic booms are to be added, frankly it will be intolerable. Is it not about time that the Government did something to reduce the general level of aircraft noise in west London, rather than increase it?
As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is very concerned about this problem and is now considering introducing noise standards into the certification of new aircraft. Furthermore, firms like Rolls-Royce are engaged in advanced research in collaboration with our own establishment to try to reduce noise at source. This is the way to deal with the problem.
Those tests were interesting, but they were heard by only a small number of people. The tests we have in mind will be available to a larger population. We shall also have them over a longer period, and we shall, we think, be able to get a more objective reaction to these tests.
We considered it very carefully, but I think that, if we were to pinpoint the tests, some old people concerned by the rather extravagant complaints put up about sonic bangs might become more concerned than, in fact, they need be.
Is the Minister aware that there has been widespread speculation in the local Press circulating in north-east London that, if Stansted Airport becomes what it is threatened to be, this will be exactly the area over which the sonic boom from the Concord will come? Do the Government intend to carry out any preliminary tests affecting that quarter of London?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on managing to bring Stansted into the question of sonic bang tests, but I want to disabuse him of any suggestion that there is a connection between the two. I am sure that there will be a great deal of Press speculation in the next few weeks about where the test will be held, but I would ask the House to disregard most, if not all, of it.