Helicopter Facilities (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Edward Du Cann Mr Edward Du Cann , Taunton 12:00 am, 21st December 1973

If it is of any assistance to the hon. Member for Shoredith and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown), I will certainly speak as rapidly as possible and sit down as promptly as I can.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the undoubted lack of helicopter landing facilities in London. Helicopters are of crucial importance as winning oil from the North Sea, which the last debate was about.

It is a matter of national importance that facilities should be adequate. This is the reason for my concern and I am pleased to see present the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) and other hon. Members with constituency and local interests, which I have no doubt they will wish to pursue. I repeat that I will do my best to be as quick as possible to make my point.

Mobility is essential in business and in public life. One reflects that time is the most precious commodity in human existence. Like others. I have lately found the helicopter to be an ideal form of transport. Those who know of its use for police, military, ambulance and life-saving purposes will naturally speak even more strongly than I can in its favour. I am sure the Government would endorse the view that the helicopter is an immensely useful and important modern form of transport.

In the current fuel crisis I have largely eliminated my own use of the helicopter as a method of convenient travel, but I look forward to the day when I can again fly freely in this way. Temporary problems in no way invalidate the point I wish to make.

I am sure that this is the right juncture at which to examine the whole picture of helicopter landing facilities in this capital city. The growth rate of civil helicopter activity in the United Kingdom has been increasing rapidly over the last three years. I will give the House the figures. The number of helicopters on the British Civil Register was 120 in 1965, 167 in 1970, 208 in 1972. It showed a dramatic rise to 320 in 1973. This makes the United Kingdom the third-ranking user of civil helicopters in the world behind the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Much of this must be associated with Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, which has given progressive companies an urgent need for a quick and reliable line of communication at home and abroad.

The main concentration of helicopter activity in the United Kingdom remains in the London area. This is where landing facilities, instead of matching the increase in helicopter activity, are, incredible as it may seem, threatened with possible extinction. If this happens, it will mean that authority in this country is saying that, irrespective of progress in other countries, irrespective of need, irrespective perhaps of the substantial export potential of the only British manufacturer of helicopters, we are content to see this industry and its facility languish and perhaps die.

I cannot believe that this would be the policy or the wish of the Government, nor of a local authority of the general competence of the Greater London Council. I do not believe that either can afford to take that view in the national interest. But I believe that it could happen through inertia, or indifference, perhaps aided a little by prejudice. It is my purpose in raising the matter to see that it does not.

I said that I am talking nationally, but I will advert for a while to the heliport in Battersea. London has only one heliport. Is is owned by the West-land Company located in the London Borough of Wandsworth on the South Bank. Westland's brought it into operation in 1969, there being at that time no official plan for a heliport. There had been plenty of committees, but no action. I remember so well the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition saying—this is one of the several things that I have agreed with him about—"committees which write minutes and waste years". Certainly this was true at that time. There being no official plan, Westland's acted and started this facility in Battersea.

Since 1966 helicopter movements at Battersea have been increasing at an average annual rate of 21 per cent. Even so, Westlands say that the heliport is operating at a financial loss. As right hon. and hon. Members opposite know, it has only temporary planning permission, which expires on 30th June 1975. According to the newspapers—it surprised me to read this in the newspapers because the operators have not received a formal reply to their application for it—the Greater London Council has announced that permanent planning permission will be refused. The inference is that in a year's time there may be no heliport at all in London or, if there is one because temporary permission is renewed, there may be a heliport with what I would refer to in the circumstances, having regard to the potential and actual user, as an impractically limited user.

I have two immediate questions to put to my hon. Friend. Incidentally, I may say that I am grateful to him for attending to answer this debate. Does he share my anxiety, does he think it right that London, alone of the capital cities in the world, should have no facilities, or inadequate facilities? What is the Government's policy with regard to the provision of adequate facilities either at Battersea, if that is a suitable place—I do not argue that it is—or anywhere else in London?

It has long been clear that facilities at Battersea are limited. An increase is possible—I do not argue for it; I merely say that it is possible—but, apart from that, Battersea is not in the vicinity of an underground or near a railway station. Right hon. and hon. Members must know that, operationally, it frequently becomes congested.

The British Helicopter Advisory Board—that is to say, the industry and those interested in using helicopters—with that in mind attempted to bring additional sites into operation. Shadwell was its first choice, that was supported by the GLC but not by the local authority. A public inquiry in 1971 lasted for 16 days, and planning permission was refused. The whole process took many months, and a search for a more suitable site was then started.

The use of a floating platform in the Thames seemed ideal. When a suitable vessel was found, the City corporation supported a planning application for an experimental period of a year. Thirteen months later—and I ask the House to note the time these matters seem to have taken—the GLC refused planning permission. I believe that a serious mistake was made, and I shall tell the House why. To do so I must dwell for a moment on the reasons for that refusal. I did not think that any one of them was convincing.

The first, in effect, was that the nature of the user would not have been sufficient to justify the disturbance of persons working or living nearby. At first hearing, that sounds reasonable enough. In the main, movements from the proposed platform would have involved executive and commercial charter flights, but the facility would also have been available for police, fire brigade, ambulance work, and so on, although there was no mention of public services in the Press release issued by the GLC on 25th October 1973—that was just before the formal refusal. That document stated: We cannot accept the principle that because the time of a few people is regarded as very valuable, this should mean that a very larger number of people can be inconvenienced". I think, in general, that if the point were reasonable I might be ready to agree with it, but I am not sure at all that it was right in this case.

Noise is the inconvenience referred to. On that basis, I suppose, in logic, eventually we should ban police sirens, ambulance bells or Big Ben. I hope I am wrong, but the logic of the statement seems to be that the GLC does not hold much brief for business executives, nor does it equate their time with their productivity, which in turn must contribute positively to the country's economy.

It is interesting to note the totally different view taken in the United States, where there are at least 25 heliports in the New York metropolitan area. Los Angeles has 150 landing places and a small town—I picked one at random from a map of the United States—such as Forth Worth has 15, I am told, and is planning to increase the number to 56. London has one, and it soon may have none.

I know the area of the City site. Employees working nearby are few, perhaps 30 in all, excepting the London Fire Brigade, which would presumably be well pleased to have so convenient a site. So far as I know, there are no local residents. Thus there is no evidence of potential inconvenience to numbers of people.

The site was selected by the City corporation from a number proposed by the British Helicopter Advisory Board in consultation with the Port of London Authority. The selection was made after a trial series of landings during which the City corporation, PLA and GLC officials were present and noise measurements were taken. These showed that the noise levels were within the GLC criteria and were likely to be less noticeable—this must be so—at a site where the background noise of six-lane traffic on London Bridge would almost certainly submerge the helicopter noise.

The matter was put to practical test. In May 1973 the actual floating platform was moored for 14 days on the South Bank adjacent to the Festival Hall. It was much used because it coincided with the Air Show. Noise tests were conducted at the specific request of the Festival Hall director, who got his own independent noise consultants to take noise measurements. Their report showed that the level of noise recorded within the hall would interfere neither with the musical events nor the public use of the restaurant and foyer. Altogether, 100 helicopter movements were flown from the platform in 10 days without one complaint.

I know that noise can be a worry. It is to us all, not least to me, living, as I do, in London during the week, but in this case it is apparently more of a worry than it need be. Helicopter noise attracts attention chiefly because it is an unusual noise, but there are ways in which the problem could be mitigated.

Pilot technique is one method, obviously. More important, however, are the two practical suggestions that I have to make. First, I hope that the Government will press the CAA to allow helicopters to fly higher than 1,000 feet—say 1,500 feet. That would make a substantial difference. Discussions are taking place on this matter. I hope that they will be successful and that my hon. Friend will lend them his support. Second, I hope that military training flights through the London control zone will be reduced, if not eliminated, as military helicopters are usually the noisiest types in use.

To sum up what I have been trying to say in this section of my speech, the second reason for refusal was in my view over-stated: to the extent that it has validity, it can be mitigated.

The third reason, I thought, was ludicrous. It was suggested that motorists on London Bridge would be frightened. That is demonstrable nonsense. We have the irrefutable evidence of the trials at the Festival Hall, to which I have already referred. The site was virtually identical in position to the proposed City site and the same distance from Waterloo Bridge as the proposed City site is from the new London Bridge.

Of the 100 movements to which I have referred flown from the Festival Hall steps, about 60 crossed Waterloo Bridge without any disturbance to motorists and with no complaints. It is no unusual thing in this country—I wish it were—for aircraft landing and take-off paths to cross main roads, for example, Heathrow, Gatwick, Exeter, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh and so on, The House knows the story. The noise of a Boeing 707 whistling overhead at 150 mph is more sudden and more explosive than a helicopter ambling over at 50 mph. There is no reason why the standard road signs for such a situation should not be placed at both ends of London Bridge. I think that the third reason had little if any validity.

What surprised me was that the GLC stated no facts or figures to substantiate the reasons for its refusal. It was surprising, too, that it apparently had disregarded the trials done in 1972 and 1973 which provided the very evidence needed for a decision on the application. Most surprising of all was its refusal to permit an experimental period of one year which would have provided invaluable operating data under closely controlled conditions on which to base future decisions on heliports.

I do not know why, but we seem to be frightened of what public reaction may be in these matters. An agenda paper prepared for the GLC at the time of the discussion about the Shadwell site put the matter very fairly: The objections raised on the grounds of noise and nuisance undoubtedly reflect genuine fears —I know that is true— but in all the time that the Battersea Heliport has been operating with a continuous growth in the number of flights, not one complaint as to noise or nuisance has been received, although large housing schemes have been completed nearby and there are several schools in the area. I am sure that the House will regard that as reassuring. Even more constructive, if I may pull the legs of right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition, was a Labour Party policy paper which was published—which I read with much interest—which said that so far as our existing experience of Battersea heliport was concerned, there had been no complaints of noise nuisance, and it went on to say that it is extraordinary that this modern form of transport hides itself behind derelict and crumbling factories and wharves. It concludes by asking. Why not a replanned environment for this modern user?". I support warmly what is put forward there.

I refer lastly to another quotation, from the GLC south area board planning committee, which I believe is relevant. This is more recent, in November 1973— There can be no doubt that there should be helicopter landing facilities to serve central London. That is exactly my point.

London is the capital of the third greatest civil helicopter operating country, refusing apparently to acknowledge a rapidly expanding growth rate in this transport sector, which is indicative of the country's potential economic growth rate. Instead of providing increased heliport facilities to lead this growth it threatens to eliminate them.

Unless the Government give a lead no one else will follow. The Government have that duty, which I am sure my hon. Friend recognises. The industry has done its best to provide a site, and to ask for planning permission for additional heliports in spite of great discouragement. I suggest that the Government and the GLC—and perhaps the CAA—take a fresh look at the whole matter. Sites could be found and I suggest that there are at least three needed.

Whether we have Battersea or not in future is not for me but for Ministers and the GLC to say. But Battersea is the one that exists, and if it is to continue, let us encourage it and develop it. We certainly want a heliport at that end of London, one in the City, and one other.

My hon. Friend will expect me to say what I think, and in my view it presently looks as though there has been a total lack of coherent forward planning on the part of the Government and the GLC. but I hope I am wrong about that and that my hon. Friend can reassure me.

I hope above all that my having raised this matter will be useful in the general context and in the general national interest.