Flight Paths (London)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 2nd July 2008.

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Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 2:30 pm, 2nd July 2008

It is a pleasure to see you chairing our proceedings this afternoon, Mr. Bercow—I am most grateful to you for enabling me to debate this important issue. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here to reply.

As hon. Members will be aware, NATS, which provides air traffic control services in the United Kingdom, has recently conducted a consultation on its proposed redesign of terminal control north airspace. The sheer demand for air travel has brought about the need for fresh consideration of flight path access to our airports and I therefore fully realise that there is a challenge that needs to be addressed. The consultation ended on 19 June and a feedback report will be published on NATS website towards the end of this month. The report will then be forwarded to the Civil Aviation Authority for approval by the end of the year.

The proposed plans concern a large part of southern and eastern England, which incorporates my constituency. I would like to make it clear that I am fully aware of the benefits that air travel brings. There can be no denying that it is essential to the success of the UK economy and that it is an important part of modern life. Aviation provides some 200,000 direct jobs and a further 600,000 jobs are indirectly supported. The industry directly contributes more than £11.4 billion to UK gross domestic product and visitors who arrive by air contribute a further £12 billion a year to the UK tourism industry.

In 1970, 32 million passengers passed through UK airports and last year the figure was 241 million, which is a 653 per cent. increase. A similar pattern emerges if we consider each individual London airport. In the past 10 years, the number of passengers who have passed through Heathrow has increased by 22 per cent.—from 56 million passengers in 1997 to 68 million in 2007. There has been a 31 per cent. increase in passengers at Gatwick—from 27 million in 2002 to 35 million in 2007. The number of passengers passing through Stansted airport has increased by 344 per cent.—up from 5.4 million in 1997 to 24 million in 2007—and Luton has also had a substantial increase in the number of passengers going through its terminals. In 1997, 3.2 million passengers passed through Luton compared with 10 million in 2007, which is a 212 per cent. increase. Finally, in the past five years, the number of passengers who have passed through London City airport has increased by 82 per cent.—from 1.6 million in 2002 to 3 million in 2007.

According to the latest published forecast, the number of passengers passing through UK airports by 2030 will be between 450 million and 530 million, which is twice the number it is today. More than half of the total UK demand that is forecast for 2030 is for airports in the south-east of England. Stansted will have between 51 million to 60 million passengers passing through its terminals, which is a 150 per cent. increase. In the past 10 years, air transport movements have increased at London airports by 35 per cent.—from 739,000 movements in 1996 to 994,000 in 2006. At Stansted, there has been an increase of 153 per cent. in air transport movements in the past 10 years—from 75,000 in 1996 to 190,000 in 2006. BAA wants to increase flights on the existing runway to 260,000 and then open a second runway to accommodate 500,000 flights a year.

Although it is important for London to continue to be a hub for air passengers, it is also important to ensure that a balance is achieved. The biggest change proposed for the Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and north-east Essex area is to increase the number of holds for Stansted and Luton arrivals from two to three. The two Stansted holds would be south of Newmarket between Hadleigh and Stowmarket. One of the main factors that NATS considered when designing the proposed changes was to try to avoid populated areas at lower heights. However, in doing that, the proposed changes would have an unfair and disproportionate impact on rural areas. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is concerned that the plans will mean that planes are rerouted over areas of natural beauty.

Under the proposals, aircraft will descend in spirals to 7,000 ft before breaking out of the holding pattern to make their approach to Stansted. Areas to the south of Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds, including some areas close to Newmarket that are presently not normally over-flown at all, would be over-flown by as little as 4,000 ft. That would lead to noise levels of between 58 to 73 dB, which is against the Suffolk local transport plan objective to improve the ambient noise climate within the county.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the strong opposition to the NATS proposals expressed by the Chilterns conservation board—the statutory body for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty? Under the proposed regime, many of my constituents who live on hill-top villages fear that they will be a great deal closer to more frequent and lower flights than is currently the case.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out because the Chilterns are, of course, an area of outstanding natural beauty in this country and people choose to live there because of the tranquillity. That is likely to be destroyed under the proposals.

Picking up on the point made by my hon. Friend, NATS has simply shifted aircraft noise to those rural areas that currently experience very little background noise. Many of my constituents have complained to me that the Civil Aviation Authority seems to have chosen to ignore the guidelines set out by the Department for Transport in the terminal control north consultation. In its guidance to the CAA on environmental issues relating to airspace, the Department for Transport requires the Directorate of Airspace Policy to

"Pursue policies that will help to preserve the tranquillity where this does not increase significantly the environmental burdens on congested areas."

I would be grateful to know whether the Minister has the same view on that as my constituents. West Suffolk already suffers from virtually continuous aircraft noise from the US air force bases located in Mildenhall and Lakenheath, just north of Newmarket in my constituency. The proposed changes will further put at risk the tranquillity of that area. I have had an avalanche of letters from concerned constituents who live in the villages around Newmarket, particularly to the south of the town.

Residents of the village of Hargrave are concerned about the impact the changes will have on local air quality. My constituent, Mr. James Perry, has rightly pointed out that

"this is of particular concern as Hargrave will experience a much lower minimum height of 4,000 feet than the other holds."

Mr. and Mrs. Ambridge, who also live in Hargrave, have concerns about the aircraft leaving the westerly stack following the dog-leg red route passing over Hargrave and then having approximately 35 miles to descend to the runway.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

My hon. Friend mentioned aeroplanes leaving the stack, which would probably be at about 6,000 or 7,000 ft. That applies to Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, and is the issue about which we are concerned. People are saying that the NATS consultation is confusing in relation to the stack and the area around the stack, as some diagrams show that planes can also fly at 6,000 or 7,000 ft—if it relates to the stack itself, the number of planes would be restricted to eight, but if it relates to a much wider area, there could be dozens of planes. That confusion is upsetting people who live in rural areas.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening and I totally accept his point. The whole consultation process has been extremely confusing and non-specific, and I shall now talk about that.

Mr. and Mrs. Ambridge would like to know why the consultation document does not provide a meaningful explanation for why the stack and dog-leg are located so far away from the airport and why the dog-leg that is connected over Hargrave is necessary at all. Another of my constituents, Mr. Rous of Newmarket, is worried about the visual impact of aircraft flying at heights as low as 4,000 ft in the area. He has forcefully argued that at peak times, aircraft movements will be as many as 33 an hour, or one every two minutes. Mr. and Mrs. Fish of Higham made a very serious point in their submission to NATS when they asked why the consultation document does not explain why the lowest height limit being set over the whole area is 4,000 ft when the other proposed holds have a lowest height limit of 6,000 ft. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can answer those queries from my very anxious constituents.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Does he agree that although there is a move to shift aircraft to stack over the countryside, people tend to notice aircraft noise more when they are in the country than when they are in cities and urban areas? I am aware of that as someone who lives not only in London, which is obviously very busy, but in the country. Has my hon. Friend probed the Minister on what other alternatives have been put on the table, or is the current proposal the only solution that the Government have offered?

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that any noise in an area that is essentially quiet is much more noticeable. I will certainly come to the issue of the alternatives in my remarks.

There is a desperately serious potential threat to a hugely important commercial activity in the area that I am discussing. That is because of the fear that the proposed changes will have a decisively negative impact on the racing industry. As Deloitte noted in a recent report on the horse racing industry,

"The general decline in British farming means racing is now even more important to the rural economy, and its continued prosperity will play a major role in the health of the rural economy."

Let me illustrate what I mean. The racing industry is a substantial contributor to the British economy. It generates expenditure of £2.9 billion a year and raises £282 million in tax revenues for the Government. The thoroughbred horse racing industry produces sales of more than £150 million annually in the United Kingdom and has export revenues of £160 million. There are about 9,500 active racehorse owners, and overall some 50,000 people are involved in racehorse ownership through various types of co-ownership. It is, then, no surprise that racing is second only to football, measured by revenue and spectator numbers, with total race course attendance in 2006 being just under 6 million.

Newmarket, in my constituency, is at the heart of all this. Originally, Newmarket found fame as the world headquarters of racing during the reign of Charles II, so racing has been central to the life of the town and the surrounding area, and indeed the whole country, for more than 300 years. As well as being one of the most tranquil areas in the east of England, Newmarket contains the largest concentration of stud farms, racehorses, trainers, stable staff and racing organisations in Europe, shared between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Paice.

Situated in Newmarket are two of Britain's leading race courses, more than 2,900 racehorses in training, 89 licensed trainers, 62 stud farms, 2,800 acres of training grounds, the original home of the Jockey Club, the National Horseracing museum, the British Racing School, the National Stud, the Animal Health Trust, the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory, the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the International Racing Bureau, Racing Welfare, the Federation of Bloodstock Agents, the UK's top support services and Tattersalls—the oldest and most successful bloodstock auctioneers in the world. Today, there are 40 race meetings a year—in the summer on the July course and in the spring and autumn on the Rowley Mile. That unique part of Britain provides breeding and training facilities for up to 3,000 horses, accounting for one fifth of all racehorses in training in the United Kingdom.

The racing industry also significantly contributes to the local economy. It is estimated that 33 per cent. of jobs in Newmarket are directly related to horse racing, with the breeding industry paying £15 million to its employees. Newmarket's stud farms and racehorse trainers directly spend more than £150 million a year in the area on wages, goods and services. They indirectly spend more than £100 million locally, with turnover of horse racing sales, training and stud farm businesses greater than £500 million. A survey of Newmarket Stud Farmers Association members showed that an estimated 85 per cent. of their expenditure goes to businesses and individuals within a 20-mile radius of Newmarket.

Many breeders have located to Newmarket simply because they were attracted to the peaceful environment. A baseline noise survey conducted on behalf of the Newmarket Horseracing and Breeders Group to investigate noise implications concluded that stud farms in Newmarket were located in areas significantly quieter than the average rural area. That is no coincidence. A further survey conducted by the Newmarket Stud Farmers Association, completed by 30 of the leading studs, showed that Newmarket's peaceful business environment was considered one of the greatest attractions of Newmarket after the availability of equine services and land with ideal soil and topography. It is clear, then, that because of the tranquillity of the area, it is a very attractive location for the industry's activities and a significant reason why investment continues to flow into the area.

We nearly lost the racing industry with the introduction of the Single European Act in 1993, because our VAT rate of 17.5 per cent. was hugely higher than the special low rate negotiated by the French and Irish. That was a potential catastrophe for my constituency—I was a new Member of Parliament at the time. Mercifully, we found a way round it, something that racing has not forgotten. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his role in that.

Sadly, the breeding industry is once again on a knife-edge. Many fear that the horses will react negatively to the increased noise. Let me spell this out in crystal clear terms. Thoroughbred racehorses are hugely expensive to breed and rear, and very sensitive to the prevailing atmosphere. That particularly applies to young foals. Every racehorse trainer will say that a peaceful and calm atmosphere is the fundamental prerequisite for successful breeding and training, so the threat is both to human beings and their tranquillity and to livestock.

The owner of the Denham estate in my constituency, which is one of the largest deer farms in Europe, believes that the proposed flight changes will have a great impact on it. Deer, like racehorses, are highly sensitive to aircraft noise, and Mr. Michael Gliksten, owner of the estate, predicts that, as a result of the noise, the deer

"are likely to spook, resulting in extreme stress and possible abortions."

Indeed, several years ago, the RAF was thinking about flying helicopters over the area, yet it fully appreciated and understood Mr Gliksten's concerns and it diverted its flight paths after he had expressed them.

The change most likely to have a significant impact on the Newmarket horse racing industry is the formation of a new holding pattern above the Newmarket area. Elaine Taylor of Newmarket makes a valid point in her submission to the consultation process, in that there is no clear indication of the number of flights that will use the hold, how often it will be necessary for planes to fly at 4,000 ft, and what the intention is after 2014.

Altogether, 33 per cent. of the population in the south Newmarket area will see a difference as a result of the proposed changes. More than 7,000 thoroughbreds are cared for by 2,000 people on stud farms underneath the proposed stack. It is estimated that 90 per cent. of the stud farm area around Newmarket will be affected by the planned changes. According to a survey of Newmarket Stud Farmers Association members, 77 per cent. of studs expect some change to their businesses as a result of the NATS recommendations.

Dr. Charles Boulton of Newmarket recently wrote to me to highlight the fact that a key element of the East of England Development Agency's strategy is to stimulate foreign investment in the region. As he rightly points out, considerable foreign investment in horse racing in the region is threatened by the proposals. As well as discouraging potential new investors from investing in the area, there is the real possibility that one or more of the big global players will withdraw their investment. Five of the largest studs account for 83 per cent. of the stallions. The racing industry depends on the tens of millions of pounds that the big racing owners invest in Newmarket each year. Stallions can be worth many millions of pounds each, with additional income coming from stud fees. The temptation for them to redirect their investments and move to France, Ireland, America, Australia or the middle east may prove irresistible. Most worrying is the fact that 63 per cent. of the studs surveyed believe that the NATS proposal will influence their future investment decisions. Make no mistake, the French and Irish continue to bid hard for breeding activity to be located in their countries. Any decision to withdraw investment would be disastrous for the British breeding industry as a whole.

The racing industry is inextricably interlinked. The breeders, trainers, auctioneers and the ancillary activities all work together in Newmarket. The departure of one element would have an impact on everything else. When I met NATS, it was clear that no consideration had been given to the problem. Racing in Newmarket is a brilliant success story, giving much pleasure to many. It is tragic that the future of such an important employer and exporter, a great British success story, should be put at risk. It is essential that NATS comes up with an alternative solution.

NATS must reconsider the location criteria so that areas of tranquillity are preserved. No alternative location for the holds have been proposed. NATS should consider stacking over the North sea, raising the lowest level of the stacks to a higher altitude or introducing direct flight paths. Frankly, there was no field-based evidence for those areas of potential impact. The criteria appear to have been based on desk-bound analyses alone.

Many of my constituents cannot understand why the option of stacking over the sea was not seriously considered. A campaign for that has been commendably led by the save our silence action group. A large proportion of the routes into Stansted come from continental Europe, which presents an opportunity for adjustments to take place over the sea. As Mr. and Mrs. Warner of Newmarket said, the coast is less than 50 miles away. The Newmarket Horse Racing and Breeders Group, under the chairmanship of Alastair Watson, has also recommended a number of viable alternatives, which were submitted as part of the consultation process.

I have received many letters from constituents who believe that genuine public consultation has not taken place. Many have told me that even though they live directly under the flight paths they did not receive notification that consultation was under way. Many parish councils tell me they were not fully informed; they did not receive adequate information. Although I have held meetings with representatives of NATS, parish councils were apparently denied the opportunity to meet NATS officials. I believe that that was the pattern everywhere.

Mr. Andrew Ince, also of Newmarket, wrote to me complaining that the consultation process relied on people having access to the internet. As he points out, that is not necessarily the norm in rural areas. The alternative for those without a computer is to travel 7 or 9 miles to the nearest library. A constituent of mine, Ms Susanna Leoni-Smith of Wickhambrook, sums up the mood of many in West Suffolk in her letter to the Suffolk Free Press. She says:

"Yet again, a Government Agency demonstrates its complete disregard and lack of concern for rural affairs and businesses."

The situation that I have described cannot be allowed to happen. An alternative solution must be found on the ground of tranquillity for the county's residents, human and equine alike.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 2:53 pm, 2nd July 2008

I shall be brief, as I know that other hon. Members have a clear constituency interest. I shall concentrate on the consultation with regard to the Heathrow flight paths.

The NATS proposals for Heathrow narrow the flight paths. As a result, it calculates that 39,000 fewer people will be affected by noise. There will be an overall fall in numbers. The estimate from NATS is that the number of people in the 50 dB area around Heathrow would fall—these are precise figures—from 442,651 to 249,057. That is to be welcomed, but the problem is that there will be a more intensive use of those flight paths, and as a result those under the narrower flight paths will suffer more. The more intensive use of the air space will result in more noise. That will cause problems for a number of constituencies in London, including mine.

However, there is a fear that that coincides with Government thinking on the development of Heathrow. In advance of any development of a third runway or a sixth terminal, the question of runway alternation is being examined. If the idea of runway alternation is to be abandoned as an incremental development, in advance of a major decision on a third runway or sixth terminal, I would welcome a full and extensive consultation on the implications by NATS, to be instituted by the Government. The Cranford agreement on runway alternation at Heathrow provides respite for the constituents of many west London MPs. The shifting use of the two existing runways at least enables some of our constituents to have a break from the noise.

Hon. Members may think that they have problems now, as a result of the present consultation, but if the third runway and sixth terminal go ahead those problems will pale into insignificance because of the scale of projected growth. Growth at Heathrow is predicted to rise from the present capped level of 480,000 aircraft movements to more than 700,000, and some predict that it may rise to more than 800,000. With expanded flight paths, and with the runways being used more intensively, predictions are that the number of people suffering noise would increase by at least 150,000. As a result, those people and others would be subjected to an aircraft passing overhead every 90 seconds.

My concerns are about noise and air pollution, but after our recent experience at Heathrow I am concerned also about safety. It was a near miracle, when the last aircraft came down early at Heathrow, that it did not cause a major accident and that there was no injury or loss of life. Increasing the intensity of flight paths and narrowing them will bring us to the edge of asking questions about safety itself.

My main concern is about the development of Heathrow, the third runway and the sixth terminal. From what we know of the Government's consideration so far, that development will not go ahead if it does not meet the strict environmental limits set by the Government and the European Union. However, we now know more about the impact of air pollution.

On the potential expansion of Heathrow, will the Minister confirm that the Government are preparing to seek derogation from the European Union limits on air pollution, which will enable them to expand Heathrow without conflicting with those limits? Because it comes into the calculation on flight paths and the scale of development, I also ask whether any assessment has been made of the cost of the damage to local communities, the cost of compensation resulting from the impact of noise, and the relocation of homes, schools and communities that might be affected by the expansion? What consultations have taken place or are planned on that?

I have sympathy with hon. Members who have raised points about stud farms, but in my area we do not breed horses. We occasionally back them, but we do not breed them. There is a clear need for much more detailed analysis and research into the health consequences of the intense movement of aircraft above people's heads and the resulting noise and air pollution. I ask the Minister whether further studies have been commissioned on the health impact of such an extensive development, in connection with expansion at Heathrow and existing operations?

I caution hon. Members about the process. If we take Heathrow expansion as an example, the concern that we have expressed over the years about consultation is that, even if we feel that we are getting verification of the figures about the intensity of use of the flight paths, and even if we feel that we are getting substantive information, we have always found that calculations about expansion have been severely underestimated. The consequences of expansion and the more intensive use of flight paths have never really been taken into account when considering the impact upon our local communities.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:00 pm, 2nd July 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bercow—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

As I was saying, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow—that is now the third time that I have said that this week.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring on securing the debate, which is of considerable interest to many people in his constituency and certainly in mine. He set out very well not only the general background to the consultation undertaken by NATS, but the case as it applies specifically to his constituency. I am sure that the horse breeders of Newmarket and the surrounding areas will be grateful for his diligent work.

My involvement in the matter dates back to the publication of the NATS consultation. In The Times of that day, there was a map showing the noise preferential routes—to use the jargon—proposed in the NATS consultation. It was noticeable that the new noise preferential routes in the proposals would go through my constituency and between the towns of Tring and Berkhamsted, covering villages such as Northchurch, Aldbury and Wigginton. The article noted that the area of the country that would suffer most was the one that I have the privilege of representing.

I immediately looked through the proposals in the consultation document and wrote to NATS. To be fair, it responded very promptly, and I had a meeting with senior representatives in March. I told them—they did not particularly doubt my analysis, which extrapolated from the figures in the consultation—that the proposals would disadvantage many of my constituents in the towns and villages that I mentioned. I include Tring and Berkhamsted because although they are not overflown by the noise preferential routes, they will none the less suffer as a result of a number of the changes. The representatives of NATS accepted that there was an issue.

I warned NATS that my constituents were an able and articulate lot and that they would address the proposals in a thoughtful and intelligent way, and I am pleased to say that my constituents have lived up to that prediction. In a relatively short period, the various groups have come together, and there is now an umbrella organisation called the Chiltern countryside group. I pay tribute to the work that it has done in producing a detailed analysis of the proposals—we are not talking about a knee-jerk reaction, with people saying, "This is bad news. We don't like it."

The Chiltern countryside group contains people with the most extraordinary expertise, who come not only from my constituency, but from that of my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington, and I dare say that one or two also live in the constituency of Buckingham, Mr. Bercow. They include former air traffic controllers, pilots and people with great expertise regarding the Chiltern conservation area. The group has analysed some of the proposals, and I will return to that in a moment. It has made some quite constructive suggestions, and I hope that its technical submission will be examined by NATS and, where appropriate, the Civil Aviation Authority.

The consultation raises one or two issues, one of which is the timing. I am pleased that the end of the consultation period was extended from 22 May, as in the initial proposal, to 19 June. In my constituency—I suspect that this is not untypical—there has been a build-up of momentum as public interest has increased. There are certainly criticisms that NATS did not publicise the initial consultation as well as it might have. I have, as I have said, been involved in the issue from an early stage in my area, and have publicised it in the local newspaper. The Hemel Hempstead Gazette has done sterling work in publicising it, and public awareness has increased. There has been a range of meetings in Tring, Berkhamsted, Northchurch and Wigginton, some of which I have had the opportunity to attend. I wonder about the adequacy of the time frame, even if extended. There have been some excellent submissions from local groups, but I wonder whether more time would have allowed a stronger response to be made.

I want to make a couple of technical points about the consultation document. First, the question of the depiction of heights was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk. There is great uncertainty. Various height figures are given in the document, generally designating ranges such as 3,000 ft to 4,000 ft. However, it is not entirely clear what is being talked about. Paragraphs 11.6 to 11.9 state that the heights of routes are

"measured in different ways depending on where they are".

They go on to state that the measurement is taken

"from ground level at an airport, while further away from airports the measure is taken from sea level".

That is somewhat ambiguous, and it is a significant point, because by and large the flights that are of concern to my constituents are those that depart from Luton. Luton is 525 ft above sea level, but the villages that I represent tend to be higher. Wigginton, for example, is 690 ft above sea level. In the case of Wigginton, are the relevant heights measured from sea level, in which case the actual minimum height will be 2,310 ft, or should we be considering the Luton figure, in which case it is 2,835 ft? At such levels, there is quite a big difference between the two—a difference of 500-plus ft or so. One way or another it is quite significant.

Another criticism of the NATS proposals is that it is not obvious that it has taken into account ground levels when assessing particular routes. That point was touched on in the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. He also represents several villages that are very high up. Clearly flights overhead will create more noise for those villages than they will for villages at the bottom of a valley. That is a significant practical point.

My other criticism about the consultation document is about the issue of decibel levels. Several projections are included, but they appear to be very wide. It is helpful that the consultation document gives some examples of the noise level to which various decibel levels relate. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I do not really know what 60 dB means. One example in the document is that 85 dB is the equivalent of the sound made by a heavy diesel lorry at 25 mph, 23 ft away. That is precise and helpful. Another example is that a busy general office makes noise at a level of 60 dB. There is clearly a wide gap between those two noise levels. However, the noise range for flights by the noisiest aircraft at a height of 3,000 ft to 4,000 ft is 65 dB to 83 dB. There is clearly a big difference between the noise from a busy general office and that from a heavy diesel lorry 23 ft away travelling at 25 mph. Yet the ranges given, from which people are to assess what the noise levels from the flight paths will be, are not far short of a comparison between those two noise levels. That makes it difficult to assess what the impact will be.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said, there is much to be gained from flights. It is a fact of life and much of the concern about flights arises simply because there is an increase in their number. That point was made by John McDonnell. However, that is not the issue that is to be decided in the consultation, or the specific issue faced by my constituents in the areas I have mentioned. The concern is that, although there will be more flights, whether or not the flight paths change, aircraft will, under the proposals, be flying lower over my constituency. The reason is that as a rule the change in routes has meant flights moving further south than previously. As a consequence they are caught up in Heathrow traffic and are kept lower to allow flights from Heathrow to fly above them.

I have two suggestions to make about that. First, greater consideration could be given to the idea of simply moving flights further north. Work on that issue has been undertaken by the Chiltern countryside group. The point of the suggestion is not simply to move the problem into someone else's back yard—I say that with some nervousness, knowing who represents the constituency to the north-west of mine; once flights are moved a little further north they can climb more quickly. That is beneficial not just for noise pollution but environmentally. Once a flight has moved quickly up, it is more efficient. I am not aware of any disagreement on that.

The second possible solution to the problem involves the question of moving what is described as the Bovingdon stack. Bovingdon is a village in my constituency where arrivals for Heathrow are stacked. I have spoken to residents and the concern in Bovingdon is not particularly noise from the stack, which flies several thousand feet above; the impact is that flights departing from Luton are kept lower than they would otherwise be. I know that the question of moving the Bovingdon stack is being considered, and, indeed, if the third runway at Heathrow were ever to be implemented, it would have to happen. That is not an argument one way or the other, but given that the work has been done it is a pity that NATS has not included in its process the possibility of moving the Bovingdon stack. If it did, that might solve some of our problems.

That leads me to my final criticism of the consultation document, which is that it does not offer alternatives. It is very much a question of "Take it or leave it; here are our proposals". Those are either to stay as we are, which is not ideal for the purpose of dealing with flights over populated areas—a move is clearly in the best interest of such places as St. Albans, Hatfield and parts of Hemel Hempstead—or to go with the proposals. The detailed work done by NATS suggests that there are alternatives that would benefit those areas over which there are currently many flights, which would not result in more low-flying planes over the likes of Tring, Berkhamsted, Wigginton, Aldbury and Northchurch. It is therefore possible that we can do better. I hope and urge that NATS will be prepared to look again for improvements—and if the Minister can influence it in any way I ask him to take whatever action is necessary. There may be detailed technical points that it would not be appropriate to make today, and which it would be difficult to deal with without benefit of a map. However, changes could be made that would address my constituents' concerns and, I hope, reduce flight paths over other constituencies.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:29 pm, 2nd July 2008

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Gauke. He named a number of places that I know particularly well, as I was a borough councillor for Aldbury and Wigginton. I have probably met the very same people who have been lobbying him about the aircraft issues that he discussed. It shows that the issue is ongoing, and that a solution—although that is probably the wrong word to use—does not seem to be on the horizon. I hope that this debate will provide another opportunity for the Government to clarify where we are going.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring, who brought an interesting angle to this discussion. As the shadow Minister for tourism and for gambling, I take a particular interest in our flight paths, not only because of who is inside them and how people can get from the plane through the airport to their destination efficiently, but because we have one of the best horse racing industries in the world. We can say proudly that we hold eight of the top 12 international races. As my hon. Friend mentioned, those will be threatened if we are not careful about protecting the industry. It is the sport of kings; I hope that it does not become a sport of the Government to ignore that important industry.

The industry is important not just in the Newmarket area, but across the country, as my hon. Friend explained with some clarity. There are now some 60 horse racing tracks in the country. It is a thriving sport, but it is under threat. He mentioned football. From a betting perspective, racing is growing in popularity, as are international events abroad. If we do not harness, look after and nurture the racing industry, it will disappear. What has been identified today is Departments' lack of thinking about the knock-on consequences of avoiding considering the bigger picture.

We have had issues with the Tote, the levy and on-course bookies. The Government could be accused of not taking horse racing particularly seriously. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to rectify that, and say that he is interested in learning more about the impact on the racing industry of flights over the Newmarket area and elsewhere.

I should put it on record that I am a pilot. I am not a commercial airline pilot—I would have to declare that in the Register of Members' Interests—but a private pilot. I am aware of the issues of stacking, the length of flight paths and how long it takes to go on to finals to land at a runway. Like many other pilots around the world, I am flabbergasted that the UK decided to base our main international airport downwind of our capital city. That is madness, because it means that almost every single flight must go across the capital, upsetting the city every time.

The frequency with which flights now land at international airports, particularly Heathrow, has increased. Landings now take place every 60 seconds. We saw the chaos caused when a little fog crept into the UK only a year or so ago. There is no more capacity at Heathrow. Perhaps there is a bigger debate to be had about why we are investing so much money in particular airports and not looking at the bigger picture. The future is to spread out passenger and cargo airlift requirements more evenly around the country. It is not Conservative policy, but I would like to see an airport along the Thames estuary, where aircraft can land at will, upsetting no one but a few fish and birds. However, as I said, that might be for a different debate.

My hon. Friend focused on the impact on horse racing and raised some important questions about the consultation. I reiterate: what other options were placed on the table? What other considerations were put forward? We might be able to say, "Maybe Newmarket isn't the answer. Maybe we could consider something else as well." From my experience of the airlines, there is nothing wrong with having a stacking system over the sea. It could easily be done. Planes would simply have a long ride-in time on finals. It would not be a problem, but we do not even know whether that was considered, because the consultation does not allow it. I hope that the Minister will heed our requests to see the full set of evidence, so that we can make that judgment ourselves.

The future was mentioned. If things are busy now, where will they be in five to 10 years' time? We must consider that in advance, not just for the sake of the horse industry but for Britain as a whole. I have huge concerns about the lack of long-term planning. The plans are based around airports, without any thought for what other advanced countries, such as the United States, have done in building new airports. JFK in New York, for example, is that city's main international airport, but additional airports have been built to take extra capacity, so that everything does not happen at one airport.

That also has security implications. If something happens at Heathrow—whether it be natural, like the fog, or a security alert—London comes almost to a standstill, because there is no capacity to shift flights elsewhere. The matter is critical for our tourism industry. According to surveys of the business and international community, the biggest concern is what is now called the Heathrow experience. It is so frustrating to come through Heathrow that people deliberately avoid it to come through other airports.

I plead with the Minister to consider what is happening, to be honest about aspects of the consultation and to be aware of the importance of the racing industry to the UK. In my intervention, I stressed that it is much easier to be aware of noise in the countryside than in urban areas. That factor must have been considered in the consultation, but as I said, we are not fully aware of what evidence was presented.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I hope that things do not end here. I hope that the Government will begin to open their eyes to the bigger picture and take evidence from other parts of the industry, instead of simply arguing that tucking away stacking locations in rural rather than urban areas upsets fewer people.


Whilst the debate of the noise levels is interesting what appears to be missing is the frequency of the noise - where I live the planes overfly at the rate of three per minute at peak times - so whilst a noisy lorry going past is interesting the intrusion of a succession of noisy lorrys continually trundling past at all hours is not comforting, especially when the noise of the last is not past before the noise of the next arrives.

Submitted by mike beattie

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:37 pm, 2nd July 2008

I, too, congratulate Mr. Spring on securing this debate on such an important issue. Although I am not from London, I spent four years at university living under the flight path, including some time in the constituency of John McDonnell. I am well aware of the significant impact of flights on people living around London, and I believe that more can and should be done to reduce noise and air pollution from aircraft.

On the recent consultation by NATS, I want to make one point clear. Moving the flight paths around London will not solve the problems caused by air traffic. Aircraft will not produce any less noise or pollution, and their impact on people and the environment will not change. It will simply move the problem from one area to another. According to the November 2007 Government study "Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England", 2 million people live within the 50 dB area for Heathrow. According to the World Health Organisation, 50 dB is a noise level that causes annoyance. However much the Government want to distance themselves from the study's results, it shows that 2 million people live with annoyance-causing noise levels. An estimated 258,000 residents experience Heathrow noise levels of 57 dB or above, the level at which Government restrictions on noise begin and which constitutes serious annoyance according to the WHO.

However we look at it, noise is a significant and growing problem that the Government must take seriously. As the number of flights has grown in recent years, the problem has become more annoying, disturbing and intrusive. In Luton, for example, the number of noise complaints tripled between 2005 and 2006.

I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about the effect of aircraft noise on our young people, and I am conscious that many schools under flight paths are greatly disrupted by the constant impact of aircraft noise. In 2005, a team from Barts and the London NHS trust found that each 5 dB increase was linked to children being up to two months behind in their reading age. Surely that alone should convince the Government that they cannot shut their eyes to the effects of noise pollution on the population, and that strong regulation is needed to ensure that schools are protected from excessive noise pollution. Will the Minister confirm what plans are under way to tackle that problem?

I am very sceptical about claims that the plans will reduce the noise burden from aviation on the capital and its surrounding areas. The proposals state that moving the approach for London City airport will increase the number of people affected by noise by up to 11 per cent.; that changes at Stansted will affect 9 per cent.; and that many will suffer from more noise owing to the more intensive use of airspace—a point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The dilemma is that although the proposed changes to airspace use will undoubtedly benefit some people, others, especially those living in quiet rural areas with very little background noise, will suddenly have aircraft flying above them. Owing to the relative tranquillity of those areas, the new disturbance will arguably be more noticeable—a point made by other hon. Members.

The Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, which has been mentioned already, is an area of particular concern. Should not the skies of that beautiful area be protected as well as the ground? We therefore support the campaign to require aircraft to fly at higher altitudes over the AONB to limit the impact of noise and air pollution, or to be rerouted altogether. We are also concerned that the redrafting of airspace above London might be designed simply to create more capacity in our skies to allow for expansion on the ground. Under the proposals, Stansted would have two stacks rather than one. Do the Government envisage that Stansted will need two stacks because its planes will not be able to fit into the one it has already? Is it a coincidence that the air capacity of Stansted is planned to be increased just as BAA submits its planning application for an additional runway?

Wherever planes go there will be disruption and increased noise. Unless we stem the growth in the number of flights being taken, we cannot make a significant dent in the noise and air pollution that areas will have to suffer because of aircraft noise. The inescapable fact is that tinkering with flight paths does not solve the problem. If there is further expansion in the south-east, the number of planes, and therefore noise, will continue to increase significantly. That is why the Liberal Democrats oppose expansion of airports in the south-east. Clearly the Government disagree and continue to pursue the "predict and provide" policy with airports that the UK used to have towards roads. The history of that disastrous roads policy should indicate to us that using the same principles for airports will have the same effects. Of course, if airport space is provided, it will be filled. By increasing capacity in the airports and the sky, the Government are encouraging the generation of more flights, and the emissions that they cause—at a time when the Government have pledged to reduce our carbon emissions.

We are against further airport expansion in the south-east, but I should make special mention of the Heathrow expansion. We have put it on record previously, but it does no harm to reiterate that the Liberal Democrats are unequivocally opposed to the third runway, to the sixth terminal and to the end of runway alternation. The Government's proposals to use mixed mode would create 60,000 extra flights passing over London each year, while a third runway would increase the number of flights by 50 per cent. to 720,000, both of which would be contrary to the Government's promise that flight movements would not increase above 480,000. The noise that extra flights at Heathrow would create would place an additional, and in some cases unbearable, burden on the residents under flight paths. The abolition of runway alternation and introduction of mixed mode alone will take away the respite from passing aircraft.

We are all now aware of the reports that the consultation paper on the Heathrow expansion was reverse-engineered and that evidence was chosen and "reforecast" to obtain the results that the Government wanted—that a third runway would not adversely affect the air or noise pollution. Even the Environment Agency does not believe that the Department for Transport's consultation document is robust enough to support the construction of another runway. If the figures have been fiddled on that paper, how are we to know that future consultation papers dealing with airport expansion will not be changed in the same way?

The fifth terminal was given permission on the understanding that it would not lead to a third runway, but already—only a few months after the terminal has opened—proposals for another runway have been put forward. The Government are quick to talk about sustainability, but when it comes to standing up to BAA they seem to lack conviction.

Our position on the expansion of Stansted is the same: we cannot and should not sustain more planes in the south-east. Stansted handles about 190,000 flights a year, but BAA wants to increase that to 260,000 on the existing runway and then, by opening a second runway in 2015, raise the capacity to more than 500,000 flights a year. Again, the impact of those flights on the community around Stansted should not be underestimated. Thousands of people will have their quality of life damaged by increased numbers of overhead flights, and much more needs to be done to protect their interests.

Although the rest of the Government's policy is designed to drive down carbon emissions by making a 60 or 80 per cent. cut by 2050, aviation is not included in that target. We firmly believe that it should be. Air transport already produces about 5.6 per cent. of emissions, and the proportion of carbon emissions from aviation has doubled since 1990 and is well on its way to producing a quarter of UK emissions by 2038. If urgent action is not taken now, air traffic will prevent the UK from reducing its carbon emissions to tackle the urgent problem of climate change.

As I stated at the beginning of my contribution, only by taking a stand against unlimited expansion can we tackle the problem of air traffic over London and its surrounding countryside. The NATS proposals do not do enough to protect residents around London. While recognising that there will always be some disruption caused by air traffic, the Government have a duty to ensure that communities get a fair deal that minimises the impact of aircraft noise and ensures that noise and pollution do not continue to make their lives unbearable.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:47 pm, 2nd July 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. We have had a good debate so far, and in particular I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring, not just on obtaining this debate, but on a very thoughtful and powerful opening speech, in which he made clear the real concerns of his constituents and his constituency's principal industry about the proposals. We also heard interesting contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who is himself a pilot. We also heard a characteristically blunt contribution from John McDonnell.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Blunt, but effective.

The NATS proposals for terminal control north involve some of the UK's busiest airports. Work started in 2004 when it was assessed that current capacity was unlikely to be able to accommodate the future growth of air traffic within the region. NATS itself says:

"The region is one of the most complex areas of airspace in the world, with routes in and out of major airports including Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City as well as smaller airports such as Southend and RAF Northolt".

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk gave a detailed account of the statistics for aviation growth in the south-east as a whole and, in particular, from Stansted and Luton. I shall not repeat all his statistics, but like him I admire the aviation industry. Aviation contributes more than 2 per cent. of our gross domestic product and employs 200,000 people directly and a further 600,000 indirectly. It remains one of the few areas of engineering in which UK plc still has a world-leading presence.

Air travel is an integral part of the lives of the vast majority of people in the UK, like downloadable music and community-based websites such as Facebook. The availability of cheap air travel has brought the world to our doorstep and allowed our citizens to enjoy a degree of travel inconceivable a couple of generations ago. However, the current rate of aviation growth cannot continue. The gap between the 5 to 6 per cent. that people were predicting, pre-recession, and the 1.5 to 2 per cent. that we could achieve in annual carbon dioxide emission savings has to be closed somehow. The Government's predict and provide approach to airports, which Mr. Leech mentioned, is part of the problem.

We all know that NATS has a huge responsibility. The great growth in aviation in the south-east means that our skies are becoming more crowded, so everyone accepts the need for a re-examination of the issue. However, I wonder whether NATS was the right body to undertake a consultation of that size and complexity. It has carried out a number of consultations before, but never on that scale. Putting to one side the grossly confusing name, terminal control north, which means very little to most people, the relevant area affects a population of up to 12 million people—more than with the Heathrow consultation, in which NATS had only a subsidiary role.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk has explained in some detail, the proposals in the consultation would create areas in which there will be multiple stacks over land—in some cases, as low as 4,000 ft—with aircraft to Luton crossing over aircraft for Stansted. In some cases, crosses will occur as frequently as once a minute. An immediate contrast with the Heathrow consultation is that, for all its unsatisfactory nature, the Heathrow consultation at least involved alternative proposals. As all my hon. Friends have said, it is extraordinary that this document contained no alternative proposals. We know that NATS considered alternative proposals, but none of them has been published.

I was grateful for the opportunity to meet representatives from NATS, and I asked them about the alternative of stacking over the sea. They said that it would have implications for efficiency and military flying, which was mentioned earlier, and that it would involve pushing large numbers of aircraft out to the limits of airspace. I am not sufficiently well qualified to comment on that, but if NATS had at least published, as an alternative, the option of stacking over the sea, people who have specialist advisers would have had the opportunity to evaluate the pluses and minuses. What about other options over land? NATS has not consulted the general public; it consulted only so-called key stakeholders such as MPs, local councils, airport consultative committees, environmental groups, business organisations and airlines, of course. The process then relied on an indirect dissemination of information to local people, if at all.

My hon. Friend mentioned that large numbers of people who will be affected have heard nothing about the matter. I am told that NATS has been reluctant to provide paper copies of the consultation document, and that people could get hold of it only online—although that version worked only for those with broadband—or by visiting their local library. People have had problems with trying to reply to the NATS website consultation and with the postcode finder. There were also errors in the consultation. For example, figure G50 has been labelled as referring to Luton, but it actually refers to Stansted. There have also been technical problems with online responses. For example, the "Stop Stansted" campaign tells me that respondents were not allowed to be neutral on the question asking whether arrivals should fly by "direct flight path" or by "specified routes". People might have strong views on some aspects of the consultation but have no view on that, but if one did not express a view on that point, the system crashed and one was taken back to the start of what was a very complicated process.

I am not being frivolous when I mention the complications that have occurred when people have tried to respond to that process, because they come on top of the fact that this area is technically complex and difficult to understand. One gentleman who was kind enough to brief me showed me why some of the diagrams were quite difficult even for him—a retired airline pilot—to interpret. They had confusing colours that printed out differently from how they appeared on the screen.

Will the Minister tell us how many paper copies of the Heathrow consultation have been handed out and how many public meetings have been held? How many of the 12 million people who might be affected by the plans have been able to respond?

Flying is vital to our country, but there are two great environmental problems linked to it: climate change and noise. Of course, with noise, there are also issues to do with NOx—oxides of nitrogen. Many people who live close to airports and along flight paths, or who are potentially affected by the changes, feel that decisions are consulted on after they have been taken. They feel that they have absolutely no real say over something that has the potential to blight, or that already blights, their lives.

The Government have sought to stifle intelligent debate on serious aviation issues such as flight-path reorganisation or the expansion of Heathrow, Stansted and regional airports. The NATS consultation, like the Heathrow one before it, has done nothing to reverse that sense of "them versus us"—the aviation industry and the Government versus the citizen. What we need is proper co-operation. In this case, the production of a reasonably understandable document that contained clear alternatives, showing the pluses and minuses, and that was much more widely available, could have taken us some way towards that.

I have said repeatedly that the Conservative party would like a commercial flights officer position to be created. The post-holder would act as an ombudsman for formal complaints about noise, whom people could approach via their MPs. The ombudsman would have the power to compel NATS, airports and other bodies that are concerned with the movement of aircraft to co-operate in investigations. The ombudsman would have powers to name and shame, to monitor quality and to publish details of noise abatement and compensation schemes. That simple and extremely cheap measure would give people a voice—it would not be used irresponsibly because MPs would have to be part of the process—and a feeling that their views and concerns matter.

My office tells me that we have had more letters on the NATS proposals for the reorganisation of terminal control north than on any other aviation issue. Those letters express deep concerns about what people's quality of life will be if the proposals go through, and an overwhelming feeling of being disfranchised. Many people have complained that they did not hear about the proposal until it was too late. NATS claims that 20 per cent. fewer people will be affected by noise from departing aircraft flying below 4,000 ft, but the consultation document confirms that the number of people affected by noise levels of 57 dB, which the Government consider to be a level that causes significant disturbance, will more than double near to Luton, and will increase by 9 per cent. near to Stansted.

The Government have tied the hands of NATS, showing once again what a mess they have got themselves into over aviation and the environment by adopting a predict and provide approach to aviation expansion. The document states:

"Whilst NATS recognises that aircraft above 7000ft...may well still be audible, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions has taken priority over the overflight of population centres".

That basically means that we are going to sacrifice aircraft noise considerations for climate change considerations, instead of looking at the issue in the round.

The Government have again ignored their own ANASE—"Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England"—report, which was mentioned earlier. As several hon. Members have said, that report makes it absolutely clear that people in quiet areas are inherently much more aggravated by noise than those in noisy areas. We sometimes hear planes going over the House of Commons, but the disturbance is mitigated by the noise that is already here. In contrast, in an area with low ambient noise—the Government's own study confirms this—people are much more heavily affected by aeroplane noise. The consultation document is very blunt, and effectively bins the report. The Government guidance says:

"Government policy will continue to focus on minimising over-flight of more densely populated areas below 7,000ft".

In other words, shift it to rural areas.

Under the proposals, perhaps fewer people will be overflown, but the guidance forces a disproportionate blight on those living in rural areas. Peaceful areas such as the Chilterns have been mentioned by my hon. Friends. For the first time, the historic city of Cambridge will hear the roar of jet engines overhead. I was relieved to hear that Oxford, so far, remains untouched.

The fate of Newmarket race course and the concentration of world-class stud farms around it have played a pivotal part in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk. As he rightly said, they account for a third of all jobs in Newmarket. However, the impact is not just on Newmarket. As the hub of Britain's highly successful racing and bloodstock industries, the proposals have the capability to strike at a highly successful local, regional and national industry.


4000 FT over a built up area such as SE London would be a blessing.

Since altering the flight paths without so much as fig of concern, Traffic for London City Airport comes in between 1500-2500 ft (often at 1500 and sometimes lower) and is also 'hot' (not throttled back and cruising in quietly). When craft do throttle back they do so at the last moment which leads to a very disturbing howl, often confused with military aicraft or an air tragedy in the making. The turbo-propeller aircraft are not much better. Compare this with the start-up promise of London City Airport traffic being of careful and innocuous 'whisper jets'.

Submitted by P.D.James Chimonides

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. I know that, in the interests of an equal distribution of time with the Minister who will be asked to reply to the debate, the hon. Gentleman will be bringing his remarks to a close within a matter of seconds.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Indeed, Mr. Bercow. Given that such an important issue is being so badly handled, is it any wonder that the aviation debate has polarised? We need a proper consultation with published alternatives, and one that does not devastate an industry.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:01 pm, 2nd July 2008

It is pleasure to see you presiding today, Mr. Bercow, and thank you very much for the protection. However, I am pleased to follow Mr. Brazier, and I know that his usual protocol would be to give to the Front-Bench spokesman an equal share of time in which to respond to this very interesting and useful debate.

I begin by congratulating Mr. Spring on securing the debate and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions. I will make some opening remarks and then try to respond to some of the points that were made, because it is important to put the Department's position on the record.

The Government's commitment to sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment is at the heart of the Department's aviation policy-making process. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, there is a balance to be struck between tackling environmental challenges, enabling people to fly, and allowing the industry to compete internationally. The role of any decision-maker in relation to airspace changes is to find the right balance.

The terminal control north airspace change proposal is subject to consultation response analysis under the Civil Aviation Authority's independent airspace change process. As part of that regulatory process, the CAA might seek the Secretary of State's approval for the change. It would, therefore, be premature of me to offer comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is subject to the rigours of this independent regulatory process.

However, I will give some background to the proposals and the current consultation, and explain the process by which changes to UK airspace are made. As many hon. Members have said today, the airspace known as terminal control north is among the most complex in the world, with routes in and out of major airports, including Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as smaller airports such as Southend and RAF Northolt.

Increasing air traffic has led to congestion in the airways, resulting in delays and extra fuel burn. The proposed changes are designed to reduce delay, maintain safety and improve environmental performance. I must stress that the proposal is not associated with, and does not assume, future development at Heathrow, Stansted or any other airport. I know that Heathrow and Stansted have featured quite strongly in the comments from some hon. Members this afternoon.

It is business as usual for NATS which, under the terms of its operating licence, is obliged to make the most efficient use of overall airspace. The consultation by NATS—it is not the Government's consultation, as Mr. Ellwood said—on terminal control north is the largest of its kind to be undertaken. As the hon. Member for Canterbury said, the affected region has a population of 12.6 million. NATS directly consulted more than 3,000 primary stakeholders, including MPs, county, borough, district and parish councils, environmental organisations, and chambers of commerce.

Before the launch of the consultation, NATS arranged briefings for local MPs and national and regional media. To make information accessible for the general public, NATS divided the consultation region into five areas. Consultation materials for each area were colour-coded to help people locate the information relevant to them. Materials included a consultation document, an information DVD, summary leaflets for each of the five areas and a dedicated website.

In response to concerns that there was not enough time to consider the details of the proposals, NATS extended by four weeks the consultation period, thus giving interested parties a full 17 weeks in which to consider the proposals and register their views.

NATS is now examining the consultation responses. I understand that some of the key areas of concern that have been highlighted are the proposed route changes west of Luton airport and over the Chilterns, the proposed new holds near Newmarket and Southminster, and changes to noise-preferential routes north of Stansted airport, all of which have been mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon.


Jim Fitzpatrick's opening remarks suggest that economic growth and environmental considerations need to be balanced. Leaving aside whether economic growth deserves such high priority it is worth considering which areas of the economy should be encouraged to grow and which should be recognised as economic cul-de-sacs and unsustainable.

It is clear that recent growth in aviation has been fueled by cheap oil and that priority should now be given to other economic activity that will be sustainable and thrive in the new circumstances of increasingly high oil prices.

It is foolish to balance the needs of environmental protection against the needs of economic growth in a sector in which such growth is unsustainable.

Submitted by John Byng

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will continue with my responses to the points that have been raised. If I have time after that, I will be very happy to take interventions.

NATS is looking in detail at those and other concerns and investigating whether adjustments can be made to accommodate them. It might be helpful if I now explain the procedure for making changes to airspace in the UK.

Airspace planning and regulation is the responsibility of the independent regulator, the CAA. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA's airspace change process. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting on a proposal for an airspace change, ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety standards, improves capacity and mitigates, as far as practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department's environmental guidance to the CAA, as mentioned by the hon. Member for West Suffolk.

Informed by the consultation, the airspace change sponsor must then submit its proposal to the CAA. It is the CAA that then assesses the formal proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives, and either approves or rejects the proposal. If the CAA considers that a proposal could have a detrimental effect on the environment, it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport. It must refrain from making the airspace change without first securing her approval. Therefore, airspace changes are made only when it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue or where the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issues of aircraft noise, air quality and visual impact. Let me assure him that I recognise that, at a local level, those are issues of significant concern. That is why the CAA's guidance on the airspace change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will appreciate that the development of UK airspace has to take place within a number of immobile constraints, such as the geographic location of airports.

The hon. Gentleman is also rightly concerned about the impact of the proposal on the horse-racing industry. Let me say that we fully recognise the importance of that industry and its value to the local and the UK economy. I know that representatives of the industry have submitted their concerns to NATS in response to their consultation, and that NATS will give them due consideration.

I come now to the hon. Gentleman's points regarding the height and location of the proposed new holds. As I have already said, I am unable to comment on the detail of the NATS proposal, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is right that local residents were given the opportunity to raise those concerns in response to the consultation. NATS is now analysing all the responses received and considering whether any changes can be made to accommodate them.

My hon. Friend John McDonnell raised the question of the Heathrow consultation and alternation as well as mixed mode, the Cranford agreement and adding third runway capacity. The consultation on Heathrow already covers alternation and mixed mode. Obviously they will be examined in the consideration of the responses that have been received. As he knows, the responses are now subject to independent analysis. An airspace change consultation by NATS would have to follow any decision to produce with mixed mode or a third runway.

My hon. Friend also asked about derogation of EU quality limits. I can tell him that the EU is likely to seek derogation. I will write to him with the exact details. However, that derogation is in line with derogations being sought by many other EU member states and it has nothing to do with the Heathrow added-capacity situation and will be resolved by 2013-14, well in advance of any additional capacity that may arise out of the Heathrow consultation. As I say, I will write to him with the details.

Mr. Gauke raised a question about the lack of clarity in paragraphs 11.6 to 11.9. I can reassure him that the CAA will assess the NATS proposal, including the documentary evidence against regulatory requirements, and it is also for the CAA to consider the adequacy of the consultation material, as well as the issues that are submitted. He also expressed a hope that the Chiltern countryside group submission would be looked at closely by the CAA and I hope that I have reassured that that submission will certainly be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised a number of points about Heathrow in expressing his views about our consultation, which concluded earlier this year. I certainly agree with him that issues about Heathrow are not for this debate, but it would obviously be foolish not to expect Heathrow to creep into any debate on aviation. However, if he looks at the material that we produced for the Heathrow consultation and the 2003 White Paper, he will certainly find the answers to a number of the questions that he put. The air transport White Paper committed us to making the best use of capacity at regional airports. A number of options were suggested by the industry prior to the White Paper; we agreed that there should be new runways in the south-east at Heathrow and Stansted, subject to meeting environmental conditions.

However, contrary to the allegations made by Mr. Leech—I think that he agreed with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and, forgive me for saying so, the hon. Member for Canterbury that this is some kind of "predict and provide" policy—there were bids for 15 runways, and the Government approved only four, only two of which were in the south-east. This policy is not about "predict and provide", and certainly we are addressing the question of emissions. In fact, we are leading the world in respect of including aviation in the emissions trading scheme.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will probably be able to give way in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to respond to the points that other hon. Members have made. As I was saying, we are confident that the European Union will introduce aviation into its emissions trading scheme by 2012.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk and other hon. Members raised the question about other options not being given consideration. Under the independent airspace change process, it is for NATS to develop and to consult upon its proposals. It is then for the CAA to assess the proposals, including, as I mentioned earlier, the adequacy of the consultation materials and whether other options were proposed against regulatory requirements.

I have responded to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, in rejecting his allegations that we have a "predict and provide" policy. I also reject his allegations that we have engaged in reverse engineering. What we have done is to demonstrate that the robust environmental standards that we are laying down for Heathrow can be accommodated, because of the evidence that we published as part of the consultation material.

The hon. Member for Canterbury asked if NATS was equipped to carry out the consultation and he raised the point that it has never before carried out a consultation that is quite so big. Our view is that NATS is equipped to carry out the consultation. Yes, it is the biggest consultation that it has ever carried out, but, as I have said before, if the CAA considers that the proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment, it must advise the Secretary of State of the likely impact of the plans. It would ensure that that impact is kept to a minimum and it would refrain from making airspace change without first getting the Secretary of State's approval.

I have perhaps 20 seconds to give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Minister has said little to help us understand about the issue of stacking over the sea; that is the issue that we need to ask about. Why cannot Stansted airport have its stacking system to the east? That way, it would not affect the area over Newmarket.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I think that I have said several times during my remarks that this matter is one for the CAA to consider. It may very well determine that the alternatives have not been fully examined and it may also very well determine that the consultation has not been satisfactory. It is for the CAA to determine whether or not the proposals are adequate.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but we must now move on to the next debate.