Sir George led a debate in the House of Commons about a new flight path over his constituency, which has caused widespread local concern. “In the light of what the Minister said, I will be contacting the CAA to get their reaction to the points the Minister made about the consultation and the impact of the proposed flight path on many sensitive areas.”
Below are Sir George’s speech and the Ministers response.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to raise in the House my constituents’ concern about proposals for a new flight path into Southampton and Bournemouth airports. NATS—National Air Traffic Services—has proposed additional controlled airspace from Newbury to Romsey, where aircraft may fly as low as 5,500 ft. Flights would be permitted between 5.30 in the evening and 9.30 in the morning. At this stage, the proposal would only affect inbound flights from next April, but if approved it could be extended to outgoing and therefore noisier flights. Indeed, the document says:
“Bournemouth outbounds may also be positioned in this space.”
There seems to be no scope for limiting the number of movements using controlled airspace once it has been designated. The proposals have been opposed by Hampshire county council, Basingstoke and Deane district council, 18 parish councils, the council of partners of the north Wessex downs area of outstanding natural beauty, New Forest national park authority and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. I am grateful to Professor Johnnie Johnson and Alan Cox of Ashmansworth parish council and to councillors Horace Mitchell and Clive Sanders for their work in challenging these proposals.
Despite those powerful objections—more than 500 were made—NATS has asked the Civil Aviation Authority to accept the proposals without amendment later this month. In a letter dated 2 October, the Minister, whom I welcome to the Dispatch Box, told me:
“the change sponsor must submit a report to the CAA who will consider the proposal against regulatory requirements. As appropriate, this might include seeking the views of the Secretary of State for transport on environmental matters.”
I will show that those regulatory requirements have not been kept to. This evening’s debate is apt because at the end of this month the CAA is due to take a decision, in which the Minister has a role, and today the Prime Minister sought to underline his Government’s environmental credentials.
There are two questions. First, was the consultation process fit for purpose? Secondly, has the case for change been made? First, on process, what NATS did might have been appropriate some 20 years ago, when concern about environmental issues was lower, there was less commitment to consulting and getting feedback, and parish councils were less engaged in the planning process. We lived then in a less participatory society. But today, when there is a proposal such as this, that process is no longer fit for purpose. MPs should be offered a briefing in the House, NATS should write directly to parish and town councils, the document should be intelligible and conform to recent guidelines, and NATS should be prepared to put on roadshows for those who want them.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on a matter that affects large parts of his constituency and only a small part of mine, around the villages of Ham and Shalbourne, although the people there are very concerned. Does he agree that the real outrage about what is happening is that whereas a local planning authority can, as has happened in such cases, stop noise pollution in areas such as Ham and Shalbourne in relation to glider launches or motocross, when something of this sort is proposed there is no local control at all over what happens.
Sir George Young: My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. There is less protection for what may be a noisier development than there is for the developments that he has just described. Indeed, he has put his finger on a point that was in the Government’s White Paper, “A better quality of life—strategy for sustainable development in the UK”. That proposed more openness, transparency and accountability in the decision-making process. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend.
In May, a document landed on my desk, entitled “Terminal control south west airspace development”, which I nearly binned because I do not regard North-West Hampshire as being in the south-west. It came with a letter dated 4 May, containing a list of organisations that the CAA had identified for consultation, which included MPs. It said:
“Identified organisations are requested to cascade this information to related groups as deemed necessary.”
In other words, responsibility for consulting the parish councils was subcontracted by NATS to local MPs. Although local authorities also had that obligation, none of my parish councils were notified by them, and NATS made no attempt to see if the cascade they asked for had taken place. Indeed, one parish councillor e-mailed me on 8 August, two days before the consultation was formally ended, saying:
“It was only by chance, nearly two weeks ago, that a local resident, on browsing the web, discovered that consultation was taking place. On investigation, it was clear that no Parish or Town Councils, local residents, or even Borough or County Councillors in the area north of Ashmansworth had heard of the proposals.”
The document flies in the face of the January 2002 Department for Transport guidance to the CAA, CAP 725, which states that the formal proposal must include
“the options that have been considered, including the ‘do nothing’ option.”
But there was no assessment in the document of other options. That point was well made by Basingstoke and Deane borough council, which said:
“It would also aid our consideration of these proposals if you will please provide details of the alternative options that were considered by NATS. The CAA Guidance states that this information should have formed part of the original Consultation document. It would also be helpful to have further detail regarding the pattern and nature of the delays (current and anticipated) that are intended to be alleviated or mitigated by the proposed extension”.
That was written on 10 August and it got no answer, so it wrote again, saying:
“it is disappointing that we have received either no further information at all (as regards the pattern and nature of delays that are intended to be alleviated or mitigated by the Consultation) or inadequate information (as regards alternative options—your response dated 17 August 2007 lists five other options that were dismissed—but there is no reasoning as to why they were dismissed.”
On process, Hampshire county council was equally dismissive:
“We would also recommend an improved consultation process which sets out the alternatives and their implications for the matters of concern set out above. Until that time, the County Council is registering an objection to the proposed airspace extension.”
There is no appeal against CAA decisions—unlike the other planning matters to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred—so it is particularly important that guidance be adhered to.
The document was not only incomplete; it was rather difficult to follow. Hampshire county council, a beacon authority, said this about it:
“The County Council and its local government partners are not resourced to determine specialist technical impacts in areas such as aircraft noise impacts, and this is a deficiency in the consultation documents. Equally the local community has been provided with little notice of the consultation and we believe that this is also a serious deficiency of the process.”
Basingstoke and Deane council agreed:
“As mentioned in our 10 August letter, there is a very significant groundswell of local concern about NATS’ failure to properly consult all Stakeholders and to produce a Consultation document written in plain English and readily understandable to those being consulted.”
There is a map on page 5 of the document, in the section on noise impact, which implies that the land between Minstead and East Woodhay is flat, whereas some communities are 800 ft up, and are therefore closer to the source of noise from aircraft flying overhead.
The language used by NATS is at times impenetrable. Finally on the subject of process, the document is based on a rough estimate of the number of aircraft that might be directed down the new flight path, and on the current limited usage of Southampton and Bournemouth airports. However, both airports are scheduled for major expansion, and that fact is not reflected in the NATS assessment. Both airports currently have restricted night flying hours, which could easily change; in other words, flights might not stop in the new corridor at midnight.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I bring my right hon. Friend’s attention to a point that concerns my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), and myself? The national park authority’s briefing note on the issue says:
“NATS have repeatedly claimed that the proposed airspace is not associated with...expansion of services at any of the regional airports. This is contrary to their presentations to local authorities and the aviation industry”.
NATS previously stated that
“one of the drivers for the airspace development is the anticipated growth at all the airports located in the South East region.”
There seems to be a certain amount of dissembling going on.
Sir George Young: I am glad that I gave my hon. Friend a slot, so that his intervention could land safely. It was well made, and underlines the point that the new flight path, once granted, could cope with a greater volume of traffic than the one on which the consultation paper was based.
Those failures of process would be enough in themselves to invalidate the proposal for a new flight path. The Minister should make that clear tonight.
However, when that is coupled with the second and substantive point—that the case for extending the air space has not been made—the case for rejection becomes unanswerable. The consultation paper could not have been clearer:
“This airspace change aims to reduce the level of flight delays caused by an area of complex traffic interaction in the vicinity of the Compton VOR (a navigation beacon near Newbury).”
“This situation causes the...airspace to be responsible for a high level of delay which in turn causes inconvenience ... inefficiency ... and ... a negative environmental impact.”
Later on we are told that the delay attributable to that is 15,000 minutes. The consultation paper says:
“It is NATS’ duty under the terms of its operating licence to address this situation and prevent excess delays being generated in the future.”
That is the case for change, but all attempts to get behind those figures were rebuffed. Ashmansworth parish council pounced on that weakness:
“The Consultation document claimed that the primary reason for the proposed changes was to minimise delay. We have requested a breakdown of these delays (such as extent and timing) to judge their significance, but have received no reply on this.”
In a telephone conversation with NATS, one of my constituents was told that NATS was concerned with delays in flights going to Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as in those going to Southampton and Bournemouth. Fifteen thousand minutes sounds a lot; but it is the total delay for the whole year spread over every flight, which equates to about 10 seconds per flight. The proposals’ impact on such delays might be even less, as the new flight path would operate for only part of the day.
That raises other questions. Could such delays be reduced in other ways, by altering the timing or sequence of flights? NATS has made no mention of technological developments that might well impact on aircraft spacing, allowing a higher density without changing the flight paths. Then there are some weasel words in the document. The proposals will not reduce the delay; they will
“reduce the potential for delay”.
We are not told by how much the delay would be reduced if proposals go ahead. On that shaky, unsubstantiated and unquantified edifice rests the whole case.
By the time we got to the end of the consultation process, with the “Stakeholder Consultation Feedback”, there was no mention of delays. In that document NATS shifted its ground and instead said:
“This proposed airspace development is aimed at reducing complexity within the TCSW region.”
Ashmansworth parish council has pointed out that
“the recent response from NATS makes no mention of delays and refers only to a desire to reduce complexity, which appears not to be a valid reason in CAP 725, without giving any figures for present complexity or how it compares with other regions of the UK.”
If the benefits are doubtful, the disbenefits are clear, and many are indeed conceded by NATS. The consultation document says:
“The worst case B747 aircraft in the airspace produced maximum noise levels of between 62 and 69 decibels. B737-300s destined for Bournemouth Airport will use this airspace several times per day”
and they produce
“noise levels in the range 61-63 decibels. This...contrasts with what the Government have just said about Heathrow.”
This is what the Government said:
“One interpretation of this is that we could abandon the existing restriction on noise levels at Heathrow Airport of 57 decibels and above. But I believe it is right that we retain this as a safeguard for those most affected by aircraft noise.”
There are also the downsides of noise, loss of tranquillity and visual intrusion, and the impact in villages quite high up on the north Wessex downs from civil aircraft where there are none at the moment. The proposed flight path covers highly environmentally sensitive areas—not only the north Wessex downs but the Test valley and the New Forest national park. Those who represent the north Wessex downs area of outstanding natural beauty has made it quite clear that:
“The proposed changes would be detrimental to the special character and qualities of the area.”
What should happen now? I believe that the Minister should tell the CAA that he is not satisfied with this exercise, and that NATS should go back to the drawing board. There is no urgency about this, and no critical issue of safety. I do not see how the Minister can just tick this one through. Basingstoke and Deane council has said:
“We would strongly recommend to NATS and to the Civil Aviation Authority that the Consultation be reopened—not only with a longer and more realistic time frame, but also with much more ‘user-friendly’ and understandable Consultation documents.”
Hampshire county council agrees:
“In our view, the need for additional airspace has not been adequately proven since the benefits seem modest, and alternatives should be considered fully, including ‘do nothing’ and local stakeholders fully consulted on all the options. In considering these factors, NATS and the CAA should be mindful of the probable uptake of the available airspace by increased numbers of aircraft movements.”
I look to the Minister tonight to restore the credibility and integrity of the consultation process, for which he is ultimately accountable, and to say that this is not good enough.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing the debate, and to thank him for the leadership that he has shown to me and to communities in my constituency such as Inkpen, Kintbury, Coombe and West Woodhay, and others that are alarmed by this proposal.
I want to take just a few seconds to reaffirm some of the points that my right hon. Friend has made. The consultation was undoubtedly flawed. When I received the document, I contacted National Air Traffic Services and asked it to send the document to every parish council in my constituency that would be affected. In a letter to me of 24 May, it refused to do so. I then contacted the parish councils and told them how to access the document via the internet. The problem was that the parish councils and members of the public had access only to the online document, and they could not read the last appendix, which details the estimated altitude of flights over their villages. The councils were therefore denied the full information that they needed in this process.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that, according to the response document, 56 per cent. of responses were rejections and only 9 per cent. contained no objection at all. In the final submission, however, not one of the original proposals had been even slightly tweaked. There has been no real explanation of why this extra airspace is needed at night, or why there is a need for more flights. If flights do not have to go over the area during the day, there must also be an alternative for night-time flights.
My right hon. Friend made an important point about noise levels. The consultation document refers to the impact on people of the aircraft noise, which according to one appendix will be equivalent to that of a car travelling at 60 kph 7 m away. The document does not, however, distinguish between such noise occurring in an urban environment with a lot of traffic and in a tranquil, rural environment. Some of the villages that my right hon. Friend and I represent are also quite high above sea level.
I hope that the Minister will address the conflicting responses that we are getting, including in a letter from the Secretary of State about the effects on Heathrow. The 57 dB limit seems very important to her, and follows detailed analysis. We are now talking about a minimum of 61 dB, rising considerably higher with certain other aircraft. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing the debate. Before I attempt to answer the points that have been raised, I would like to restate that sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment are at the heart of the Department’s aviation policy-making processes. The policy that we set out in the 2003 air transport White Paper and reaffirmed in the 2006 progress report is in line with both the Stern report and the Eddington study. We recognise that a balance must be struck between tackling environmental challenges, enabling people to fly and allowing the industry to compete internationally. As a former distinguished Transport Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the role of any decision maker on airspace changes is to find the right balance in going forward.
Turning to the ongoing terminal control south west airspace change development, I would like to make it clear at the outset that that proposal is still subject to the Civil Aviation Authority’s independent airspace change process. As part of the regulatory process, the CAA might consider seeking the Secretary of State’s view on environmental aspects of the proposal and also seek her approval for the change. As such, it would be inappropriate and premature for me to offer comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is still subject to the rigours of this independent regulatory review process. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for not being able to offer the more substantive response that I know he wanted me to make.
That being said, I think that it would be helpful if I summarised the sequence of events to date and provided clarity on the process of airspace change. In May this year, National Air Traffic Services began a 14-week public consultation on proposals to extend a portion of airspace termed the terminal control south west airspace development. The consultation was undertaken in accordance with CAA guidance. I shall turn to the details of the CAA’s airspace change process in a few moments, although I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed strong views about the validity of the process.
Sir George Young: I am sorry to arrest the Minister in mid flight, but would he be concerned if the guidance that his Department had set out, which needs to be pursued for proposals such as this one, had not been followed?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I will express my view about the guidance in a few moments. At the moment, the best I can offer are the words that I have just used: I fully acknowledge the strong comments of the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends about the validity of the process. That is clearly on the record this evening.
Following a large number of replies received near the end of the consultation period, NATS extended the consultation into the middle of September. That was done to ensure that all interested parties were given adequate opportunity to comment. NATS then undertook an analysis of all responses, which was forwarded to all who responded to the consultation and has been placed on the NATS website. That analysis, along with all consultation materials, was then submitted on 21 September by NATS to the CAA for regulatory review. The CAA will give regulatory approval for the airspace change only if all regulatory requirements are met. I understand that the CAA’s decision is expected in January 2008. If approved, the proposed change would be implemented on 10 April 2008.
I have stated already that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of the proposal at this stage, but I would like to take this opportunity to restate NATS’s aims for the development. NATS stated in its consultation materials that the proposed development aims to enhance the safety and efficiency of air traffic control procedures. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that aviation safety must remain paramount. The UK air transport industry, and NATS in particular, has an excellent safety record, and accident rates have stayed low despite a rapid rise in traffic levels, although we must never rest on our laurels. That is why NATS constantly reviews its airspace management and makes proposals for airspace changes where it believes them necessary. In the case of terminal control south west, NATS believes its proposals will reduce air traffic control complexity, reduce the workload on individual controllers, reduce delay and bring efficiencies to all aircraft passing through the region.
It is important that I emphasise that the NATS proposal is not associated with, and will not enable expansion of, services at Bournemouth or Southampton airports or at any other airport in the region. I recognise, as I have already made clear, that the right hon. Gentleman has concerns about the consultation process, but the CAA, as owner of the airspace change process, has advised that the consultation process has been conducted in accordance with its guidance.
I think that it would be helpful to set out the process for delivering airspace change. The CAA must manage the airspace to meet the needs of all users, having regard to national security and economic and environmental factors, while maintaining a high standard of safety. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA’s airspace change process, known as CAP725.
Following review and consultation, a revised version was published in March 2007. The new guidance provides greater clarity on the roles and responsibilities of an airspace change sponsor such as NATS and of the independent regulator, the CAA. It also provides greater detail about the activities of a consultation exercise and the environmental assessment of any proposed change. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting about a proposal and ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety, improves capacity and mitigates, as far as is practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department’s environmental guidance to the CAA.
Mr. Benyon: Does the Under-Secretary agree that, when something that is so important for communities throughout the country is happening, it should not be for Members of Parliament to cascade information? We are not experts. One had to get to page 40 before reaching the meat of the document. I am sure that NATS followed the regulations, but the regulations are clearly at fault.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Later in my text, I will refer to the fact that lessons are always learned from each process. The comments that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made this evening are now clearly on record and I would be surprised if they were not noted.
The CAA assesses a formal airspace change proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives, and either approves or rejects it. It is only when the CAA considers that a proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment that it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport of the likely impact. It must also advise of plans to keep that impact to a minimum and to refrain from making the airspace change without first securing the Secretary of State’s approval.
Let me be plain: airspace changes are made only when it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue, or when the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and his colleagues also mentioned aircraft noise. I recognise that, locally, noise is a significant issue. That is why the CAA’s revised guidance on the airspace change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. In practice, it would be impractical to prevent widespread over-flying of areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks in the south of England or elsewhere.
I cannot offer comment on the terminal control south west airspace development while it remains subject to CAA scrutiny under its independent airspace change process. However, I emphasise that the consultation has been conducted fully in accordance with the CAA’s guidance and that that guidance was recently reviewed and strengthened to provide clarity on roles, consultation activities and environmental assessment. However, as with all guidance, it remains a living document. That is why the CAA and NATS have welcomed comments on the current consultation to help their planning for any future such consultations.
Sir George Young: I sense that the Under-Secretary is about to touch down. Surely if a national park authority makes representations against a proposal such as the one that we are considering, he would expect the CAA to touch base with a Department before ticking it through?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I have outlined as best I can the way in which the process works and that it is a matter for the regulator—in this case, the CAA—to make the assessment. It has to satisfy itself that the change cannot be practically done other than in the way that has been proposed for safety reasons, or that it does not impinge on the environment, as I described. Given the number of objections that Conservative Members have outlined and that have been submitted to the proposal, I would be surprised if the CAA did not fully take on board the strength of feeling and the objections raised for scientific, environmental or other reasons. However, it is not my job to pre-empt or anticipate the conclusion of the review of the regulator, who has the expertise, scientific advice, knowledge and experience to make those decisions. The structures were put in place long before I came to the Department. I have confidence that they will deliver the right results for UK plc and take into account all the issues that were raised in the consultation process.
I fully acknowledge the criticisms and concerns raised by the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen about the cascade process, and about other aspects of the consultation that they do not believe have been robust enough. As I said, I would be very surprised if those comments were not taken on board elsewhere.
Finally, I want to repeat my reassurance to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that airspace changes are made only where 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. I am sure that the record of this debate will be noted by all the organisations involved in, interested in or affected by the proposed airspace change process.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o’clock.