Government misses opportunity to reduce night flights at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted
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The Government has published its proposals for changes to the night flights regime for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, the only three airports in the UK at which the Government imposes noise controls. The Government sets caps on the number of aircraft movements and on the total permitted ‘quota count’ (QC) both of which can act to limit night noise.
Under the quota count system, each aircraft is given a score based on its noise performance, and the total amount of noise in a given period is capped, so more flights may be possible if airlines use less noisy aircraft. Currently all three airports use well below their permitted ‘quota counts’, with the exception of Stansted which has crept closer and closer to the limit in recent years. While the latest proposals would reduce the quota count limits for Heathrow and Stansted compared to current limits, the new limits would largely take up the existing slack in the system rather than driving down future noise. For Stansted, the Government proposes no change to the existing noise quotas.
For movement limits, the proposals are to retain, rather than reduce, the permitted number of flights at Heathrow and Gatwick, and to increase them at Stansted. The justification given is that the parallel proposal of a reduction in the noise threshold at which aircraft are covered by the regime, which will reduce the number of exempt aircraft, means that an increased number of movements needs to be permitted for Stansted in order to achieve an effective flatline. More significantly, the Government says it does not wish to prejudge the outcome of Stansted’s anticipated application for planning permission to increase passenger numbers by imposing noise controls that would prevent this.
We are deeply disappointed by the Government’s lack of ambition to get to grips with the night noise problem at London airports. Our members often tell us that the number of overflying aircraft they experience at night is a real problem, regardless of the marginal improvements in the noise performance of individual aircraft that have taken place over time. A growing body of evidence indicates that night noise has harmful effects not only in terms of annoyance but also increased risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes and heart attacks. Noise at airports around the UK remains persistently above the maximum levels recommended for health by the World Health Organisation. The Government has also retained its definition of the operational night noise period as 6.5 hours, 90 minutes less than the standard definition used by the WHO.
We are also disappointed that the long-overdue study that the Government has been undertaking in relation to possible changes in the public experience of noise annoyance, and which we had hoped to be able to consider alongside this proposal, has still not been published. Research over the past decade from a number of countries indicates a significant decrease in the noise threshold at which people report disturbance, with Defra having found in recent years that as many as 1 in 3 people in the UK are disturbed or annoyed by aircraft noise. The proposals published today appear designed largely to reset noise limits to match current levels: a policy that falls a long way short of the action required to tackle this problem.
Industry demands take precedence over public health
We are particularly concerned that the Government appears unwilling to prioritise action to protect public health over the incessant demand for growth from the aviation industry. The limits set for Stansted have been explicitly designed not to ‘pre-empt’ any possible application by the airport for permission to grow its passenger numbers.
In relation to Heathrow, as the proposed regime ends in 2022, it can offer no comfort that an expanded Heathrow will not bring further noise misery. Heathrow Airport itself last year offered the sweetener that if given planning permission to expand, it could provide a 6.5 hour night flight ban even before the runway became operational , suggesting that a ban could be deliverable now without crippling the airport, if only the Government had the will to impose it.