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Airspace proposals promise better community engagement but limited noise reduction

6th February, 2017

The Department of Transport has launched a major consultation on reforming policy on the design and use of UK airspace. The proposals follow intense community pressure over recent years for the Government to act to prevent significant airspace changes being implemented without either consultation or compensation for those affected on the ground. They are timed to come into effect alongside improvements to the airspace change process that will be subject to a further consultation by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) later this year.

But how much are communities set to gain under the new proposals? There are certainly elements that will be welcomed. Those who have been suffering the noise effects of aircraft flying down increasingly narrow corridors as a consequence of satellite navigation are likely to support proposals to take better account of local circumstances and engage more with those affected. Communities may also be encouraged by the prospect of some compensation for airspace changes, a call-in power for the Secretary of State to intervene where the impacts are likely to be significant, a requirement to assess noise down to lower thresholds and to include the health costs, as well as the creation of an independent commission on aircraft noise.

But in many cases the proposals do not have the capacity to meet most community expectations. AEF Director, Tim Johnson highlights that:

The main rationale for change is catering for more demand. As stated in the consultation document, ‘modernising our airspace is about exploiting the latest technology to unlock the national social and economic benefits which a thriving aviation sector offers’.

Improvements to the process in terms of transparency and communication won’t tackle the underlying need to reduce noise. While Government hopes future noise reductions will be achieved through the introduction of quieter aircraft and a reduction in stacking, these measures will only have a marginal impact given the likely increase in the number of aircraft. Even if there is some reduction it is unlikely to be a universal improvement with the consultation noting that ‘while many communities will have reduced noise in the future, it is inevitable that some will remain for others’

The need for a strategy that seeks to reduce noise below today’s levels is evidenced in one of the supporting consultation documents, the 2014 SoNA study commissioned by Government to investigate attitudes towards aviation noise and whether these have changed over the years. SoNA – the Survey of Noise Attitudes study – found that people are more annoyed by aircraft noise than they were in the past, despite technological improvements, confirming the findings of many other recent studies.

Specific policy recommendations in the airspace consultation include:

  • The introduction of a call-in power for the Secretary of State for Transport. This would allow any party to request a call-in, providing greater consistency with the planning system. But like the planning system, certain conditions will need to be met with call-in considered only for proposals of national significance and in cases where there would be a net increase of at least 10,000 people subjected to a noise level of 54 dB LAeq or above. Since any call-in would take place at the start of an airspace proposal it would not provide a means of appeal after the CAA has reached a decision. The CAA’s own planned revisions to the airspace change process were criticised by communities for the lack of opportunity to appeal a decision and this is likely to remain a contentious topic.
  • Establishing an Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN) to consider noise impacts in a transparent manner. Its functions will include the provision of advice on the best noise management techniques and on the accessibility of noise information; verification of noise forecasts and noise data; and provision of best practice guidance. But with no requirement to deliver a noise reduction strategy, and without enforcement powers, or the teeth to make binding recommendations, the Commission’s effectiveness may be limited.
  • Requirement on airspace change promoters to publish information on single and multiple routes to inform decisions. The Government’s noise policy remains to limit, and where possible, reduce the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise. However, the consultation states that Government policy should be interpreted to mean that the number of people experiencing adverse effects as a result of aviation noise should be limited and, where possible, reduced, suggesting that priority should be given to reducing ‘significant’ impacts rather than the number of people who will experience some aircraft noise. For example, some options that have multiple concentrated routes that share noise among more people, may be preferable in some situations to a single concentrated route which affects fewer people to a greater extent.
  • New compensation arrangements. The Government intends to amend the current policy to remove the requirement for compensation to be linked to ‘development’ at an airport in terms of when financial assistance towards insulation is expected. There will also no longer be a requirement for a minimum 3dB change in the average noise level to trigger the requirement for financial assistance towards insulation if noise is above 63dB LAeq.
  • Use of health-based evidence for comparing airspace options. When interpreting the significance of adverse noise effects, consideration should be given to health and quality of life, the proposals indicate. Rather than assess these impacts against the 57dB Leq contour, traditionally used as an indicator of the onset of significant community annoyance, the consultation advocates a risk-based approach that captures the lowest noise level at which effects are observed. The recommended thresholds are 51 dB LAeq 16hr for daytime
 noise, and 45 dB at night. The number of movements experienced above 65dBA (N65) for daytime and 60dB at night (N60) should also be considered, the Government argues. With no national or local targets for noise reduction, however, and no policy on conditions under which an airspace change should be ruled out on noise grounds, this approach can only ever help with identifying the ‘least bad’ option in noise terms.

The consultation will last 16 weeks and closes on 25 May 2017.