Wednesday, December 16, 2009

London City Airport - Hansard Adjournment Debate Houses of Parliament

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mark Tami.)
11.41 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity, even at this late hour tonight, to highlight my concerns and those of my constituents about the impact of flight noise, and the increase in the number of flights, from London City airport. It is also a pleasure to debate again with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), on a transport-related matter and I look forward to hearing his response in due course.
In the past 10 years, the number of air transport movements at London City airport has doubled, from just under 21,000 aircraft departures in 1999 to some 42,000 departures in 2008. We are about to see a further significant shift in the use of the airport. The London borough of Newham has now granted the airport permission to increase the number of flight movements by 50 per cent. The flights permission would increase from 80,000 to 120,000 movements a year. London City airport forecasts that it will handle up to 3.9 million passengers by 2010, and there are long-term plans to accommodate up to 8 million passengers by 2030. That potentially significant change in the scale and nature of the operations at the airport has gone largely unnoticed by many people.

This is not simply about the number of landings and departures; it is also about the flight paths that the aircraft will take. Last year, NATS consulted on wide-ranging proposals for the busy airspace above the south-east of England known as terminal control north. The plans covered all London airports, with modifications to landing and departure routings and holding points. In the case of London City airport, one of the proposed changes was to alter the northerly departure routing. Instead of aircraft taking a sharp northerly turn almost immediately after take-off and, thus, over Woodford and Chingford, they were instead intended to take a flight path to the north-east over my constituency in Hornchurch.

In September 2008, I received a letter from the head of external communications at NATS stating that there would be a longer time period for consideration of the consultation, as further options were being considered, including in respect of London City departures over north London. It stated that "work is ongoing and further design options and suggestions are being evaluated",
adding that"we have not set a timetable for the next steps on the TCN proposal."

In response to a further inquiry from me about the nature of the revised options being considered for London City, I received a letter on 2 December 2008 stating that a number of options for the wider terminal control north area were being considered and that "there may well be a requirement for further consultation on any proposals that are brought forward, should they be significantly different to those on which we have already consulted."

It was therefore with some shock and surprise that I discovered several months after the event that on 8 January this year NATS submitted a formal airspace change [Column 940 Next section]proposal to the Civil Aviation Authority to alter the London City airport standard instrument departure routes, including the change to route more aircraft over my constituency. Ian Hall, the director of operations for NATS, was quoted in the accompanying press release as saying:

"These changes to the turn were proposed in the TCN consultation and are necessary to formalise the departure procedures for all aircraft using London City and will be an added safety benefit. It is a change we can achieve quickly and the CAA is keen that we do so."

I was subsequently informed in a letter from NATS that the CAA required it to expedite an airspace change proposal and that is self-evident when one reads the CAA decision letter of 20 February 2009. The letter stated that the changes were deemed by the CAA to be necessary to accommodate an increase in category C aircraft using the airport rather than following the STOLport configuration-or short take-off and landing airport configuration-that had originally been envisaged. In his decision letter, the then director of airspace policy at the CAA, John Arscott, stated that:

"As part of the TC North development briefings, my head of Controlled Airspace advised NATS that a re-design of conventional LCY SIDs"-that is, London City standards instrument departures-"to meet CAT C design criteria was required at the earliest opportunity and it was subsequently agreed that these re-designed SIDs should be incorporated within the TC North development project."

He went on to say:
"Following on from the TC North consultation, with the ongoing NATS evaluation of the TC North consultation feedback and a potential lengthy delay to eventual implementation, I decided that the LCY SID changes to bring conventional procedures up to CAT C design criteria could not be delayed any further; therefore, NATS was requested to submit a change proposal to bring the SID designs up to CAA and ICAO CAT C design requirements at the earliest opportunity."

It is interesting to note that that was virtually the last decision Mr. Arscott took as his term of office came to an end a week later on 1 March 2009.

So, in essence the terminal control north consultation as far as London City was concerned was potentially meaningless-one could say that it was a sham. The CAA had predetermined that change was necessary. I find that unacceptable and believe that I-along with my constituents-was given a completely false impression when the TCN consultation was initiated. The changes were brought into effect in May and are already starting to have an impact.

Both easterly and westerly departures from London City airport to the north that previously took a sharp turn following take-off are now being directed over my constituency following a similar track to the initial route adopted for north-easterly and southerly departures from the airport. Based on the 2009 usage rates published in the original TCN consultation, that will in future result in a near 50 per cent. increase in the number of departing aircraft overhead in my constituency from London City airport.

Although the CAA might have requirements to bring London City operations into compliance with CAA and International Civil Aviation Organisation design criteria for category C departures, that does not mean that my constituents should be forced to bear the brunt of the noise and environmental impact. Aircraft will be [15 Dec 2009 : Column 941]passing overhead at between 2,000 and 3,000 feet with a typical noise level of 57 to 72 dB and potentially up to 77 dB for BAE 146 or RJ aircraft. The CAA decision letter accepts that residents will experience additional aircraft noise. Having read that letter, I am left with the impression that the TCN proposals, so far as they affected London City, were a done deal, and that the consultation undertaken was effectively meaningless.

This comes on top of the Newham council decision to approve an increase in the number of flight movements at London City by 50 per cent.-from 80,000 movements to 120,000. The combined impact of the changes to the London City departure routings and the proposed increase in flights would, in essence, lead to a doubling of the number of departing aircraft over my Hornchurch constituency. That will have a noticeable and significant impact on environmental amenity for my constituents. The double-whammy effect was never communicated or consulted on; again, I find that utterly unacceptable.

It is not just me, however. Significant questions are now being raised by neighbouring boroughs about the nature of the consultation conducted by the London borough of Newham in relation to approving the increase in flight movements. The London borough of Redbridge passed an uncontested resolution in November condemning the failure to consult it on the expansion of London City airport, and opposing further expansion at the airport or changes to the flight paths or modes of operation at the airport that would result in an increase in aircraft noise suffered by local residents. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) was in the Chamber, he would want to refer to that resolution because he has taken a close interest in the issue. However, it is not just Redbridge. I understand that motions in similar terms have also been approved by the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

London City airport is consulting on its draft strategic noise action plan. The draft plan will have to be submitted to the Secretary of State for Transport early next year for consideration before formal adoption under the European environmental noise directive. I urge the Secretary of State not to accept the plan unless the significant complaints and concerns that I have raised in the debate have been properly addressed, particularly the significant impact that residents in east and north-east London will suffer due to departing aircraft from London City as a consequence of the flight routing changes. There should be a consideration of changes to routings, when appropriate, and discussions with both the CAA and NATS, when necessary, so that my constituents are not forced to bear the brunt of what I consider to be a fundamentally flawed notification and consultation procedure on two fronts.

Will the Minister make urgent representations to both the CAA and NATS about the nature of their general approach to consultation? The case raises serious and significant issues, and if their approach is simply to go through the motions by carrying out consultation on a done deal, that is utterly acceptable.

I also urge the Minister to instruct NATS and the CAA to go back to the drawing board, reassess the departure routings from London City, and come back with revised proposals as part of the next round of consultation under the TCN proposals. It is worth making the point that London City was specifically stripped out of the TCN. All the other proposals are [15 Dec 2009 : Column 942] still subject to further consideration and public consultation. Regardless of what the CAA might say, it is odd that London City was stripped out in such a way when everyone was under the impression that the TCN proposals were still being considered and would be the subject of further consultation.
Given the circumstances of such a significant change and its combined effect with the general increase in flight movements, and the impact that that will have on areas such as Hornchurch, I believe that the regulators have a duty to look again at the damaging proposals that are being fast-tracked through. While there might be arguments for increasing London City's capacity, they need to be balanced against the impact of additional disruption due to noise. I object that my constituents will bear the brunt of the environmental downside without any clear upside, that they are told that they have a voice in a consultation when they are given only a partial picture of the true scale of changes and that, in any event, their views would apparently simply be regarded as irrelevant.

In Hornchurch, we are lucky to have the benefit of significant environmental amenities. We have a significant amount of green space, with a number of large parks and sites of significant scientific interest. Their enjoyment will be adversely affected by these changes.

I would therefore urge the Minister to use his influence to ensure that those agencies with responsibility for the planning of our flight paths look again at the design of the northerly routings from London City airport. They should look again at the serious environmental impact of their decisions, and be held properly accountable for their actions to my constituents and the residents of other affected areas.

11.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): At the outset, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate. I am delighted to face him again and to have a further discussion on transport issues.

Our commitment to sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment is at the very heart of the Department's aviation policy-making process. With specific regard to smaller airports such as London City airport, the Government's 2003 White Paper "The Future of Air Transport" noted that regional and local planning authorities"should take account of the benefits that development at the smaller airports could provide, and consider policies which facilitate the delivery of growth"
and opportunities at these airports.

However, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will agree that hard decisions have to be taken to strike a balance between tackling the environmental challenges, enabling people to fly and allowing the industry to compete internationally. Tensions will always arise in such matters, of course, but it is about getting the balance right.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues regarding recent changes at London City airport and I am keen to deal with them. I shall begin with Newham council's decision to grant planning permission for London City airport to increase by some 50 per cent. the total number of air traffic transport movements from 80,000 to 120,000 per year, and the impact that that might have on local residents. [15 Dec 2009 : Column 943]

The decision to grant that planning consent was entirely a matter for the London borough of Newham. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who knows the position of his own Front-Bench team when it comes to the decision-making process at a local level, will agree with that. Expansion of the airport is consistent with the Government's view that there is considerable potential for airports like London City to grow, and the airport is well placed to serve a niche business market.

James Brokenshire: It is important for the Minister to understand the Newham council decision, as one concern was whether it consulted properly with all the surrounding councils and all the residents who might be affected by the application. Will he consider that in the context of guidance given to planning authorities with regard to sensitive and significant applications such as this one? People who would have been affected found out about it only very late in the day, with the result that their ability to comment and provide objections was very limited.

Paul Clark: I was just about to come to that issue. A judicial review launched by the campaign group "Fight the Flights" is currently looking into whether there was consultation with the neighbouring boroughs of Redbridge and Waltham Forest, and their residents. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it would be wrong for me to comment further, other than to say that the guidance as to the routes that should be taken is clear. Obviously, however, the judicial review will make its own decisions, and we wait to see what happens.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of standard instrument departure-SID-routes from the airport, which were introduced in May this year. These changes were brought about in order to bring London City airport's departure profiles up to the international design standards required for the mix of aircraft types that currently operate to and from the airport. Our airport operations have very high safety records, which is due in part to the hard work of all those responsible for maintaining that safety record and following the right profiles.

When the airport was first opened, the departure routings were designed to accommodate short take-off and landing operations. At that time the aircraft being flown from the airport were predominantly turboprops, which operated within certain departure speed categories, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises. Over time the aircraft operating from the airport have changed to more modern jets that require faster departure speeds. Accordingly, the Civil Aviation Authority instructed NATS, the air navigation service provider, to consider changes to the London City SIDs to reflect the International Civil Aviation Organisation's departure design standards for the aircraft types that are operating from the airport.

In practice, the revised SIDs have merely formalised the departure tracks that were already being flown by about 60 per cent. of the airport's traffic. These changes were undertaken independently of the planning decision of Newham council and implemented in accordance with the independent airspace change process. The approval of the Secretary of State was not required in order to implement the changes. Guidance on the airspace change process is readily available on the CAA's website, which I looked at earlier today.

[15 Dec 2009 : Column 944]
It might be helpful if I explain briefly 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, in this case NATS, 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 is practical, any environmental impacts in line with the Department's environmental guidance to the CAA.

Informed by the consultation, the airspace change sponsor must submit its proposal to the CAA. It is the CAA that then assesses the formal proposal against the regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives, which are clearly a concern to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, 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 his approval.
Therefore, 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 no practical alternative.

James Brokenshire: I appreciate the Minister's generosity in giving way. As I understand it, he has said that the CAA makes the decision whether there is an environmental aspect that should be referred to the Secretary of State. The CAA appears to be the judge and the decision-maker on that. Is there any route whereby the Secretary of State could call in for consideration a proposed change in routing? It seems strange that the CAA can, in effect, require NATS to implement a change and decide on the environmental aspects itself.

Paul Clark: As I have indicated, the Secretary of State vests that power in the independent regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, but it has to make those considerations in conjunction with the guidance-particularly on the environmental side-that is laid out in conjunction with the Government's policy.

I shall now turn specifically to the environmental impact of the recent changes to London City airport. I recognise that the levels of aircraft noise and air quality, and the visual impact on the hon. Gentleman's constituents, will of course be of concern. I understand that point, and that is why I said right at the beginning of my remarks that getting the balance right is a judgment that has to be made.

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. With regard to noise issues at London City airport, the hon. Gentleman will recall from my answer to his recent parliamentary question that responsibility for monitoring noise levels of aircraft at the airport falls to the airport operator. There are no statutory governmental noise controls like those that apply to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports. However, under the terms of local monitoring agreements with the London borough of Newham, London City is required to produce annual noise contours.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 945
Given that the airport is in the city centre and in close proximity to residential areas, it imposes stringent noise control measures that are designed to mitigate its local environmental impact. Those measures incorporate strict restrictions on opening hours, including a ban on night flights. In addition, the airport produces annual contours, whereby the noise levels at the airport are monitored by a noise and track-keeping system. Further, London City airport's noise insulation scheme has the lowest trigger of any airport in the UK. In developing an insulation scheme to reflect the local circumstance, the airport, I am encouraged to note, is able to set criteria so that properties within the 57 dBA contour can be considered for insulation. The hon. Gentleman will know that that goes beyond the recommended level of 66 dBA in the air transport White Paper.

In terms of noise, there are future initiatives and two key developments. The first relates to the proposed expansion of the airport. The planning conditions imposed as part of Newham borough council's planning consent requires the airport to develop an improved noise monitoring and mitigation strategy. That is expected to include the replacement of the existing noise and track-keeping system and improvements to the noise insulation schemes.

The second initiative relates to the requirement for the airport to prepare a strategic noise action plan under the European environmental noise directive. Under the terms of that directive, the airport is required to develop a draft action plan in consultation with the local community. The airport is conducting a public consultation on its draft noise action plan, and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out on his website, the closing date is 15 January. He encourages everyone to participate in it, and that is absolutely commendable.

The consultation process is a valuable opportunity for the airport to work closely with its neighbouring communities in developing control measures that will apply over the next five years. The neighbouring communities are clearly important. Once the airport has completed its consultation and considered the responses, [15 Dec 2009 : Column 946] it will be required to submit the final draft plan to the Government so that it can be considered for formal adoption under the directive.

The airport is very aware of its local impact and seeks to ensure that local people see the benefit of living near an airport. The growth of the airport has encouraged businesses, investors and developers to locate in east London, bringing new services and facilities to the area.

Let me turn finally to TC North. TC North is one of the most complex pieces of airspace in the world, with routes in and out of the major airports of Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City. I must stress that the TC North proposals are not associated with, and do not assume, future development at Heathrow, Stansted or any other airport. As the hon. Gentleman said, the London City airport SID proposals originally formed part of the TC North consultation on a package of measures designed to reduce delay, maintain safety and improve environmental performance. That consultation on TC North was the largest of its kind undertaken; the population in the region affected is just under 13 million.

NATS directly consulted over 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. In response to concerns that there was not enough time to consider the details of the proposals, NATS extended the consultation period by four weeks, giving a full 17-week consultation period. Following that, NATS decided to review the TC North design options further. However, any revised designs for the TC North region are unlikely to be ready for consultation before autumn next year.
The CAA considered that further consultation on the London City airport SID proposals was not needed-

12.11 pm
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).