HC Deb 16 March 1971 vol 813 cc1377-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Humphrey Atkins.]

12.27 a.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I wish to call attention to the future of Glasgow Airport. To mention Glasgow, situated at the western end of the new Edinburgh road, is of course to bring to mind Edinburgh Airport, situated at the eastern end of the motorway, and to some extent the fortunes of the two airports are so closely identified that I am sure that I shall be forgiven if I make some mention of the two in my speech.

For many years now, the business of Glasgow Airport has been remarkable. Every day for five days in the week—the weekends are not so busy—at four o'clock, five o'clock, six o'clock, seven o'clock and half past seven and nine o'clock, well packed aircraft leave London for Glasgow, and a similar stream at corresponding times leave Glasgow for London.

The siting of Glasgow Airport helps this traffic. It may be reached easily and in comfort by rail, by road, by sea and, of course, by air. It also serves the largest conurbation in Scotland. It has rivals and, I am sure, friends, and we in Glasgow are flattered by that.

Lately, Edinburgh Airport passed into the hands of the British Airports Authority, well hanselled by a Government dowry of £9 million and the promise of a new runway of adequate length. We in Glasgow welcome this and assume that Glasgow, if necessary, can expect similarity of terms, so that operating conditions and financial terms will be on a scale alike for both airports. I trust that the President of the Board of Trade, whom I welcome here tonight, will soon see fit to meet members and officials of Glasgow Corporation Airports Committee to discuss the problem of parity of treatment for the two airports.

It must be remembered that it is now almost three years since Glasgow Corporation took the first step towards lengthening the main runway. That was when it applied for permission to infill part of the ground which would carry a runway extension in due course of 1,400 ft. All the procedure involved in that operation is now concluded, I believe, and we in Glasgow are hopefully awaiting the outcome. The changes at both airports will, of course, raise the issue of noise.

It is clear that a need has arisen for a less emotional representation of the question of the overall relationship between the benefit to be derived from the economics and convenience of aircraft operations, and thus airport locations in the correct geographical position to serve various towns and conurbations, and the disadvantages created by aircraft noise in populated areas. Both these problems are acute in the central belt of Scotland.

The total effect of these matters upon the economic and environmental aspects of the sections of the population concerned should be the ultimate factor in deciding upon the location and development of airports. The present treatment by the popular Press and other news media creates the impression that the majority of the population of the United Kingdom is either adversely affected or gravely concerned by the operation of jet flights into airports adjacent to large conurbations. The implications go further and suggest that, in some way, the wishes and welfare of a great proportion of the population are being overridden, for the benefit of a small minority of air travellers, by airlines and airport authorities which are mainly concerned with and probably motivated by profit motives only, and are wholly unconcerned with the effect on the environment. It is clearly desirable that a less emotional examination of the position is undertaken, if only to ensure that the unthinking, equally selfish and ultimately restrictive activities of the dedicated preservationists do not cause irreparable harm to the proper pattern of future airport and air transport growth in the central belt of Scotland, which in its way makes a vital contribution to the maintenance of a healthy economy.

If one considers the problem of the total benefit as a simple equation which demonstrates how many people benefit from the correct location of airports in relation to those who suffer interference, then a wider perspective of the problem can be seen. Assuming that the population of the United Kingdom totals about 55 million people, it is highly improbable that more than about four million or five million people are in any way affected by the noise of aircraft arriving at or departing from airports.

Many complaints about noise at Glasgow and Edinburgh come from that section of that community. This total includes those affected at military and small civil airports where operations are confined to a limited number of movements, in the case of the military airfield mainly during normal working hours. In fact the noise from aircraft at airports is likely to be seriously detrimental only to a very small proportion of that section of the population affected overall. In the United Kingdom there are probably less than 10 airports where the present level of jet operations constitutes any serious interference with the activities of residents in or adjacent to the approach paths of the planes. At some of these 10 the effect is seasonal depending upon the level of inclusive tour operations in the summer. For the major part of the year, approximately seven months, the level of aircraft operations is at present well below that which could reasonably be said to be seriously intrusive and increases in movement levels are likely to be low at most airports particularly the two to which I am specially referring and those outside London.

It is difficult to be specific about numbers seriously affected since this is a subjective term in any event. Each airport has particular and unique problems in relation to its surrounding residential districts and there can be no national solution applicable to all of them. In the main, house-owners, particularly those in salubrious areas, resent the activities of aircraft more strongly and react in a more organised way than the tenants of rented property, although undoubtedly the physical as distinct from the psychological effect is likely to be the same on both types of occupants. On the other hand, those same house-owners are more likely to be regular users of airport services, primarily because their income levels permit them to use air travel as a convenient and economic form of transport.

It is probable, therefore, that while many of these residents may be active against the operation of the airports as members of residents' or ratepayers' associations, they would, on the other hand, be more seriously affected if airports were to be restricted in operation or remotely located as some part of an ultimate solution. It is ironically probable that some will also be representative of consumer organisations complaining about the lack of air transport facilities.

It is even more difficult to be specific about overall figures but if we consider an average provincial airport located probably on an ex-wartime airfield adjacent to a city—and it should be remembered that this location has been chosen mainly to meet the convenience and needs of the particular population group concerned—then it is probable that about 60,000 dwellings or so are likely to be within sound of aircraft activities at such a level that it could constitute some impingement, however slight, upon the normal activities of the residents in the area, for example Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Assuming an average occupation of three persons per dwellinghouse, it is likely that the number of people affected will be of the order of 180,000. Of these 180,000 people, it is quite probable that the larger proportion will live to one side or the other of the runway or its extended centreline and will therefore not be seriously affected by the noise of aircraft approaching or taking off, where the worst interference usually occurs. In this average situation, it is reasonable to assume that of the total of 180,000, probably 100,000 or even 120,000 live either side of the centreline. Assuming the lesser figure, the remaining 80,000 will live in the area affected by aircraft passing overhead within a mile. These will be located on or adjacent to the extended centreline at varying distances out from the runway end. Those living more than seven miles out are unlikely to be regularly subjected to the more intrusive noise levels and, while they may nowadays be more aware of aircraft noise than of other activities, it is probable that other ambient noises such as railway trains, street traffic and so on can create at least the equivalent in noise value to that of the aircraft flying overhead.

People living within the seven mile limit are, of course, affected to a most serious degree. But it is now well known that the effect on individual persons varies enormously. It is probable that different persons living in the same house react quite differently to aircraft noise.

It is safe to assume in our hypothetical case of 180,000 people that, of the 80,000 living under the approaches, probably fewer than 60,000 live within seven miles from the runway and within a mile of the extended centreline at one end or the other. From past experience of noise complaints—and I have had a good many—of these 60,000, 30,000 will accept the aircraft activities without resentment as part of an everyday occurrence and, sadly, a general deterioration of modern life. In some cases, their acceptance may he based on the fact that they derive, directly or indirectly, some benefit from the airport. They may either work on it themselves or have a relative in the house working there. They may own, operate or be connected with a business which derives some benefit from the airport, or they may have selected the location because of its convenience to the airport, probably in connection with their own business activities. A large number will have moved into their houses since the beginning of jet operations at the airport concerned.

The remaining 30,000 people are likely to be subjected to noise levels which can affect day to day activities such as making telephone calls, watching television—one of the greatest sources of irritation and complaint, I may say—and normal conversation; and have no reason to endure the noise without complaint. The seriousness of the interference is of course dependent upon the level of activity and frequency of movement from the airport.

These 30,000 people have genuine cause for complaint, but, in practice, they are not always the people who complain most bitterly and vociferously. Due to their location, they will be subjected to petition-bearing friends, neighbours and protest organisations, and they may append their names to petitions against aircraft noise as much to placate a neighbouring friend and retain an otherwise satisfactory friendship as to object to airport activity.

Many of the more vociferous complainers come from outside the areas most seriously affected, and they frequently express their objections against what they call "the establishment" and bureaucratic life in general, rather than specifically against airport activities. These people see the operation of an aircraft overhead as a visible manifestation of the many modern infringements upon their individual liberties and seize the opportunity to object, form and join protest associations mainly as a means of providing an outlet for their otherwise frustrated energies.

It is the activities of this particular section of the protesting public which are currently being given the disproportionate publicity. They are quite vocal, particularly in Glasgow at times, though not always. No one can deny that there are genuine sufferers and complainants, and that aircraft noise is a substantial environmental problem must be readily admitted. However, the extreme suggestions now being actively canvassed to seriously restricting airport activities in terms of times, of operation, size of aircraft, and the ultimately unreasonable and costly proposals to locate large airports at sites remote from population centres must be viewed in the context of the true problem.

If the figures of people "seriously" affected and concerned are examined and it is appreciated that "seriously'' is an objective term, then it can be seen that, of the 10 major airports outside Heathrow, the present problem probably concerns a total of some 300,000 people—at a generous estimate not more than 350,000. If one adds, say, a further 250,000 for the people affected around Heathrow and other airports of a somewhat similar nature, it is likely that the total United Kingdom problem concerns 650,000—certainly less than 1 million. Allowing a generous growth factor in terms of increased movements from the other 10 airports, then in five years or so the number could reach 2 million.

One must now consider the total number of terminal air passengers from the 10 major United Kingdom airports, particularly keeping in mind Glasgow and Prestwick in Scotland which are bound to grow steadily, excluding those in transit or inter-lining at the airports, as they are presumably indifferent to the airport at which they make a change. This total, including passengers using Heathrow, in 1969 was almost 25 million. Of these it is probable that 70 per cent., or 17½ million, were residents of the United Kingdom, most of whom gain economic advantage from the proximity of the airport to population centres when they are travelling. It can be appreciated, therefore, that the numbers of people who are seriously inconvenienced by the present location of airports and the growth of traffic are in a small minority compared to the growing numbers of people who are likely to be adversely affected by remote and inconvenient location restrictions, and so on, of normal commercial aviation activities.

These arguments present the problem in a somewhat less emotional light than those currently circulated, but do not provide a solution. An effective solution can only be long term and, except at those airports where the saturation point has already been reached either in terms of aircraft movements or passenger totals, the present day problem must get worse before it gets better.

The Roskill Commission examined in some detail, as a solution, evidence about the cost of ground transport between remote airports and city centres. Its evidence has been hotly challenged, but any reasonable consideration of these factors must lead one to conclude that, when airports are developed to their full potential, the transportation of more than 50 million people a year for distances of up to 50 or more miles by surface transport becomes a most costly proposition, not likely to be mild in its overall econo- mic effect on total air transportation costs, nor in its ultimate effect upon the national economy.

It is desirable, therefore, that the ultimate solution be found by other means, and the most sensible and practical place to start to resolve the problem is at its origin—that is, the aircraft jet engine—and it is there, I hope, that the right hon. Gentleman will look for his solution.

12.51 a.m.

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Michael Noble)

The House knows the long interest which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) has taken in all matters of civil aviation in general, and in particular his special interest in Glasgow airport, so we are very glad that he has talked about these subjects tonight. In the comparatively few moments which are left to me, I should like to assure him that my responsibilities here lie in maintaining a proper balance among Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Prestwick, and seeing that all of these develop for the future good and benefit of Scotland, and that there should be no special bias.

While giving me a title to which I am no longer entitled, the hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be a good thing if I visited Glasgow and talked to the people there. I am only too delighted to do that and I am certain that it will be done in the fairly near future. I can understand the anxiety of Glasgow, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, waiting for permission to start its new runway and get on with the job, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, this is in the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Obviously, I must not anticipate anything which he may wish to say, because I know that the reporter's recommendation has not yet come to him.

I was interested in the way in which the hon. Gentleman put forward his plea that the problem of noise should be treated less emotionally. To be fair, it is a little easier for those of us who live near and use Glasgow and Edinburgh and those airports to be a little more relaxed about it than those who live in the noise shadow of Gatwick and Heathrow, where, I admit—although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that some of the arguments are exaggerated—there is a real problem and one which affects people's lives much more than those in the north perhaps realise.

While there is not time, and I would not wish, to go into the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave about those affected, I have no doubt that, if we are to get the right sort of development in Scotland, both Abbotsinch and Turnhouse will, I think we both hope, grow fast and become important transport centres as aviation increases.

The noise problems which are now comparatively minor must be looked at carefully therefore before they become serious and before we have the sort of protests which the hon. Gentleman described. Naturally people's reactions vary considerably. For example some are a little more deaf than others some sleep with their windows open while others prefer them closed. These differences make a considerable variation in the way in which people are affected.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's obvious knowledge of the way in which these protests are mounted and people sign them. We all have experience perhaps in other spheres of protests being made. Nevertheless in planning for the development of our airports in the north we should take other problems into account such as the growing towns in the area and try to plan them so that they cause the minimum difficulty for our children and grandchildren.

The hon. Gentleman said that at the weekends these airports are not very busy. Generally speaking I fly on Sunday evenings. My experience is that unless one books a flight two or three weeks in advance one may not get a seat. Thus from my experience Sunday nights can be very busy.

We are, as he said, handing over the airport at Turnhouse in a few weeks' time and I hope that it will be possible to develop there an airport which is parallel to Glasgow though not of course dominating it because Glasgow being the centre will probably always carry a great deal more traffic. We want to see both airports develop—

The Question having been proposed after Twelve o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes to One o'clock.