There have been a number of tweets recently asking why HACAN backs respite (predicable periods of relief from the aircraft noise).
In a word, it’s because it is what the majority of our supporters tell us they want. The call has been long, loud and consistent over many years.
That is not to say that everybody wants it. A number of people – particularly those living under take-off routes – prefer dispersal. That’s fine.
The take-off corridors, known as Noise Preferential Routes, are three kilometers wide. They were established in the 1960s and, until relatively recently, aircraft, when taking off, were spread across the corridor. It meant that, while nobody got guaranteed periods of silence, no community was continuously overflown. It also helped that there were three and sometimes four NPRs in use at any one time which spread the load around. (Over recent years planes have become much more concentrated on the centre-line of the NPRs which is causing big problems – I will return to that later).
The situation with landings has been very different. People can feel bombarded by the noise. And want a break from it. Of course a minority of people under the landing flight paths already get respite. These are the communities living in the West London boroughs closest to Heathrow. Since the 1970s planes landing at Heathrow have switched runways at 3pm to give these people a half day’s break from the noise. (Of course, if you live between the two runways, the benefit is much less apparent).
But everybody else under the landing flight paths gets no respite. People are suffering badly. I wrote in an earlier blog: “I would argue the current situation across huge swathes of London and the Home Counties is untenable and change can only be a good thing. 40 planes an hour can overfly the Oval Cricket Ground or Clapham Common”.
This video of Vauxhall, 17 miles from Heathrow, gives a flavour of the disturbance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXf8o_khz8s.
A 2007 report commissioned by HACAN from the consultants Bureau Veritas found that in Ruskin Park in Camberwell, almost 20 miles from the airport, “aircraft noise dominates the local environment”. It said that in Kennington Park, close to the Oval, there was “an almost constant background of aircraft noise.” And in some areas of East London flown over by both Heathrow planes and City Airport it showed noise levels were comparable to those in parts of West London.
And this had been going on since 1995/6 when landing procedures were tightened up. Glenda Jackson, aviation minister at the time, told the House of Commons (28/10/97): “when the airport is busy, which is for much of the day, aircraft will join the ILS [the final descent path] further east over Battersea, Brixton or Lewisham.”
One resident wrote at the time: “I’ve lived in Clapham North at the same address for almost 20 years. Until 3 years ago one hardly noticed the planes, apart from Concorde, of course. Then in summer ’95, as if someone somewhere had flicked a switch, the occasional drone became a remorseless whine. It was like an aerial motorway, open from early morning till at least mid-evening.”
Since those days that resident and thousands like him have been calling for a break from the noise, for some form of respite. And HACAN has backed them.
To some extent we got distracted from the task when we were forced to fight a third runway when it was proposed (in 2002/3 by the last Labour Government).
When the proposal was defeated after an eight year I wrote in Victory Against All Odds – the story of how the campaign to stop a third runway at Heathrow was won (http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/how.the.heathrow.campaign.was.won.pdf) :
“HACAN has been part of a famous victory. But we have work yet to do. The planes are still roaring over our heads. During the years of the campaign the noise has become immeasurably worse for many people. Planes are lining up to join their final approach path further out than before. Aircraft noise is now a real problem for more people much further from the airport…..For these people victory in the third runway campaign will ring very hollow indeed if nothing is done about the sky of sound over their heads.”
The victory in 2010 gave us a new opportunity to get something done. Heathrow Airport had lost the battle. As a result, it was much more inclined to listen to residents than before. HACAN and Heathrow agreed to park the things that divided us – notably a third runway and night flights – and see how, through an element of cooperation, we could find ways to improve matters for residents at a two runway airport. It was in the interest of both of us to do so.
Top of our agenda was improving the day-to-day noise climate for residents. Respite was the constant call for people under the landing flight paths. But things were changing too for people within the take-off Noise Preferential Routes. Planes were being directed down the centre-line of the NPRs. HACAN argued – and still argues – that there should be either a return to dispersal or an alternation of the routes within the NPRs.
Concentration anywhere without respite would be unacceptable. It would simply create noise ghettos.
There was pressure from outside the UK for concentration. New technology enabled planes to be guided much more precisely on landing and departure. In theory this allowed for planes to line up many miles from the airport and land on one or two narrow corridors. It saved the airlines time and cut fuel costs. But it would have been utterly unfair on the residents who found themselves under the chosen flight paths. Most American airports have gone for this pure concentration approach, causing uproar in the localities.
But, more positively, this new precision technology can potentially provide the respite that many residents have been wanting for twenty years. A series of concentrated flight paths, regularly rotated, would share out the noise. I’m aware of the problems inherent in this but doing nothing is simply not an option for tens of thousands of residents.
The challenge is to find a way to bring relief without impacting noticeably on new areas. HACAN has been talking constructively about this with the aviation industry for some time. And Heathrow has now commissioned a study to look at how respite could be implemented in practical terms.
Of course its motives are mixed – one of them is to try to make a third runway more palatable – and HACAN itself has been accused of being too close to the industry. It is for others to make up their minds about that, on the basis of the facts. But I truly believe that this engagement does represent the best opportunity for two decades for many long-suffering residents to get a bit of peace and quiet.