“Well, you knew Heathrow was there, so why did you move under the flight path?” It is one of the most common responses to residents’ complaints about noise.
And it is not always said in a sneering, aggressive way, although that can and does happen. Often the questioner is simply drawing a very logical conclusion. Most of us moved into our homes after Heathrow was opened in 1946; we knew we were under a flight path; haven’t we, therefore, really just got ourselves to blame.
As you might expect, I’m going to argue it is nothing like as straightforward as that. But first to acknowledge the truth in what is being said. Over the past 20 years a lot of homes under the flight paths have changed hands. And some, in the buoyant London market, for figures in excess of a million pounds. Most of these buyers knew about the flight paths, though some would not have realized how disturbing the planes actually can be until after they moved in. But HACAN gets a negligible number of complaints from people who have moved under the flight paths in the boroughs closest to Heathrow in recent years.
Now let me take you to Walthamstow. It could be Leystonstone, Stratford, Catford, Peckham, Brixton or Vauxhall. Ask yourself, if you were moving into one of these areas, would you ask the estate agents about aircraft noise. And yet, over the last 20 years, it has become a real problem in these places.
A study HACAN commissioned from the independent noise consultants Bureau Veritas in 2008 found that in places 20 kilometres from Heathrow “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.” It said there was “an almost constant background of aircraft noise” in Kennington Park, close to the Oval Cricket Ground, well over 15 kilometres from the airport. And the study concluded: “The relatively high levels of aircraft noise that do occur at some distance from the airport are certainly enough to be noticed by those living in those areas and in certain circumstances to cause some disturbance and intrusion.”
The big change occurred in the mid-1990s when a change in operational practices meant that aircraft joined their final approach path much further from the airport. Instead of joining over West London, they were expected to join over SE London. As one resident wrote, “We didn’t move to the flight path, the flight path moved to us.” It can make people still living in those areas very angry to be told they were aware that they were under the flight path to a major international airport when they moved in. Interestingly, the highest number of complaints HACAN continues to get are from areas some distance from the airport.
There is, though, another reason why it is too easy to say that people knew about the airport when the moved in and therefore, it is implied, should shut up about the noise. Not everybody has a choice about where they live. People will move to where jobs are and, particularly if you are on a low-income, will want to live as near work as possible in order to reduce travel costs. Additionally, the many people in social housing have limited choices about location.
In conclusion, think twice before you say: “You knew Heathrow was there, so why did you move under the flight path?” It can make a lot of people angry and frustrated because they know that, in their case, it is simply not true. Or that they had no choice.