Do the overflown benefit

Daniel Moylan, the Mayor’s aviation adviser, told the londonnoisesummit earlier this week that “millions on waiting lists have no choice about living under flight paths.”

Decision-makers would do well to heed Moylan’s words when deciding Britain’s future aviation policy.

Planes using Heathrow go over areas of deprivation unmatched by any other major airport in the South East.  It is true that the planes also fly over some very smart areas but anybody proposing the expansion of the airport has got to face up to its impact on some of the poorest communities in the land. 

The figures speak for themselves.  According to the latest Indices of Deprivation (2010), the three local authorities with the highest percentage of deprived people in the country are Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets (  All are disturbed by noise from both Heathrow and London City.  A report commissioned by HACAN in 2007 from the independent acoustics firm, Bureau Veritas, found that the cumulative noise impact from both airports meant that Poplar in Tower Hamlets was experiencing levels of aircraft noise akin to parts of West London: (summary).

A total of 10 London boroughs (Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Islington, Waltham Forest, Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Lewisham and Lambeth) rank amongst the top 50 most deprived local authorities in the country.  With the possible exception of Barking and Dagenham, all are troubled by Heathrow aircraft.  There is no local authority in the Gatwick or Stansted areas listed in the top 50.

The loudest voices of complaint may come from the wealthier areas of West London but make no mistake many people in the poorer areas are suffering from aircraft noise from Heathrow.  Here’s an email HACAN received last week from the Lambeth/Southwark border:

I really need your advice.  How do we (by we I mean as an area) start to pursue the different people responsible for air traffic and planes to review the use of airspace over the SE11/SE1 area.  In this area we are at the crossroads of the airports (City and Heathrow) and river helicopter traffic and it seems to be an inconvenient truth that is completely ignored.  Perhaps because the area is largely a poor borough and it is a well know fact that less affluent people complain less but that does not mean they are not suffering.  The areas are under constant air plane traffic, no matter the wind direction.  We get both Heathrow and City aircraft.  The level of noise has reached the point that it is disrupting the life of residents, workers, students and those in spiritual prayer. The flights first pass over the area at 04:30 and often continue until 23:00.  At many times of the day there is a plane passing every 60-90 seconds.  This is 7 days a week.  No respite periods are worked into the scheduling.  The flight paths throughout the day are very precise and do not vary much, this means the area gets no respite.  There needs to be better planning for the use of the airspace over the area.  What has been created since mid-2012 is a noise ghetto.  There must be a better way to manage the plane traffic so that they do not use the same route over the same area with such intensity 7 days a week.

In a quality of life survey, looking at all the world’s major cities, published recently, London was way down the list in 38th place:   It lost out because of the quality of its environment and the traffic congestion on its streets.  The survey didn’t drill down into the quality of life in particular communities within the cities but studies consistently show that the living environment tends to be worse in low-income areas.  For example, the policy of successive governments of concentrating traffic on main roads and often traffic calming ‘residential’ roads has worsened noise and pollution for many poorer communities who live, in disproportionate numbers, on main roads.  A study I did (Poor Show, 1998) found a fifth of council tenants in the London Borough of Greenwich rated traffic noise as big a problem as crime, with those living on main roads the most concerned.

These are the communities that fly the least.  Whether it is from traffic, trains or planes, they are the victims of what Les Blomberg, the executive director of the US-based Noise Pollution Clearing House called ‘second-hand noise’:  “noise that is experienced by people who did not produce it. Like second-hand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over.”  There will be even more second-hand noise from a 3rd runway at Heathrow.    

I understand the argument made by Heathrow Airport that a new runway could help increase the prosperity of London and thus lift some communities out of poverty and so give more people more choice about where they can live.  But two inescapable facts remain:  there will always be a huge number of people living in social housing in London; and planes using Heathrow go over areas of deprivation unmatched by any other major airport in the South East.       

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