It is noise not house prices

This blog is being written on Boxing Day.  It may be because I’m a sad obsessive.  But it is also because HACAN, like Heathrow, never closes.  We get complaints about aircraft noise Every.Single.Day.Of.The.Year.

I stress this because recently stories have appeared which suggest that house prices are what really motivates people to complain about Heathrow.  A typical example of this was Anthony Hilton’s piece in the Standard on 19th December.  I quote it in full:

Heathrow objectors on wrong path

The first flat I bought in London was under the Heathrow flight path. It was suitably cheap, and the trade-off between price and noise seemed a compromise worth making.

That presumably also holds true for everyone else who has bought a house in West London in the past 60-plus years. The airport has been there since 1945. They knew it was there when they bought.

Things have improved to some extent over the years because aircraft are a lot quieter than they used to be. Heathrow may be full but the noise made by individual planes going overhead is nothing like it was in the Sixties and Seventies when the skies were full of Boeing 707s, or in the following decade with Concorde. As planes have got bigger, they have also become quieter with a smaller noise footprint.

No doubt those under the flight path nevertheless feel justified in resisting further expansion of the airport, and it would be only human for them to wonder at the leap in value of their homes should the airport ever be closed. But I am not sure that is sufficient reason for the rest of us to agree with them.

There are so many inaccuracies in this short piece.  Indeed, the basic premise is wrong.  There is no evidence to suggest that, with the possible exception of properties very close to the airport, the price of houses under the flight paths is lower than elsewhere in London.  Work carried out by Heathrow Airport shows they are not.  Indeed many argue that houses prices in West London would fall if Heathrow shut because its relatively easy access to the world’s busiest international airport adds value to the property.  Many homes in Kew and Richmond sell for a million pounds or more.  And people paid a fortune for the apartments in the new developments around Battersea Power Station, right under the flight path.  It all reflects the buoyancy of the London housing market.

It appears that the only time property prices may be affected is when houses, previously unaffected by aircraft noise, find themselves under a flight path for the first time.  A leading estate agent told the Standard on 13th December that house prices could suffer a five per cent price hit if they were suddenly under a new flight path from a bigger Heathrow.  Another, Dominic Agace, chief executive of estate agents Winkworth, doubted new noise would have a significant impact on prices but said there could be a shift over time to quieter areas.

Anthony Hilton’s piece also fails to understand what has happened to the noise climate in recent years.  He correctly states that individual aircraft are quieter than they were 30 or 40 years ago but then makes the common mistake of assuming that means the overall noise climate has improved, despite more than double the number of planes using the airport. 

He is not alone in this claim.  Heathrow Airport makes the same argument.  And, sadly, much of it has found its way into in the Airports Commission Interim Report, published shortly before Christmas:

The claim that the noise climate is improving is not reflected in residents’ experiences.  When HACAN started 45 years ago, it had a different name KACAN – Kew Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise.  (I know we specialize in dreadful acronyms!).  It represented just the West London suburbs of Kew and Richmond.  Even when fighting the Terminal 5 Inquiry, HACAN just covered West London and parts of Berkshire.  It was only in the mid-1990s that HACAN started to become the regional body it is today.  And that was down entirely to the number of planes using Heathrow.  This summer the greatest number of complaints HACAN received was from SE London:

The problem is that the way aircraft noise annoyance is measured doesn’t fully capture the impact increased numbers of aircraft using an airport.  The metric gives too much weight to the noise of individual aircraft and not enough to the effect of increased numbers.  It utterly distorts things.  For example it would find that four hours worth of non-stop noise from Boeing 757s at a rate of one every two minutes causes the same annoyance as one extremely loud Concorde followed by 3 hours 58 minutes of relief:  Clearly not a reflection of reality!  

It is noise not house prices which motivates people to email HACAN on Christmas Day.  As they top up their sherry glasses after finishing their plum pudding, it’s not concern about the price of their home which persuades them to email HACAN; it’s the fact that the Queen’s message has been drowned out by the latest passing plane.

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