SE London: a challenge for both Heathrow and London City

by John Stewart

Here’s your starter for 10.  How many times during a typical year has the east wind blown above 5 knots between lunchtime Saturday and lunchtime Sunday? 

The question is of more than quiz trivia interest to people in South East London because it is the only time many of them get a break from aircraft noise.

 Here’s how it works:

West Wind: Planes landing at Heathrow; can be over 40 an hour

East Wind:  Usually no Heathrow planes, but London City aircraft land in their concentrated corridor over swathes of SE London

Light East Wind:  Heathrow planes still landing (because they only switch when the wind gets above about 5 knots) but City planes are also landing (because they switch immediately wind direction changes). Total can be over 50 planes an hour.

East wind above 5 knots Sat lunch – Sun lunch:  No planes!  Heathrow aircraft are landing over Windsor; and London City is shut.

Last year because of the beast from the east and its summer cousin we saw a lot of east wind but in a typical year it just blows about 30% of the time.  How often is it over 5 decibels?  I’m not sure.  And how often is it over 5 decibels between Saturday lunch time and Sunday lunchtime?  Even less. But that is the only time many in SE London get a break from the noise.

Heathrow and London City have started talking.  When Heathrow introduces its new flight paths after 2025, there is the opportunity to provide respite through the introduction of multiple rotating flights (particularly if London City will play ball and remove its current single concentrated flight path).  In the shorter term HACAN is speaking with both the airports and NATS to look at what could be done to ease the situation.

A bonus mark to those of you who added Christmas Day:  City Airport is closed and an east wind above about 5 knots means Heathrow planes land over Windsor.


Noise: driving ordinary people to do extraordinary things

by John Stewart

‘I have never seen anything that affects people like noise does’ Pamela Parker Shine, a noise inspector in Montgomery County, USA

 When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives and people will move mountains to get rid of it.

  • A teenager who left school at 15 with minimal qualifications to work in Carnaby Street in the swinging ‘60s became the driving force behind the Noise Act thirty years later in 1996..because of a noise problem she had experienced.
  • A pensioner who barely used a computer forced herself onto twitter and facebook to tell the world about the planes flying over her house.
  • A retired couple spent over 70,000 of their own money to try to persuade the authorities to sort out serious low-frequency noise from a pipeline.
  • A tenant on benefits fought his Housing Association through courts and tribunals for eight long years to improve the insulation in his property.

And, for the most part, we are talking about your average person who led a fairly typical life until the noise hit. Some will be amongst the 10% of people the German psychologist Rainer Guski identified as particularly noise sensitive. Many will not.

It can be difficult for people who haven’t been really disturbed by noise to understand the lengths those who are disturbed by it will go to get rid of it.

I wrote in my book Why Noise Matters, published in 2011:

When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives.  It always seems to be there, an ever-present shadow, darting, taunting, tantalising; forever just out of reach.  The desire to get rid of the offending noise by almost any means possible can become overwhelming.  People spend their waking – and sleeping – hours fantasising on how to stop it.  They dream of poisoning the barking dog; of shooting down the roaring jet; of smashing the neighbour’s stereo; or of derailing the latest lorry that thunders past.”

It is no wonder that ordinary people can become so dogged when trying to sort out the noise.  Here is the story of that Carnaby St teenager:

Little did Val think she would become the UK’s leading anti-noise campaigner when as a teenager she worked for the Small Faces rock band in Carnaby Street at the height of their fame in the swinging London of the 1960s.  She liked the pop music of the era.  Her regular haunt was the Marquee in Soho.  The noise problem that was to change Val’s life didn’t start until 20 years later.  By then she was living with her two children in a house in the Thamesmead council estate in South London.  She had been there for about 12 years.  She was a broadcaster on the local radio station, deeply involved with the community and on friendly terms with her neighbours.  She jumped at the chance to buy her house. 

 And then……a new neighbour moved in next door and the music started.  It was so loud that Val and her husband Phil could hear the lyrics through the wall.  They asked the neighbour to turn it down, which at first she did, but then it was back at the same volume.  ‘We couldn’t relax or watch television and I kept bursting into tears at work,’ says Val.  ‘It turned into a full-scale battle.  We threatened to take her to court but she just sent a note back saying “good luck to you”.  All the council did was to send us a leaflet about taking our own action.’  In the end Val sold up. ‘I had to give some of my right-to-buy discount back but we were so desperate we had no option.  We are permanently sensitised now and, if we hear that bass, those feelings of panic return.’ 

After her experience Val set up the Peace and Quiet Campaign to assist noise sufferers.  At its height in the 1990s it had thousands of members.  She received an MBE for her work.  She then founded and became the co-ordinator of the UK Noise Association.  But she says the noise experience will never leave her. ‘We now live in Kent.  We have had to take out a large mortgage to buy a detached house because, if we were attached to anybody, I would live in fear that a new neighbour might start playing their music excessively loud and our nightmare would return.’

Val is not typical in that, once her own noise problem was sorted out, she spent the rest of her working life battling noise on a national level.  Most people when their noise problem is dealt with go back to living the lives they once had.

But she is typical in the way that people disturbed by noise will strain ever sinew to get it sorted out.  It probably stating the obvious that people who are the most desperate, and perhaps the most motivated, are those who feel they cannot escape from the noise or that it is going to damage their lives by forcing them to move away from family and friends or it will cause them financial loss.

Many of the posts about noise on social media are cries for help from desperate people.  When I read a tweet that a woman is dreading the next few days because an east wind will be blowing and she will be getting planes all day long, this is a heartfelt cry for someone to do something about the noise.

Most noise sufferers are not good, certainly initially, at solutions.  They just want rid of the noise.  But they often don’t know how to go about it.  They have not been in this situation before.  They are not campaigners or politicians.

But the drive to get rid of the noise means many find themselves doing things they never imagined they would: going to rallies; attending public meetings; taking part in demonstrations; writing letters; speaking with lawyers; neglecting family; foregoing a social life. I once said to a noise sufferer “I’ll buy you a drink if you win your battle”.  He replied: “I’m glad you offered.  I’ve forgotten how to go to the bar!”  Continue reading

Turning the WHO noise report into action

John Stewart looks at policy measures which could deal with the trend WHO identifies: health can be affected by lower noise levels than previously thought  

 The new World Health Organisation (WHO) noise guidelines published in October argued that people’s health was impacted by aircraft noise at much lower levels than previously thought.

Three immediate questions come to mind:

  • How accurate are the WHO figures?
  • Are they supported by other studies?
  • If they are broadly correct, what measures can be put in place to cut the impact of aircraft noise?
  1. How accurate are the figures?

The safe limits the WHO proposes are:

Road                                    53Lden                                45Lnight

 Rail                                      54Lden                                44Lnight

Aircraft                                 45Lden                                40Lnight

 Wind Turbine                      45Lden                         no  recommendation*

  Leisure                                 70 LAeq

* WHO felt that there was insufficient evidence to make a recommendation but stressed that it was not saying there was no problem.

The limits were arrived at in this way:  when 10% of people said they were annoyed by a particular noise source (during the day) at a given level, that level became the bench-mark, the health threshold, the recommended guideline.  The night time guidelines, generally, are lower because the evidence showed that regular sleep disturbance can have a worse impact on health than annoyance.  Therefore the benchmark was set at a lower level.  The recommended threshold was the level at which 3% of people were ‘highly sleep-disturbed’.  WHO’s findings are based on a comprehensive assessment of the available research and the organisation has expressed a high level of confidence in its recommendations.

Nevertheless, some questions come to mind.  45Lden is a low figure.  In geographical terms, around Heathrow for example, it would cover areas well over 20 miles from the airport.  There are undoubtedly people living in those areas who are highly annoyed by aircraft noise.  They contact HACAN on a regular basis.  What I don’t know whether or not they make up 10% of the population.  The WHO acknowledges that this 10% may be too high amongst the population as a whole; it may be distorted by the clear finding that people are most likely to be highly annoyed when change has take place, such as a new runway or new flight paths.  There also does seem to be a correlation between the rise in annoyance and a rise in the volume of planes flying over any one community.  But, perhaps more fundamentally, if WHO had chosen a different level at which people became highly annoyed – say 8% or 12% of the population – it would have had different results.

  1. Are they supported by other studies?

This is a key question.  In a very real sense they are as WHO arrived at its figures only after reviewing a wide range of studies.  And studies which were published after the WHO had done its research confirm that people get annoyed at lower levels than previously acknowledged.  Both the huge NORAH Study carried out in Germany and a recent report by the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed the trend.  The CAA’s work, SoNA (Survey of Noise Attitudes, 2014) for example found that 7% of people become significantly annoyed at 51LAeq.  A slightly different metric and a less dramatic finding but spelling out a similar message to WHO.  And I think that is the key point.  The exact metric at which annoyance or sleep disturbance may lead to health problems may always be open to some debate, but the trend is very clear:  people can be impacted by aircraft noise at much lower levels than previously thought.

  1. What measures can be put in place to cut the impact of aircraft noise?

If these limits were to be achieved tomorrow there would be no planes in our skies, no cars on the roads and the rail network would come to a standstill.  And that is not what the WHO is not calling for.  But it is equally clear that doing nothing is not an option.  It wants to see measures put in place that will cut the impact of transport noise on people’s health.

So, what could be done?  Some measures will be easier to recommend than others.

 The more straightforward measures

CDA (continuous descent approach) is in place at all airports. This is where aircraft descent smoothly, cutting noise and enabling them to be higher for longer.  It is standard practice at an airport like Heathrow.  There seems no operational reason why it cannot be the standard at all airports.

Less noisy planes continue to come on-stream. This is happening but at a slow pace.  The step change we have seen over the last 30/40 years has come to an end.

Money from aviation taxes like Air Passenger Duty is used for research into quiet aircraft. The industry continues to put money into developing less noisy planes but this could be given a useful boost if the money raised by Government from aviation taxes could be earmarked for research and development into the quiet plane.

A less little straightforward

 A national target to cut noise from aviation is introduced. The Government is considering this as part of its new aviation strategy.  It would be important as it could act as the driver to cut noise in the same way as air pollution targets have helped drive policy. It should be possible to come up with a target but I’ve put in this category because it is not clear at this stage just how it would work.

 Approach and departure routes to be as steep as practicable.These are desirables but there are some constraints.  The angle for landing aircraft must be shallow enough to allow planes to land safely and easily on the runway.  Steeper angles are possible at airports such as London City which only operate smaller aircraft.  And it may be that a two-tier glideslope is possible, with aircraft descending at a steeper angle further from the airport.  Steeper departures would relieve the noise for those communities right under the flight path – the priority in my opinion – but would increase it for communities to the side.  Additionally in busy airspace, such as over London and the SE, aircraft might need to be held down to avoid planes from other airports.  That, though, should be resolved with the introduced of Precision Based Navigation (PBN) where, using satellite-based technology, aircraft can be guided much more accurately.

Respite becomes the norm for local communities.  The key factor for communities is the number of aircraft which go over their heads.  For a lot of people this is more important than the total number of aircraft using an airport or even the number of runways it has.  In order to reduce annoyance, it is necessary to cut the number of flights overflying individual communities.  This can be done by using the new precision satellite technology to create, and then rotate, multiple routes.  There are two limiting factors:  it may not always be possible for people very close to the runway to get respite (they should be first in line for mitigation); and the complexity of the airspace, particularly in London and the SE, may limit the number of respite paths available.

Overflying new areas is avoided if possible.  But sometimes it will be inevitable in order to ease the noise burden for existing communities.  The starkest finding from the WHO findings is that annoyance increases markedly when change takes place, at what they call ‘high change’ airports.  This suggests that new areas should be avoided if possible.  But this might not always be the fairest thing to do.  If the noise burden for communities currently overflown was to become excessive, the fairest thing to do would be to share it round even if that meant some areas getting it for the first time.

 More challenging measures

 Night flights are phased out.  This would be welcomed by local communities but would be resisted by the airlines.  As a starting point, the Government should commission research into whether the economic benefits of night flights still outweigh the cost to the country of their health disbenefits.  This should be done airport by airport.  Unless the economic benefits of night flights at an airport are significantly higher than the health disbenefits, night flights should go.  

 International action is taken on night flights.  Ultimately international action is needed on night flights.  It would be difficult to justify a ban at European airports if that resulted in more night flights in the less well-off countries.  Up-to-date research is needed into the true economic benefits of night flights, into whether other sectors of the economy (such as the hotel trade) would benefit if they were banned and into whether a worldwide night ban is operationally feasible.  To my knowledge, the last comprehensive report on night flights was released by the European Commission in 2005.  Assessing the Economic Cost of Night Flight Restrictions found “the argument for night flights seems likely to be basically commercially rather than operationally driven.”

 Demand for flying is managed.  There is a case for putting this top of my list as, in theory, heavy taxes could be imposed on tickets in next year’s budget which could cut demand at a stroke.  But, in the real world, that is not going to happen.  Taxes on aviation in this country are already amongst the highest in the world and any government will be worried about making UK uncompetitive by imposing higher taxes.  But clearly the option should not be ruled out.  Sir Howard Davies argued in his Airport Commission report that, if demand was such that carbon targets would not be met, fiscal measures should be used to dampen down demand.  I think the same argument stands in the case of noise.  For many communities noise levels are currently unacceptable.  People’s health is being damaged.  If fiscal measures are required to deal with this by dampening down demand, governments should not shy away from this option.

John Stewart

John Stewart chairs HACAN, the organisation which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths.  He is also the lead author of Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011.

Full WHO report:

Metrics Matter

Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have been reading a blog on metrics; far less writing one.  Indeed, I’m not sure I’d really have had much idea of what “metrics” were.

 But having chaired HACAN for nearly 20 years I now know metrics matters a lot.  The way noise is measured and the assumptions behind when it becomes annoying are critical factors in the determining Government policy on noise.

The importance of getting metrics right was recognized by the Transport Select Committee in its recent report on the National Policy Statement.  In effect, it suggested the Department for Transport recalculate the number of people which could be impacted by a three runway Heathrow using the most up-to-date metrics.  If this was done it believed ‘an extra 539,327 people would be captured in the annoyance footprint; taking the total number of people in the noise annoyance footprint to over 1.15 million’.  This is considerably higher than either the DfT or Heathrow have acknowledged.

Using the right metrics is the also one of the key messages of the report HACAN published this week (in association with Plane Hell Action) which found that aircraft noise can be a problem over 20 miles from Heathrow – areas where the traditional metrics simply ignored:

It needs to be acknowledged the real progress there has been in recent years in devising more realistic metrics.  Credit goes to campaigners who gave banged on about outdated metrics for nearly 20 years, the Airports Commission who came to the issue with fresh eyes, Heathrow who came to understand the need for change and to the Department for Transport which moved things forward significantly in its new airspace policy announced in autumn 2016.

Things are not yet perfect – which I’ll come to later in the blog – but we are in a different world from the dark days of two decades ago.  Then the 57 decibel contour was king.  If you were inside the contour, it was accepted you had a noise problem.  Outside of it, you didn’t really count.

So what was so magical about the 57 decibel contour?  It was constructed like this.  Over a 16 hour day, the number of aircraft passing over an area and the noise of each plane were noted.  The noise was then averaged out.  This was then turned into an annual average.  If the annual average was over 57 decibel, the area was within the 57 decibel contour.

Why 57 decibels?  Because, at the time, this was the level at which the Government argued ‘the onset of community annoyance’ began.  Acousticians were careful to say that it was more subtle than that and that some people became annoyed at lower levels but, to all intents and purposes, the 57 decibel contour became the official cut-off point, used at public inquiries and in industry and government documents to illustrate the numbers impacted by individual airports.  Latterly, it made no sense.  Around Heathrow for example places like Putney and Fulham – both clearly heavily impacted by aircraft noise – were outside the contour.

Things began to look up when, over a decade ago, the EU required member states to use a different metric known as 55Lden.  It argued that the ‘onset of community annoyance’ started at a lower level.  The difference in numbers impacted at Heathrow was huge:  over 725,000 using 55Lden compared with around 245,000 using 57LAeq.

The Airports Commission under Sir Howard Davies, although criticized in other areas, moved the metrics debate forward significantly.  It suggested a range of metrics should be used included the ‘N’ metric.  Local communities often feel these are more meaningful to them than the average noise.  So, for example, N60 would indicate the number of flights over 60 decibels that went over an area in any given period.  Heathrow also began to move towards using a suite of metrics.

The culmination of this improved process was the Government’s Airspace Policy announced in autumn 2016.  It effectively ditched the 57LAeq contour and replaced it with the 54LAeq as point where ‘the onset of community annoyance’ starts.  But it went further.  On the basis of a report it had commissioned from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Department for Transport recognized that around 7% of people could be disturbed when the noise averages out at 51 decibels.  These are more meaningful metrics.  And not far from what the World Health Organisation recommends.

In geographical terms, it takes the annoyance boundary from about Barnes (57 contour) to Clapham (54 contour) to about the Southwark/Lewisham border (51 contour).  As the crow flies, Barnes in 9 miles from Heathrow, Clapham 14 miles and Nunhead (fairly close to the Southwark/Lewisham border), 19 miles.  Similar calculations can be done west of the airport.

Accurate metrics matter because only when there is a clear idea of the numbers impacted by noise from an airport can realistic policies be put in place to deal with that noise.  Metrics can determine levels of compensation, whether efforts should be made to provide communities with relief and respite from the noise and, indeed, to assess the impact of any new runway.

Campaigners will be pressing for real action based on these more meaningful metrics.  We will also continue to press for still further improvements.  For example, the existing metrics do not reflect the actual noise impact in areas like Ealing or Teddington which only get planes (on easterly departures) about 30% of the year but, when they do, the impact is significant.  A metric that measures only the days areas are overflown would be more meaningful and needs to be added to the suite of metrics used.  This would also capture the problems experienced in places like Reading and Caverham which are currently a little outside the 51 decibel contour when measured over a year.  A metric also needs to be used which reflects the cumulative impact on areas which experience noise from two airports, such as Heathrow and London City.

The dark days when one outdated metric was relied upon do seem to be over.  But the light is not yet shining as brightly as it could be. 

How the campaign to stop a new Nantes Airport became one of the most successful in history

Outside London where I live, Brussels where I sometimes lobby – and maybe Brighton where I escape to for a day out – there is no place I’ve been to more often over the last decade than Nantes in West France.

Earlier this week the Macron Government announced that it was dropping plans for a new airport about 15 miles outside Nantes close to the village of Notre-Dames-des-Landes.  The scale of what local campaigners have achieved cannot be overstated.

Whether you or not support you support their cause, the way the Nantes community built up their campaign has lessons for campaigners, whatever their issue, everywhere.

I first became aware of the airport proposal when five French farmers joined our ‘No Third Runway’ rally in London in 2008.  That summer I went to Nantes for the first time.  I found a pretty small campaign uncertain how to proceed.  And in particular unsure how to get the voice of farmers and villagers from an unfashionable part of France heard on the national stage.

Theirs is the remarkable story of turning a small, rural campaign into one of the biggest environmental movements in Europe.

They took some early inspiration from the successful campaign in London to stop a third runway.  An account of that campaign which I        had put together was translated into French.

Their campaign, going back decades, was rooted in the radical French ‘peasant farmers’ movement.  The farmers were joined by local people fearful of the way the new airport would blight their lives and by climate campaigners.

They adopted strategies used in the Heathrow campaign: building a broad coalition; organizing pro-active, high-profile stunts and demonstrations; challenging the economic justification for the airport.  They commissioned their own independent study from the Dutch consultants CE Delft – the same people we had used at Heathrow – which questioned the economic case for the airport.  They used the courts.

They were joined by direct action activists who set up home in Le Zad on part of the land that would be required for the new airport.

The campaigners made links across France and established support “committees” in 200 towns in Belgium and France.  These support groups did demonstrations in their own areas in support of the Nantes campaigners.  And each July up 40,000 people would descend upon this tranquil part of rural France to show their solidarity during the annual protest weekend.  It was an awesome experience addressing crowds of this size on the occasions I was asked to speak.

Interestingly, though, the Nantes campaigners had little support from campaign groups around other French airports.  A number of these groups backed the building of the airport.  They felt a new 2-runway airport outside Nantes would eliminate the noise experienced by Nantes residents from the existing one runway airport (which would have closed).  But it was also believed that a new international airport in the West of France would relieve pressure on Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in Paris where residents were suffering badly from an ever-increasing number of flights.

The regional government based in Nantes and the national Government in Paris had for decades strongly backed a new Nantes Airport.  The exact reasons why they were so determined to build it were never clear.  The existing airport was far from full.  But the economic regeneration and extra jobs that the new airport might have brought to the area attracted support from many local politicians.  The argument that France needed another airport to take the burden off Paris had some support at a national level.  But many of the airport’s opponents felt that the new airport was little more than a prestige project for local politicians.  Certainly there was nothing like the pressure of demand that there is in somewhere like SE England today.

The campaign always had radical roots because it came our of the French ‘peasant’ movement.  But, even so, in the early days there were tensions between the local people and Le Zad activists.

That changed – in fact a huge amount changed – during the winter of 2012/13 when  there were tear-gas battles in the woods as police fought to remove hundreds of the activitists who had set up make-shift homes in support of the local community.  The courage of Le Zad protestors as they resisted the police in the bitter winter cold and driving rain both cemented their support in the local community and highlighted their struggle more widely.

Earlier in 2012, during the presidential election, four local farmers staged a 28 day hunger strike against the plan to evict them from their properties.  A number of the presidential hopefuls came to visit these men, some of them quite elderly.  These images of ordinary people defending the land their families had farmed for generations caught the imagination of France and beyond.

A key feature of the campaign was spectacular stunts and demonstrations, often headed up by the convoy of tractors.  Hundreds of people riding bicycles and on tractors spent a weekend on the road as they headed for a huge rally in Paris.  I spotted them easily when I joined them.  Their animals were heading their march through the elegant boulevards of the French capital!

In early 2014 up to 60,000 people took part in a demonstration in Nantes.  While pre-dominantly peaceful It ended in violence with parts of the city set ablaze as a small number of activists fought running battles with the police.  This exacerbated the tension between many of the local people and the activitists.

By 2017 many of those tensions had been resolved.  The Hollande Government had held a regional referendum where, by a small majority, the area voted to back the new runway.  Once more it looked as if the campaigners had lost the battle.  But the French Government was fearful what would happen if they went in to try to clear the land.  They knew that tens of thousands of people would descent on it from all over Europe.  As one regional councillor put it: “Quite simply, if they try to build the airport, there will be uprisings across France.  The reaction to both the hunger strike and the resistance in the woods means it will be very hard for the authorities to go-ahead with the airport.”

Macron, a much more astute figure than Hollande, bowed to the inevitable and dropped the project.  The campaigners had given him a way out by making the case that more growth at the existing Nantes Airport would cater satisfactorily for the projected demand in the region and should be pursued instead of the new airport.

Macron had set up a small team to look at the arguments for both airports.  They didn’t really come to a firm conclusion but provided a useful device for Macron to drop the new runway but still save face.

The campaigners had secured a famous victory.

As I see it the key ingredients were:

  • They were strongly motivated
  • They understood they had to make this a national issue
  • They made a well-researched economic case against the new runway
  • They staged high-profile, visually exciting, dramatic and daring events
  • They built up a nation-wide – and ultimately Europe-wide – coalition of support
  • They understood the value of local communities linking up with direct action activists
  • They kept on going over many years
  • They gave the Government an alternative option.

I am certain that a number of the residents impacted by the existing airport will not be at all happy with the decision.  Equally, there will unhappiness amongst many heavily overflown by the Paris airports.  There are real issues to be explored there – maybe subject for another blog.  This blog was simply to highlight the factors which made the fight against the Notre-Dames-des-Landes Airport one of the most impressive campaigns there has ever been.



Shaping 2018

1st January 2018

by John Stewart

The essence of successful campaigning is to shape the future.  There will be a number of opportunities for aviation campaigners to do that in 2018.  It will be the year when crucial decisions will be made and pivotal policy positions set in train.

The most headline-making decision will be on a third runway at Heathrow.  Already it is the Government’s preferred option.  If Parliament backs it in a vote expected by the summer, it will become official Government policy.  The next step will be for Heathrow to begin the 2 – 3 year process of drawing up and consulting on the detailed plans before presenting them to a local planning inquiry for approval.

HACAN has long campaigned against a third runway and will continue to do so.  Our principle objection is this:  we feel that an extra 700 planes a day will only worsen the noise climate (despite any welcome improvements in aircraft technology and better operational procedures that may be on the way).  It will be particularly hard on areas – such as parts of Hammersmith, Chiswick, Brentford and Ealing – which have never had planes before.  Lives will be turned upside down and, for some people, it will never go back to the pre-plane days.  Already, according to the European Commission, 28% of people impacted by aircraft noise across Europe live under the Heathrow flight paths.  We feel that, whatever economic benefits a third runway may bring, the noise disbenefits are simply too great.

But opposing a third runway is not the same as arguing against the growth of aviation per se.  Aviation growth, for all its well-documented environmental and local downsides, will have significant worldwide benefits.  The aviation industry has an important role to play in improving connectivity between nations.  Better connectivity facilitates trade which in turn helps create prosperity.  And historically, it has been trade which has played a key role in opening up closed societies, breaking down taboos and increasing individual freedom.

While the long-awaited decision on the third runway will capture the headlines, it important that, as campaigners, we don’t let it overshadow our chance to shape other key decisions that will be made in 2018.

On January 17th, Heathrow will launch two public consultations to run in parallel over a 10 week period.  One will concern the impacts of a third runway; the other will be about the reorganisation of its flight paths.

While HACAN continues to oppose a third runway, if it does happen, we want the best possible deal for our members who will the people who will be living with the impact of the new runway.  We are determined to try to shape that deal.  We would of course prefer not to be in a position of trying to shape a deal before a final decision has been taken but that it the reality of where things are and it would be a dereliction of our duty to our members if we didn’t use every opportunity to get the best deal possible.

So, during the consultation, we will be putting forward and campaigning for tough conditions to be embedded in any recommendation the Government may put before Parliament for a third runway.

The six key HACAN conditions would want to see:

  • A tougher night flight regime than the 6½ hour night currently on offer
  • Guaranteed respite for all communities within 25 miles of Heathrow
  • A noise envelope that sets firm limits on noise and flight numbers
  • World class compensation
  • A Community Engagement Board
  • A fourth runway to be ruled out

 The conditions should be become part of primary legislation agreed by Parliament in order to provide the firmest guarantee possible that there will be no going back on them.

We will also seek to shape Heathrow’s flight paths consultation.

The airspace changes are not being driven by the third runway but by the introduction at airports across the world of new technology called Performance Based Navigation (PBN).  In essence, it means that aircraft will be guided more precisely as they land and take-off.  The norm will be flight paths along a few, predicable, concentrated routes.  This will allow more aircraft to use an airport, cut fuel costs for airlines, reduce CO2 emissions from each aircraft, improve the resilience of airports and probably cut the number of air traffic controllers required.

Performance Based Navigation is not, in my view, an optional process which any one airport can opt out of or any one community can successfully challenge. Hundreds of airports across the globe have already introduced it.  It has the backing of governments.  The aviation industry has spent huge sums of money on it.  In Europe the industry has invested 2.5 billion euros in PBN on which it expects to get a return of 4.4 billion euros.  And in America, it is estimated PBN improvements have accrued $1.6 billion of benefits since 2010 and it is expected that by 2030, the total benefits of PBN improvements will be $160.6 billion, at a cost of $35.8 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation industry.

Opposing PBN is not a realistic option.  Our challenge as campaign groups is to shape it so it works for our communities.  HACAN’s well-known position is that PBN could work for communities if the precision technology is used to introduce a number of routes which are then rotated to provide predicable periods of respite.  It could be a positive benefit for communities from Lewisham to Reading who at present are being tormented by all-day flying.  Whatever system is finally introduced, it needs to be rooted in the principles of fairness and equity.

The other piece of emerging legislation which will be developed in 2018 will be the new Aviation White Paper being put together by the Department for Transport.  It is likely to enshrine in legislation some of the positives which were outlined in the Government’s Airspace Policy, published towards the end of 2017: more realistic metrics for measuring noise annoyance; the recognition of the importance of respite; the establishment of an Independent Noise Authority (expected to happen this April).  These are measures HACAN campaigned hard for over many years.  We will be joining other organisations like the Airports Community Forum to press for tough measures to cut noise and for airport communities to have a stronger voice in decision-making to be included in the White Paper.

But the consultation last year on the vision behind the White Paper was based on a huge predicted growth in passenger numbers over the coming decades.  As indicated above, aviation growth can bring benefits.  But future growth, unless regulated in some way, could overwhelm us.  When the 90% or so of the world’s population who have never flown start to do so, some controls will probably become inevitable.  A fair fiscal system would be the most effective form of control.  It needs to be a graduated system where those who fly most frequently – and those who travel the greatest distance – pay the most.  Air Passenger Duty, which raises £3.2 billion a year for the Exchequer, includes a distance element.  The much-discussed Frequent Flyers Levy – – bases the tax paid on the number of trips made in a year.

But any tax needs to work for the industry as well.  There is a strong argument for at least a proportion of the money raised to be earmarked for research and development into quieter, cleaner aircraft.  We need an ‘air pricing’ system that will enhance the effectiveness and performance of the aviation industry; that recognizes its value in facilitating trade, increasing prosperity and connecting communities; that is focused on creating a quieter, cleaner industry that can do its job without the environmental barriers it currently faces.  It may mean less growth but it could well mean smarter growth.  In 2008 HACAN will be working with its fellow campaign groups in Europe to try and put the idea of smart air pricing on the agenda.

Finally – and as important as anything else for people living with the noise right now – in 2018 we will press for immediate improvements to the current noise climate around Heathrow.  Early in the New Year we will publish a report which will suggest that, while most flight paths have not changed in recent years, there has been more concentration of aircraft both of landing and take-off.  This needn’t wait until new flight paths are in place to get sorted.  We will suggest it is something with air traffic control could deal with in the short-term.

We will continue to defend the runway alternation enjoyed by many people in West London.  And back the trials of slightly steeper approaches being carried out by Heathrow.  And back the research being carried out into the impact of steeper departures.  We will continue to play an active role in bodies such as Heathrow’s Community Noise Forum and the Community Engagement Board (which will incorporate the Heathrow Consultative Committee).

2018 is the year when decisions will be taken that will affect people living under Heathrow’s flight paths for decades to come.    It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us as campaigners influence those decisions.  We know the problems.  Let’s go in positively and help shape the solutions.

How the impact of aircraft noise could be cut over SE London

by John Stewart

Heathrow is not just a West London problem.  Just take a look at this map.  The big, fat green areas covers south east and north east London.  Hundreds of planes a day.  Typically, 70% of the year – the days the west wind blows. No respite.  And when the east wind blows, some of the areas find themselves under the concentrated flight paths to London City Airport.  It is hardly surprising that HACAN gets more emails each year from South East London than from anywhere else.

So, on 27th September at a public meeting in the shadow of the Oval HACAN South East was formed.  Initially, it will function as branch of HACAN.

We think it is timely because over the coming years there could be real opportunities to improve matters for residents in South East London.

Heathrow flight paths will be changing with or without a third runway.  It will be driven by Performance Navigation Technology (PBN) which enables aircraft to be guided more precisely.  This potentially gives residents what they have been calling for for many years: a break from the noise.  Some respite.

Heathrow backs the concept and will be publishing a report on respite shortly. So does the Government.  Respite is expected to be a key feature of the Department for Transport’s new airspace policy, due out very soon.

Respite, where appropriate.  We are not saying it is necessarily the answer for every community everywhere in the country.  But we do believe it will give people back their lives in SE London.

And it can be done without aircraft moving to new areas.  Take another look at the green areas on the map.  Divide them into 4 lines.  Rotate those lines.  And you have got respite for existing communities, without impacting new people.

Towards the end of this year Heathrow will be publishing a consultation on the design principles which should inform its new flight paths.  We welcome the consultation and we will be repeating the ‘r’ word many times in our responses.

HACAN South East will also be pushing for steeper descents so the planes are higher over the area.  At present the aircraft are roughly 3,000 – 5,500 ft in height.  Raise them a couple of thousand feet and many people will be lifted out of the problem area.

That’s not on the cards in the immediate future.  But we know that Heathrow is looking at a two-tiered approach whereby aircraft descend over SE London at a steep gradient (and thus are higher) before levelling off over West London so they can land safely at the airport.

Many residents in SE London complain bitterly about night flights.  They would like to see a full 8 hour break during the night.  Yet for the airlines that might be a step too far.  But we would argue that there is room for creative thinking about night flights despite the competing interests.

There is a lot of scope at night to vary the flight paths in areas as far from the airport as South East London so that for most weeks in the year any one area is not overflown.  We shall be exploring the possibilities with Heathrow and air traffic control.  Promises are being made that one of the conditions of a third runway will be a tougher night flight regime but we believe much could be done long before then that benefits residents but doesn’t disbenefit the airlines.

Finally, London City aircraft have become a real problem since it concentrated its flight paths in February 2016.  Prior to that noise from London City was not much of a problem in most of SE London as the planes were spread out.  We will be working alongside our fellow campaigners in HACAN East to press for an end to the noise ghettos created by the London City concentrated flight paths.

Twenty years ago when aircraft noise from Heathrow became a real concern in South East London (because planes started joining their final approach to the airport much further east), the issue was not on the agenda of the Government, of Heathrow or indeed of HACAN.

The work done over two decades has put SE London’s problems on the agenda.  The coming years could see solutions being put in place.  We believe that they are practical, realistic answers which will work for both residents and the industry.  HACAN South East will be campaigning for them to be introduced as soon as possible. 


A three runway Heathrow; 700 more planes a day; can it really be quieter as is claimed

Here’s an odd thing.  The number of flights at Heathrow has more than doubled since the 1980s yet, according to official statistics, the number of people annoyed by the noise has fallen from 1.2million in 1980 to around 250,000.

But this is more than an historical curiosity. 

It matters for the future because the Department for Transport’s National Policy Statement, Heathrow Airport and Sir Howard Davies all argue that if a third runway – with 700 more flights a day – is built fewer people will be annoyed by noise from Heathrow than are today.

In my view, the apparent contradiction is down to the inadequate way noise annoyance has been measured. 

The noise of each aircraft is measured and the number of planes going overhead counted.  The noise is then averaged out over a 16 hour day but – and this is the critical point – too much weight has been given to the noise of individual aircraft and not enough weight to the number of planes passing overhead.  In 2003 HACAN published The Quiet Con which found that, using this measurement, one Concorde passing overhead once every two hours caused as much annoyance as a 757 flying over one every two minutes.  That is not how people hear noise.

It is this which has allowed official figures to show that the numbers impacted by noise have fallen significantly while the number of planes using Heathrow has risen equally significantly.  And also why it can be claimed the number of people annoyed by the noise from a 3 runway Heathrow will be less than are currently affected.

I do, though, see signs of change in the air.  The Airports Commission, under Howard Davies, did a good job in updating the noise metrics.  And the Government’s recent consultation on airspace policy built upon that.

There are two critical changes that are proposed.

One is the recommendation that, in assessing noise annoyance, in addition to averaging out the noise, decision-makers should take account of the number of aircraft going over head and the loudness of each individual plane.

Secondly, the cut-off point of where people start to get annoyed has been lowered.  It used to be where the noise averaged out at 57 decibels over a 16 hour day.  That was unrealistically low.  It excluded places like Putney and Fulham where aircraft noise is clearly a problem.

The new cut-off point, expected to be announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) shortly, is likely to be 54 or 51 decibels.  It is backed up by research the DfT commissioned from the CAA.  This shows that 9% of people are highly annoyed when the noise averages out at 54 decibels and 7% at 51 decibels.  In geographical terms around that goes as far as about Clapham to the east and about 16 miles to the west: around 65,000 people in total.  The lower average of 51% extends about as far as Peckham.

The expected new metrics are not perfect.  For example, they do not adequately measure the real level of annoyance of people in areas that may just have planes for part of the year but, when they do so, are badly hit.  Places such as Teddington and Ealing are overflown for about 30% of the time in a typical year (when an east wind blows).  They fall outside the annual noise annoyance contours. There needs to be a metric to capture their situation.  But, on the whole, the new metrics have the potential to reflect more accurately the situation on the ground.

So is it at all possible that a three runway Heathrow – with 700 more flights a day – will be quieter than the two runway airport is today?  Individual planes will become less noisy, operational practices will improve and noise annoyance will be measured more accurately.

But, over the last quarter of a century, the problem for residents has been the sheer volume of planes going overhead.  700 more with a third runway.  Of course that number includes landings and take-offs and it is not 700 over any one community.  And measures to increase the angle of descent and ascent will assist.  And creative thinking about respite will be important; indeed will be essential.

But it is that 700 figure which worries communities.  It is like 700 dark clouds on the horizon.  It is the basis of community opposition to a third runway.

The Third Runway is not a done deal!

On the day that the consultation about a third runway closes it is still my view that a new runway at Heathrow is far from a done deal.

There are still many hurdles for the airport to overcome.  So far it has got over just two of them: the recommendation of a third runway by the Airports Commission in July 2015 and then last October the announcement from Theresa May that a new runway at Heathrow was her Government’s preferred option.

The next big hurdle will be the vote in Parliament later this year or early next year.  Technically, it is a vote on the National Policy Statement on Airports (NPS) but in reality it is about a third runway.  It would be a surprise, though, if Heathrow falls at this hurdle.  With a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs expected to back the NPS is likely to be approved.

Perhaps the one thing which could alter this, or certainly reduce the majority, is the growing realization that the economic benefits of a third runway have been significantly downgraded.  The Airports Commission put them at £211bn (over a 60 year period).  The Department for Transport now says they will be no more than £61bn, and a lot less if the costs of noise, air pollution etc are taken into account.  Heathrow’s promises to the regions were based on the higher figure.  There are signs that it is beginning to hit home to MPs representing these areas that the benefits to them might be a lot less than they were led to believe.

Even if a third runway does scale the NPS hurdle it could emerge as a different beast.  A number of MPs with whom HACAN has spoken are attracted by the idea of making their vote for a third runway dependent on tougher conditions than the Department for Transport is promising.  For example, there is growing backing for a night flight ban to be longer than six and a half hours.

But beyond the National Policy Statement further hurdles remain.

There will almost certainly be a legal challenge by Greenpeace and a number of local authorities.  The case will be led by the same legal team which mounted a successful challenge to the last Labour Government’s plans for a third runway 10 years ago so the chance of it succeeding cannot be discounted.  Certainly a number of the local authority leaders believe they have a strong case.  It would need, though, to be a decisive win to deal a knock-out blow to a third runway rather than simply force the Government to come back with an amended scheme.

Air pollution will continue to cast a pall of uncertainty over the third runway.  The previous Government’s air quality strategy, published a few weeks ago, appeared to suggest air pollution around Heathrow could not be sorted until at least 2030 – five years after the new runway would be due to open.  Governments can often wriggle out of environmental problems but its wriggle-room on air pollution may be limited given the fact air pollution is such a high-profile issue, certainly in London.  It is much less dominant outside the capital where leaders tend to see it as largely a London problem.

A third hurdle is the continuing uncertainty over the costs of the road and rail infrastructure needed to serve a new runway:  how high will they be and who will pay them?  The consultation document did not clarify either question.  The costs have been put at anything between £5bn and £18bn.  Heathrow has said it will only pay its share of the costs which it puts at £  I would not argue that Heathrow should pay all the costs because the wider economy will also benefit from the new road and rail schemes but until it is clear what costs will fall on the public purse and whether the new Government will be prepared to pay them, this remains a hurdle in the path of a third runway.

The final hurdle is the continuing opposition to a third runway.  I suspect we will only be able to gauge the actual strength of this opposition when more will be known about flight paths next year.  Heathrow is trying to involve the community as closely as possible in developing its flight paths (flight paths will change significantly even at a two runway airport due to the introduction of new technology).  This makes sense but they know and we know it is flight paths which are most likely get local communities truly engaged in the issue.  The flight paths hurdle is the joker in the pack. Nobody really knows how it will play out.

So, as we await a new Government in a few weeks, we are about mid-point in the hurdles race and still uncertain if any of them will trip up Heathrow’s plans.  As a boy I thrilled to David Hemery’s gold medal win in the 800 metres hurdles in the 1968 Olympics – (worth watching if only for David Coleman’s legendary commentary).  Hemery dominated the field.  If Heathrow get to the finishing tape, it will be a very different type of race: one hurdle, one formidable challenge, at a time.  And there are still plenty of them to come.

‘Respite Plus’ needed for aircraft noise ‘hotspots’


by John Stewart

Some years ago, while doing some work for the UK Noise Association, I was asked to shortlist the noisiest roads in the UK.  I took a trip like no other.  Not for me seeking out the quiet beauty spots, the wooded glens or the babbling brooks.  I was on a mission to find the noisiest roads…and to spend as much time beside them as possible.

There are similar noise ‘hotspots’ under the Heathrow flight paths.  Go down to Cranford, for example, the last settlement in Hounslow before you reach Heathrow.  Mere words can’t convey the intensity of the noise.

Cranford, rightly, gets special insulation treatment.  Homes, including roofs, are fully insulated.  It get’s respite, a half day’s break from the noise when the planes are landing, but respite alone would not be enough.  It needs and gets ‘respite plus’.

Cranford, along with some of the other places, very close to the airport are obvious candidates for respite plus.  But are there others?  Are there less obvious hotspots which could qualify?

Heathrow is committed to the principle of respite but should it be looking at additional measures that would be required in the hotspots.  Of course, ‘hotspots’ would need to be carefully defined as funds are not limitless.

I would suggest that these are the sort of criteria which could be used in defining a hotspot:

  • The noise of the aircraft
  • The frequency of the aircraft
  • The number of hours without a break
  • Whether an area gets both arrivals and departures
  • Whether an area is overflown by aircraft from one or more flight path or airport

Perhaps the defining criteria would be that somebody living in a hot spot could be endangering their mental or physical health if ‘respite plus’ was not offered.  There may be a role for the soon-to-be-established Independent Noise Authority in helping define the criteria.

The airport – any airport – would then be required to work alongside the householders and the local authority to look at what respite plus might entail.  This would not be an easy task but the first step on the road would be to recognise there are hotspots where respite on its own may not be enough to mitigate the noise problem.