If respite is the answer, what is the question?


Guest blog by Chris Keady

you can reach the full HACAN website on www.hacan.org.uk 

If respite is the answer, what is the question?

Pick one of the following:

  1. ‘I’m not sure’,
  2. it depends who one asks; or
  3. am I bothered?

Before those desperate for respite, and about to explode with rage at this point, thinking this is some anti respite piece, don’t worry, it’s not. It is clear to anyone with a conscience that some people, and some communities, are desperate for relief from what is often unremitting aircraft noise, and it is only right that this is resolved. Respite designed and applied well, therefore, has a key role to play in current and future regimes, but it is not a panacea.

The point of the rhetorical question, therefore, is not to encourage discord, but to encourage a brief pause for reflection, and even further essential adjustment in the approach, and scope of the remedies available. As we shall see later the concept of ‘respite plus’ has developed to address the parts respite doesn’t, and as a response to serious Mental Health concerns arising from concentrated aircraft noise. The origins of the solution must not be lost in the race to transform airspace as the very people it was initially designed to support will have been betrayed and lives will be lost.

But what is respite anyway?

It has already been hinted at. Respite is a period of rest, or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.  The term is often used in the context of care giving, where carers are typically given a short break to recharge their batteries before resuming their duties and facing the world again.

In recent years, however, the term has been adopted by the aviation industry and applied as a means of providing a break for communities from incessant and particularly concentrated aircraft noise. It is increasingly seen as an essential element in the airspace redesign toolkit, particularly when introducing new flight paths. It is often used as a means of promoting the new arrangements.

The aviation industry has also learned from unsuccessful implementations of concentrated flight paths abroad, that respite is not an optional extra. In several instances respite has had to be introduced following the roll out of brutal concentrated flight path regimes, where there was little or no consideration for the lives or health of the overflown, who were considered ‘fair game’ or merely collateral damage. This was, and remains, unacceptable.

But while respite may be regarded as essential in addressing the toxic effects of concentrated flight path noise it is not the last word on the subject. For example “What does respite ‘look’ like in practice?”, ”What does it sound like?”,                 “How long should it be provided for ?“,  “How frequently should it be provided for? “, “Who should receive it?” ,“Why? “, and “When” and “How should ‘respite plus’ be applied?”.

Respite Plus and Hot Spots

These were concepts first publicly aired at the Aircraft Noise and Mental Health seminar held at the House of Commons earlier this year (July 2016). The concepts were particularly set within the context of new flight paths, and solutions necessary to address the ‘noise vulnerable’, and people, for example, with serious pre-existing mental health conditions. Effectively many were ‘unexploded bombs’ ready to be triggered by new flight path regimes, with potentially fatal consequences. These concerns were well–founded, and supported, for example, by several published European studies on ‘noise vulnerable’, and depression, and first-hand accounts.

Respite plus’, was therefore a response to the scope of respite, and other factors coming together, creating a ‘perfect storm’. Invariably ‘hotspots’ were at the eye of the storm, although they were often under the radar. This anomaly arose, as they could often be lost in noise contours as noise was perceived and treated as an average. Typically such hotspots might, for example, consist of two or more converging low altitude flight paths, and up to 500, noisy, over flights; although other nightmare permutations were also possible.

A brief period of respite in such circumstances would be inadequate and too late for pre-existing seriously depressed, for example, as they would most likely have been tipped into crisis before the intensely concentrated noise subsided, and a brief respite period was ushered in. Also if they suffered from hypertension (known to be badly affected by concentrated aviation noise) the health risk would fall off the Richter scale, and hence the need for ‘Respite Plus’.

There are three main components (stages) to ‘Respite Plus’:

1) Stage 1: ‘Double Take’. This is essentially a highly localised risk impact assessment that drills down to an identified (or flagged up) serious health risk. This may occur, for example, where two or even three (new) concentrated flight paths converge at low level above a home(s).

As already noted these may deliver c. 500 noise events a day, perhaps from 4.30 am through until midnight (aircraft won’t always fly to timetable). The noise will be intense, and seep into poorly insulated homes, disturbing sleep, and wellbeing. Every event will trigger a physiological ‘flight or fight’ response, whether this is consciously acknowledged, or not. And the sheer size and number of aircraft, and close proximity to some peoples’ homes, will negatively impact on local skyscapes and amenity. This will hardly improve the physical or mental health and wellbeing of those affected, or their ability to move.

When one has struggled back from the abyss, the very bowels of very serious mental ill health, has learned to live and believe again after years of rehabilitation and support from family and loved ones, it is incredibly worrying and destabilising when one realises that airspace change may literally kill you, as pre-existing health conditions rapidly deteriorate.

It is perhaps instructive to note that while it is known that concentrated flight paths may cause depression, there is no idea about what a safe noise ‘dose’ is, although ‘once in a lifetime airspace change’ is being ushered in without a shred of concern about this. This can’t be right. But 500 daily low altitude noise events, in the scenario described, isn’t safe. Yet if these same aircraft were at 4,000 feet or more, then the experience and impact would, perhaps, be significantly less bad. Perhaps one can  begin to see the problem?

But in view of the above, and in the absence of an impartial arbiter/Ombudsman, ‘double take’ provides a challenge, and a crucial opportunity to adjust flight paths, where possible, to ameliorate risk, and to distribute noise more equitably locally.

This approach is more humane than the touted ‘fewest people’ approach to flight path design, which seeks to minimise the number of people affected by noise, which typically compresses and concentrates noise into a smaller footprint – dumping more noise on fewer people. This takes no account of the misery, blight and ill health such an over-concentrated approach will have. Instead, any review of such ‘hotspots’ should reconsider redesign opportunities using a ‘least harm’ test. Thus by adjusting, or modestly tweaking, converging flight paths it should be possible to share the noise impact more equitably within the local community. Thus the net effect of a ‘least harm’ approach may be to increase the number of people affected from, say 1000 to 1012 people, but this would share the noise more fairly while saving lives. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t this fairer and more humane?

The ‘double take’ review may be triggered, for example, by a consultant psychiatrist in the case of noise vulnerable people, who suffer from serious pre-existing mental health conditions, and who have been assessed as being at serious risk of harm if significant change occurs in their environment. As mentioned earlier there may be other permutations, but this was considered a priority, and one has to start somewhere.

2) Stage 2: passive noise mitigation solutions                

If significant residual noise impacts remain after attempts at Stage 1 to review and adjust flight path(s) on a ‘least harm’ basis, then Stage 2 triggers the scoping, specification and provision of passive mitigation solutions.

Those affected will be actively involved in the process once an acoustic survey identifies the extent of any problem, and the possible design options (choices) have been defined.

The solutions may be enhanced / prioritised in the case of serious pre-existing physical (e.g. hypertension) and/or mental health conditions which are known to be adversely affected by aviation noise. In some cases both conditions may co-exist, significantly increasing the risk of premature death. Thus a health/noise impact assessment should surface and apply a multiplier to this very significant risk so that appropriate measures are put in place to address it.

The standard components of any solution are likely to be acoustic insulation (various types), and acoustic secondary or double/triple glazing. What matters will be what works, but those affected should be treated as customers with choices rather than involuntary consumers of aviation pollution. So colour of double/triple glazing, for example, may matter to some (may not all want white), and the aesthetics will matter, quite probably, in some, more sensitive cases.

Other products may include:  external roof window shutters, acoustically glazed roof window sashes (minus ventilation flaps), acoustic window and door shutters (internal), acoustic screens (glass/other), acoustic panels (internal/external) to absorb noise, air conditioning units main rooms (when windows and doors can’t be opened), and acoustic baffles for window, bathroom, and roof vents

Some people will no doubt look at this list and roll their eyes, but if one thinks about the worst health-affected initially, perhaps, and walk in their shoes for a moment,     ill-founded prejudiced attitudes may change.

Once the noise mitigation products have been installed there should be a post implementation audit to ensure that noise reduction objectives have been met, before certifying as such. This certification is important in that it ‘designs in’ quality thresholds that have to be met and signed off. They may offer some peace of mind about the effectiveness of the installations.

Often finance is used as a reason to do nothing. With toxic concentrated flight paths and known serious pre-existing health risks, this isn’t an option. Many feel the industry is under-taxed, and there is considerable scope to consider increasing Air Passenger Duty, levying VAT on zero-rated aviation fuel, or introducing a concentrated flight path tax (perhaps even top-slicing efficiency savings, by definition, derived from the overflown). There is a (strong) argument to hypothecate some of the tax levied to allow the airports to spend it on measures such as ‘respite plus’.

3) Stage 3: Moving on

This stage applies where the earlier stages fail to resolve the noise impact, and health is seriously compromised, or is likely to be seriously compromised in this instance, in the case, for example, of qualifying pre-existing health conditions. By ‘seriously compromised’ one means a serious and imminent health risk, which unaddressed may result in death.

The scheme, in the case of an owner occupier, would address the pre and post flight path change value, if any, as this is what will potentially lock people into a location that is killing them, as without support, they will be unable to escape. So if pre and post flight value difference was, say £100k, then e.g. if 75% was paid as redress, a further ‘top up’, low rate loan would be extended for the balance This loan could then be charged to the new property the person/household would be able to move to, and then repaid on death, sale or assignment, thus contributing to the cost of the ‘moving on’ scheme. The higher the exit barriers for ‘at risk’ individuals the greater the emotional, psychological and physiological damage and potential for catastrophe. In short, people need the possibility of a viable exit strategy, even if they don’t take it. They need hope and a safety net.

It is conceivable that an equivalent scheme can be developed for those in private rented or social housing so as to ensure an inclusive approach.

The benefit and possibility of ‘moving on’ for the worst affected can’t be under estimated. These people will not be solely those around the perimeter of airports, but will be stuck under low altitude highly concentrated flight paths, perhaps even under a ‘hot spot’ where two or more such flight paths converge, as described earlier.

Such a scheme is affordable, and unless the envisaged scope is unrealistically widened, is very much necessary – in fact it is essential – and ‘doable’.

There is a strategic role here too for a housing body to work with the airport, local authorities and significantly affected others, to develop schemes which liberate people from ‘landlocked’ overflown properties. Properties could be repurposed, exchanged as collateral with Housing Associations for alternative homes, amongst other things. Everyone has a responsibility to think and work outside the box to ensure that those who may have to struggle with new and extraordinary aircraft noise are given hope and options, rather than an imminent and very likely death sentence.

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