One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Guest blog: Chris Keady


One flew over the cuckoo nest, then another hundred, and another, and another………

The classic film ‘one flew over the cuckoo nest’ provided a stark insight into mental illness and treatment in the 70’s. Today, our approach to Mental Health, and particularly mental illness, has progressed significantly. So too has the world of aviation, and increasingly its growing concern with aviation noise, and latterly, in some quarters at least, good mental health.

Genuine concern for mental health of overflown in UK or pie in the sky?

Currently our skies are being ‘divvied up’ to allow significant growth in the number of aircraft using it, now, and well into the future. These changes have been described by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as ‘once in a lifetime’. It follows, therefore, that the greatest care and attention should be applied to designing and managing this transition. This is especially so as there is absolutely no chance of a second a chance, and some peoples’ lives are therefore literally hanging by a thread, depending on a reasonable outcome.

But aviation policy has shifted towards compressing noise footprints (the area over which noise pollutes) making them smaller, but more concentrated, and then compounding this by concentrating the noise on the ‘fewest people’. While such an approach is considered more efficient and effective by the aviation industry, they don’t have to ‘live’ with the downside – the misery they can sometimes create. Sure, impressive benefits can be listed but for the first time overflown or more heavily overflown, some may lose any right to the quiet enjoyment of their home, their physical and mental health may be adversely affected, life expectancy reduced, and home potentially blighted. Admittedly this may only a minority, but it is a significant minority, and one that needs to be properly addressed.

In addition, no one knows what ‘dose’ is safe! Is it 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 aircraft overhead per day? Then the next day, and the next, and the next. If you survive you’ll be allowed some days off, before it starts all over again. This is an example of what respite might look like. There are, of course other permutations, and we’ll return to this shortly.

Unfortunately, if you care to think about it, this Government policy is neither fair nor ethical. It needs to be more flexible and fairer, paying compensation where people are significantly impacted by airspace change. This is a government issue as much as it an aviation issue. It is also time decent people spoke up before it’s too late.

Noise sewers – twenty first century apartheid

The term ‘noise sewers’ was recently coined and used I believe by the Chief Executive of the CAA to describe the undesirable impact of overconcentrated flight paths, and therefore noise pollution (one must not forget particulates and other environmental pollution either). He went on to explain that such overconcentration was rarely necessary, and therefore implied that they shouldn’t feature in airspace (re)design.

Certainly, this was making the ‘right kind of noise’ with the significantly overflown, and soon to be significantly overflown communities. No doubt it was sincere. But it is very unclear whether the aviation industry’s feet are yet following the words (industry/organisation cultures are hard to shift). This expectation needs to be delivered.

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, [Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise] has fought tirelessly to reduce aviation noise, and more recently to raise the profile and issues around mental health -providing a platform which has allowed me to share my insights and ideas. He first coined the term ‘noise ghettos’ to describe the ‘locked in’ communities deluged with aviation noise. The term ‘ghetto’ hinted at the injustice of this ‘fencing in’ and the denudation of human rights.

This injustice still exists in places and while respite may provide a break, and a genuine solution for many, like most things there is no ‘silver bullet’. In providing respite, noise is effectively relocated elsewhere, but in a highly concentrated and targeted way, if policy makers get their way. Unaddressed this may cause blight and physical, and/or mental ill health. This is why the infrastructure and management systems to manage it scrupulously fairly must be in place. Compensation should also be available in exceptional cases.

There is no safe noise dose, no research to establish what might be safe, so ’noise overdoses’ are likely to occur in some cases with potentially catastrophic effects on mental and physical health. Also there may be no Independent Noise Ombudsman, who one can go to, who could adjudicate on the impact of such changes or to provide redress. Yet this is what was unanimously called for at the Let Britain Fly Aircraft Noise Summit 2014.

Why should decent people have to lose out, through no fault of their own? The risk with airspace (flightpath) change, currently subject to DfT consultation, is that as things stand one may be excluded from any form of redress, yet have their life and enjoyment of their  home profoundly negatively affected. This is so very wrong. It doesn’t happen with HS2 or any major road scheme does it? Why should the impact of ‘once in a lifetime airspace change’, be treated any differently to new runway impacts??? Peoples’ lives are at stake here, including the sort of people, in many cases, who have done the hard yards, paid into the system, taken zilch out, and put something back into society. Please pause and do the right thing.

Consider going from few aircraft flying overhead, to perhaps 400 or more per day (including very early and late), flying low, at perhaps 90 second intervals. Would you like it? Would you think it was right? Of course not, no one in their right mind would. So why allow it? So why not do something about it? It doesn’t need to be so hardcore concentrated, it can, and should be diluted, where necessary.

Give us a break!

Respite  which has been briefly touched upon, is the latest offer from the aviation industry. The idea, in essence, is that by providing the overflown with breaks from noise this will improve their quality of life. In many heavily overflown areas it is understandably welcomed with open arms. This isn’t hard to understand, and there can be no argument about this. The downside is that for breaks to be provided other new or existing areas need to be overflown – noise will be redistributed. This will need to be resolved fairly and sensitively.

Respite has also gained popularity on the back of the NORAH study into the effects of concentrated flightpaths at Frankfurt airport. It was found that concentrated flightpaths led to depression in some overflown people, and that respite was valued by those heavily overflown. Notably, the impact on pre-existing severe mental health conditions was outside the scope of this study, but other European research suggests that such conditions increase the susceptibility to harmful effects from such noise. This is a major ‘blind spot’ (and risk) for current UK airspace redesign, aviation and public health policy generally.

It is crucial, therefore, that the risks inherent in this approach are fully evaluated, understood, and communicated. Above all those who will be expected to carry significant new noise, should be assisted, where necessary with appropriate noise reduction initiatives, and in exceptional cases, assisted to move on. There are many innovative schemes that can be developed to deliver this, so people are not otherwise ‘locked in’ by a sky of noise. I presented the ‘Respite Plus’ solution at the House of Commons seminar on Aviation Noise and Mental Health 2016, as in some exceptional cases respite alone, will be inadequate. It’s time has come.

Far too many flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Having fought back from the abyss of severe mental ill health, I have since 2014 been privileged to have shared several platforms with John Stewart addressing aviation noise, and in my case it’s relationship with mental health. It has been essential, therapeutic, and I had hoped it would make a difference.

I have pitched at the GLA, House of Commons and even on BBC radio 4. I flew the flag for the discounted and unrepresented, and wore my heart on my sleeve, saying it as it was.

Not once, however, did anyone from the main policy or regulatory agencies stop to have a word, or a conversation about the ideas ventilated at the events or in subsequent in blogs, which attracted a lot of attention in the UK and abroad. I regret this, and I also find it ominous, as there is currently a DFT consultation on airspace change underway. It is why I have been forced in this blog to discuss the undiscussable.

It so easy to selfishly park noise on others, especially in a highly concentrated way. If this occurs at least ensure that those affected are adequately protected, and give them the means of redress. Don’t pretend that noise is no big deal and that periodic breaks will ‘sort it’ for everyone. It certainly will help many, but not all. Some with noise sensitive illnesses may be so exhausted, that by the time a break comes round they are unable to benefit from it.

I have also encountered some other excellent people on my journey including Ruth Cadbury (MP) and Dr Tania Mathias (MP), amongst others – people who cared, in positions of responsibility, and who really understood and were trying to promote the mental health agenda. Also, Dirk Schreckenberg a leading researcher, expert and commentator on aviation noise and mental health (associated with the NORAH research), and who has done a great deal to get people to sit up, think, and do something about the subject.

Even Matt Gorman (Heathrow Airports Sustainability and Environment Director), I would include on my long list. I have sought to persuade him that Heathrow should be world leaders in developing products and services to assist the ‘noise vulnerable’ in living, rather than ‘existing’, with aircraft noise – there are so many gaps and opportunities at present, which are ‘win wins’, particularly around identifying and meeting such needs.

There is also so much that can, and should be done, if the Government, and Local Authorities, and Public Health Bodies focused on this important, but ‘at risk’ constituency. Why then don’t we get on and do it and Save Our Souls?

One flew over the cuckoo nest, then 100, then another and another ……and the next day and the next……Why then ask ‘can aviation noise cause depression/severe depression, or mental ill health’? Just ask yourself, ‘does a duck quack’?

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