Concerns about the effectiveness of a new aviation noise authority – and the public’s trust in it
In its interim report published on 17th December 2013, the Airports Commission recommended to government “… the establishment of an Independent Noise Authority to provide expert and impartial advice about the noise impacts of aviation and to facilitate the delivery of future improvements to airspace operations.” GACC – the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign – has responded to this suggestion with a lot of caveats. GACC would welcome the authority if its main purpose is to reduce aircraft noise, but not if its main purpose is to persuade local residents to relax their opposition to a new runway at Gatwick. Residents want the noise to be reduced, not ‘mitigating’, and not ‘reducing the number of people affected’ if that means merely making noise worse for fewer people. . There have been years of unsatisfactory complaints mechanisms on aircraft noise, and also of broken assurances from the aviation industry. “A single point for complaints, an aircraft noise ombudsman with power to order improvement or compensation, would be welcome. But we do not see this in the recommendations of the Commission’s Interim Report.” There are fears that the new body will be “long grass into which difficult issues could be consigned.” A body designed to smooth the path of a new runway, whether at Gatwick or elsewhere would be vigorously opposed.
Letter from GACC to the DfT
We understand that your Department is considering whether to introduce legislation to create an Independent Aviation Noise Authority, as recommended by the Airports Commission in their Interim Report, but that you are also aware that such a measure would fail unless it had the support of local airport environment groups.
I am therefore writing formally to give you the view of GACC which is, as you know, the main voluntary group concerned with the environment around Gatwick.
We would welcome an independent noise authority if its main purpose is to reduce aircraft noise. We would not welcome it if its main purpose is to persuade local residents to relax their opposition to a new runway at Gatwick.
By reducing noise we mean reducing noise, not ‘mitigating’, and not ‘reducing the number of people affected’ if that means merely making noise worse for fewer people.
GACC has been involved through the airport consultative committee, and indirectly through ANMAC (Aircraft Noise Monitoring Advisory Committee), for over 40 years. We have always found the Department for Transport reasonable if somewhat over-influenced by the aviation industry. We see no reason why the new body should be any better.
Many people who have complained about aircraft noise have found unsatisfactory the system whereby their complaints are dealt with by the airport (which is not impartial), and then the buck is passed between the Department, CAA, NATs and the offending airline.
A single point for complaints, an aircraft noise ombudsman with power to order improvement or compensation, would be welcome. But we do not see this in the recommendations of the Commission’s Interim Report.
The Commission refers to the lack of trust between the aviation industry and local communities. This distrust has grown up over many years, recent instances have been because we have been told there would be no runway, and a year later plans for a runway are produced; consultation on the master plan concealed mention of increased noise; the recent consultation on the revised noise action plan was attempted at 4 days notice; the current consultation on the airspace changes is being conducted without maps so that the public cannot understand what is proposed – the list of instances where the public feel they have been misled is endless.
In order to ensure our support for an independent noise authority we would need to be assured that the legislation required it behave in a more respectable way.
The Commission recommend that the new body would provide advice and recommendations to the Department or the CAA. If such advice was not accepted, mistrust would be increased.
We are extremely suspicious of the suggestion by the Commission that the Authority could ‘play a role in the delivery of longer-term plans for additional airport capacity.’ At Gatwick we have found that the only way in which major environmental safeguards can be protected is through legal agreements. If a new runway were ever to be built we would seek a cast-iron legal agreement to limit noise – which could if necessary be enforced through the courts. The creation of a noise authority would confuse the issue in seeking such a legal agreement, and would carry much less confidence.
We would welcome a role for a new authority to undertake research into aviation noise issues, but only if it were given a sufficient budget.
Providing information to the public on noise would be of no value. It is a mistaken belief in the aviation industry that if only the public understood noise and how it is measured they would be content.
People who hear noise understand it perfectly well, and know that they don’t like it. Explaining different metrics or enabling people to track aircraft on their computers will not create peace and quiet.
We already have an independent legal authority on noise in the Departments of Transport and Environment (with the bonus of a degree of democratic accountability) and they already have an advisory committee in ANMAC.
The only need in our eyes is for those bodies to take the need to reduce noise more seriously and to be more sceptical of the claims and demands of the aviation industry.
If a new body were carefully constituted with those needs in mind then we would welcome it. But if it were designed as long grass into which difficult issues could be consigned then it would be a step backwards. And a body designed to smooth the path of a new runway, whether at Gatwick or elsewhere would be vigorously opposed.
The London Assembly have also written to the Airports Commission on the subject of the independent noise authority.
Letter to Airports Commission about independent noise regulator
Our Transport and Environment Committees have written to the Airports Commission supporting the establishment of an independent regulator to protect those affected by aviation noise – including an estimated 700,000 Londoners suffering from Heathrow noise pollution.
The letter says Londoners must be confident that aviation noise levels are being monitored and action will be taken if levels are excessive. Members also said the regulator would need right powers and sufficient independence to command public trust. The Committees urge the Commission to include the proposal in its forthcoming interim report.
Assembly Members also called for the Airports Commission to develop a national strategy to improve rail links at all airports.
The full letter is at Joint Transport and Environment Committee letter.pdf –
“The Assembly has many times highlighted the adverse impact of aviation noise in London including in t he Transport Committee’s report on airport capacity in London in May, and the Environment Committee’s response to the Government’s consultation on night flight regulation in April. An estimated 700,000 Londoners suffer from noise pollution as a result of Heathrow airport so it is vital that this issue is addressed urgently. Londoners need to have confidence that aviation noise levels are being monitored and reported transparently and action will be taken if noise levels are excessive. To this end the Assembly frequently endorsed the establishment of an independent aircraft noise regulator. Most recently, the Environment Committee wrote to the Airports Commission in response to its aviation noise discussion paper to stress the need for a single point of reference to simplify the regulatory environment and for a trusted third party to reduce antagonism in the relationship between communities and airports. ”
The business lobby, London First, has lobbied for such a noise body for some time. They said:
THE CREATION OF AN INDEPENDENT AIRCRAFT NOISE AUTHORITY:
“We have campaigned hard for this because the economic argument for having more flights could be lost if we don’t win the hearts and minds of people who worry their lives will be blighted by noise. An independent noise authority would make sure that all airlines fulfil their obligations and give local communities the assurance that someone is looking out for them. It would also give policy makers a source of objective information on which to make their decisions.”
Airports Commission interim report recommends setting up an Independent Aviation Noise Authority
The Airports Commission‟s Interim Statement on 17th December, advocating runways at Heathrow and Gatwick, also said it also recommended: “The creation of an Independent Aviation Noise Authority to provide expert and impartial advice about the noise impacts of aviation and facilitate the delivery of future improvements to airspace operations.” The Commission says that decisions made by the DfT or the CAA at present, and they are often seen not to be fair. They are seen to be driven by political considerations and the CAA is seen to be beholden to the industry that provides its funding. An independent body might overcome this. The Commission says: “An independent, national authority with a credible and authoritative voice on noise issues could be of significant value. ….It could also act
as a statutory consultee on other noise related issues, including involvement in planning inquiries which would have implications for populations affected by aircraft noise…..The authority could also play a role in the delivery of longer-term plans for additional airport capacity.” The establishment of the Independent Aircraft Noise Authority would require primary legislation; setting it up will take time.
Meanwhile there is work on noise to be done. Airport campaigns welcome the authority, in principle, but emphasise that it needs to have powers and responsibilities, as well as being an advisory body.