Chris Grayling’s evidence to the Environmental Audit Cttee on noise – in relation to Heathrow runway

Chris Grayling was questioned by the Environmental Audit Committee on 30th November 2016. Below are the parts of the questions, and answers by Chris Grayling and Caroline Low (DfT) on the subject of noise. Mr Grayling reveals only a very partial understanding of the problems, and of the noise levels – and a somewhat trusting belief in how “quiet” new aircraft are going to be. He says the UK should not impose restrictions on noisy aircraft of developing countries, as it would be unfair on them. He admits that people who currently get “respite” from Heathrow noise will get less, and there will have to be new flight paths – means unknown numbers of people will get noise for the first time, and not a lot of “respite”. His aspiration is for no scheduled flights for six and a half hours per night.  He believes (mistakenly) that slightly steeper landings would help. He manages to repeat the mantra that despite 50% more flights “noise levels will be lower than they are at the moment.”  He places unjustified trust in an “independent noise authority (or commission)” sorting out a lot of insoluble noise problems in future.  Much that he could not give proper replied to depends on consultations in 2017. He will “look at” the issue of when insulation of affected homes is done – over up to 20 years, rather than right away. A worrying performance, for those affected by Heathrow noise.


The Commons Environmental Audit Committee

The Airports Commission report: Carbon emissions, air quality and noise inquiry

One off oral evidence session with Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport, Wednesday 30 November 2016

The transcript is at


Sections dealing with noise are copied below

Q88            Glyn Davies: Can I ask one or two questions about anticipated noise levels? The Airports Commission has said that the expanded Heathrow will not have a noise level that exceeds what it is today. But I think we also know that if we continue out the Heathrow expansion with two runways it will be significantly reduced by 2030.

Chris Grayling: Yes.

Glyn Davies: So the position we have is, if you like, a less favourable position than we would have had, in the sense that the target, the ambition you have, is that no greater than today rather than no greater than what it would have been in 2030.

Chris Grayling: That is clearly the case. The interesting thing, of course, is because you have six rather than four flight paths, the impact in noise of a plane flying overheard and the benefits in noise reduction terms will still happen. One of the reasons that we chose the north-west runway option rather than the extended northern runway option was that this allows us still to provide respite to people on the routes—not quite as much as before, because of the configuration of an extra runway that operates in mixed mode, or an element of mixed mode that inevitably has to happen when you have three runways rather than two or four. But nonetheless, if you are on the flight path into or out of Heathrow over the coming period, as we see more and more of those new generation planes coming to Heathrow, the noise levels above you will drop.

Q89            Glyn Davies: How are you going to devise the legally binding noise targets? What measurements are you going use? Are you going to use World Health Authority recommendation levels, which are much lower than the sorts of noise levels that you have previously talked about?

Chris Grayling: This is something we need to consult on. It would also be a part of the remit of the new independent noise body that I intend to set up. We do need to work quite carefully on what the right approach is. Is it about the full airport? Is it about the amount of noise on individual approach routes? Of course, the use of airspace becomes crucial then as well, because clearly if you use a very concentrated route for arrivals or departures, you concentrate noise very much over a single area in an intensive way. If you spread, you have more people affected for less of the time. One part of the process of discussing how we use airspace needs to be about the relationship between the use of airspace and noise on the ground.

Was there something you wanted to add on noise, Caroline?

Caroline Low: In relation to those World Health Organization targets, as you know, the Commission looked at the full range of metrics, because on the 57 Lden, which is the number that has been used historically and is quite helpful for looking back for historical comparisons, we agree with the World Health Organization that the onset of annoyance is now probably further out than the 57 contour, so the Commission looked at a much wider range of contours and indeed different metrics. Going forward and starting to talk to the community about this, it is really important that we understand from them which metrics capture how it feels on the ground.


Q93            Chair: So when it says, “Government decides on new runway at Heathrow” on the Government website, it is not a decision.

Chris Grayling: No, it is not a formal decision. It is a recommendation from a committee of the Cabinet that we believe this is the best option, that we have accepted the recommendation of the Airports Commission report and we are now moving ahead with the formal process with that recommendation around the third runway. We are not consulting on all the options now—

Chair: Okay. We will carry on with the noise survey.

Q94            Glyn Davies: There is only one further point I want to ask about. How are you going to enforce these levels? Clearly there are going to be noise levels. What are you going to do in terms of enforcing them? What do you anticipate doing in terms of enforcement? Some airports might just stop the plane flying if it breaks the noise levels. What do they anticipate if the noise levels are breached?

Chris Grayling: The enforcement body is the Civil Aviation Authority. It will have the power to fine. We would look to create a structure where there are tangible incentives, if the airport is approaching noise limits, to provide financial incentives to bring less noisy aircraft to the airport. I would not want to be in a position where an airline from a developing world country that has older aircraft was excluded from Heathrow. There are bound to be some noisy aircraft coming into Heathrow, but I do not see why, in the future, major international airlines should be bringing noisy aircraft to Heathrow at a time when aircraft technology means that you can bring a plane into Heathrow with much less noise than has been the case in the past.

Glyn Davies: I will let you pursue the noise, Chairman.

Q95            Chair:   I will. Thank you, Glyn.

In our report into Heathrow, this Committee said that there should be an independent aviation noise authority set up and that it should undertake those noise survey inquiries. In the Government’s response, which I accept was before your time, the Government said they were considering whether such a body is required. This was after both the Airports Commission and Heathrow had accepted it. Are you still considering it or is that body going to be set?

Chris Grayling: I fully intend that there should be an independent noise body; what we will be consulting on is its remit rather than its existence.

Q96            Chair:  Is that going to be part of the national planning statement papers?

Chris Grayling: Yes.

Q97            Chair:  So it is all going to be in that early spring bundle?

Chris Grayling: Yes.

Caroline Low: Can I just clarify, because there is quite a lot of consultation going on next year. Early next year, simultaneously we will be putting out two consultations, one on the national policy statement, one on airspace and noise. The role of the independent noise authority, which is potentially a national role, not just around Heathrow, will be captured in the airspace and noise consultation. It will come out at the same time.

Q98            Chair: There have been some semantics around whether it is a noise commission or a noise authority. What is the difference? Is it to do with powers or is it just—

Chris Grayling: Part of the consultation is on what precisely it should do. At the moment the enforcement body is the Civil Aviation Authority. There may not be a lot of logic in changing the enforcement powers, but it is a question of defining exactly what remit the new organisation should have, but there will be a new organisation.

Q99            Chair:  Could you see a situation where if an aircraft or a company breached noise limits there would be penalties, for example, fines, as there are at Amsterdam Airport?

Chris Grayling: It is a possibility. We have to be quite careful, because I do not want a situation where a developing world country that has an older aircraft flying an important strategic route to London is fined for doing so. I do not envisage a situation where there are no noisy aircraft at all flying into Heathrow. I do envisage a situation where there are clear financial incentives not to bring a noisy aircraft into Heathrow if you are a big international airline. I think we have to be careful. I do not want us to be in a position where we are cutting off an essential link to a country that needs that link.

Q100       Chair: I am sure the residents might have a different opinion on that.

Chris Grayling: Would you really suggest that we should be excluding a developing country’s airline from Heathrow because it cannot yet afford quieter aircraft?

Q101       Chair:  I think the price sensitivity around access to Heathrow is probably around the payments for the landing slots rather than the ability of the old or new aircraft, to be frank.

But have you read the Ipsos MORI survey on noise? Have you personally seen that?

Chris Grayling: I have seen it; not for a while. I saw it very early on after getting the job, yes.

Q102       Mr Gavin Shuker: What evidence is there that communities want more predictable respite over reduction in noise as a total?

Chris Grayling: The truth is that communities want as little noise as possible. The challenge for us in terms of airspace management and the decisions we will have to take as part of the process that lies ahead in a couple of months is how do we manage the airspace on approach to and departure from major airports. There are two ways. You can either have aircraft following a very defined single route, in which case one group of people is affected all the time. You can put in place—indeed, we already have—noise mitigating measures for people on that route. The alternative is to spread them out and therefore give people much more respite, but of course in that situation far more people are affected and you are much less able to provide noise mitigation measures. That is an essential part of the consultation. We already have those issues around Gatwick, where there is a lot of unease about the way in which flight paths currently operate. I think we need to reach a clear decision about how we want to approach this in the future as part of the consultation.

Q103       Mr Gavin Shuker: Would you accept that a central thrust of your suggested package of mitigation for the expansion of Heathrow is more predictable respite?

Chris Grayling: In terms of the overall plan at Heathrow it is respite at all. The problem with extending the northern runway is by definition you would be creating two mixed-mode flight paths with no mitigation at all, no respite at all. At the moment if you are living on one of the flight paths, you get time off the planes. This was a crucial reason why we did not accept the extension of the northern runway proposal. It does not allow respite at all.

Caroline Low: It is important though to set out the full scope of the proposed mitigation package, because respite is only one element of it. A night flight ban is also an important element for local residents; compensation; the enforced noise performance targets that we have already talked about; and a significant package of compensation, both for insulation and for wider community projects.

Q104       Mr Gavin Shuker: There are around 16 to 18 night flights that currently take place through the night at Heathrow. How many of those will be retimed as a result of your nightflights ban?

Chris Grayling: There is a clear objective. We have a complete ban on scheduled night flights for six and a half hours. Those that would fall within the current six and a half hour bracket would end up having to move.

Q105       Mr Gavin Shuker: Would you be surprised if I said to you that is four?

Chris Grayling: It depends on the final timings we adopt.

Q106       Mr Gavin Shuker: So it would not surprise you if I said it was four. Forgive me, but the central thrust of what you are saying is obviously that there are mitigation procedures in place for doing this. I have suggested to you that a central tenet of that is increased, more predictable respite, but as I understand it, under your plans, respite would reduce for a large number of communities. Is that not correct?

Chris Grayling: That is the case. If you end up with three runways rather than two, inevitably, in order to provide respite, you are providing respite across six areas rather than four. Therefore, it is mathematically the case that levels of respite will have to change. The particular way they are operating a runway at any one time in mixed mode has an impact, because planes that were only coming in one way are now moving both ways, so that does have that effect. The offset against that of course is the Airports Commission, in the overall forecast for noise in aviation over the coming years, say that even with that changed situation, noise levels will be lower than they are at the moment.

Q107       Mr Gavin Shuker: To what extent is steeper approach to Heathrow part of your mitigation measures?

Chris Grayling: There is a variety of ways in which we can do this. Steeper approach is definitely one option. This is part of the airspace consultation. That is my point: our desire is to reduce noise levels as much as possible and to keep respite as high as possible. There are practical ways in which you can do that. One of the things that generates noise on the approach to an airport is the point at which you lower the undercarriage; another is the angle of descent into the airport. These are all things that I think need to be refined in a way that reduces noise levels to the maximum possible degree.

Q108       Mr Gavin Shuker: Would you accept, then, Heathrow’s evidence that steeper approach would have a minimal, if not negative, effect on Heathrow’s operation while exposing local residents to less aircraft noise?

Chris Grayling: Steeper approach has potential benefit.

Q109       Mr Gavin Shuker:  If I talked about the package of measures you talked about, around steeper approach, around more predicable respite, and a night-time flight ban, would there be anything that I am missing out there in terms of your approach to noise?

Chris Grayling: Broadly in the approach to noise, there is a very substantial package of mitigation available to local communities—more substantial than has been the case in the past—and providing additional resource to more public buildings, for example. It is a very broad-ranging package and is as good as is on offer anywhere in the world.

Q110       Mr Gavin Shuker:  Given that it is very choice terminology to say “more predictable” rather than “greater respite”, the fact that steeper approach doesn’t seem to make the kind of step change in difference that we potentially expect or want and that the ban on night flights only affects four flights over the course of an evening, do you think this package as a whole is sufficient to dampen the concerns of residents?

Chris Grayling: There are currently about 16 flights that arrive at Heathrow each night. They will have to be timetabled to arrive outside the six and a half hour window. At the moment there is not a formal requirement to the same degree that we would be putting into place. I would argue that this is a process of improvement, which combined with the quieter aircraft coming on stream all the time means that the noise issue will be less pronounced than it has been in the past, even with this expansion. The truth is I remember when you used to stand on Wimbledon Hill back in the 1980s, up on Wimbledon Common, and you could often hear planes taking off from Heathrow, such was the noise at the end of the runway as they accelerated.

When we were looking at the different options, we stood at the end of the runway at Gatwick having a normal conversation 30 metres from an A380 taking off. The noise levels from planes have changed exponentially. That does not mean it is still not a problem. There are questions around, for example, the approach taken by the A380 over areas like Twickenham, where we need to make sure that we get the flight path working in the best possible way to minimise, where we possibly can, the impact on those residents.

Q111       Mr Gavin Shuker: Finally, Chair, if I may, given that Heathrow has pledged that an expanded Heathrow would also be a quieter Heathrow, and how key that is for residents and for this nationally important infrastructure project? Do you feel that your previous answer to say fining is essentially the role of the CAA is sufficient against the pledged obligation, were that not to be met? Do you think there is a role for a heavier stick from Government than just passing the buck?

Chris Grayling: If we were in a position where the airport was consistently breaking a planning condition that was linked to noise, then that would require a much greater degree of enforcement than simply the CAA administering a fine. However, the current system of enforcement of breaches in this area is controlled by the CAA. One of the things that we will be consulting on in relation to setting up the new independent noise authority is what powers it should hold and what the breadth of its responsibility should be. We are very open to thoughts about that.

Chair: I am sure we will have some to share with you on that.

Chris Grayling: I would be surprised if you did not.

Q112       Peter Aldous: Secretary of State, my apologies for only joining the final part of this session. I had another commitment that I could not rearrange.

I want to explore, you might say, the issue of trust between the local community and the Government. There is a very attractive, on the face of it, mitigation package—£700 million for noise insulation, I think—but I think there is concern when the local community look at the previous promises, whether it was for Terminal 5 or whatever, those that have been broken. There is an example that there was a promise arising out of Terminal 5 to refit 42 schools and community buildings. There was a promise of that work being done in 2005, and it was only completed 10 years later. That was a project that had a cost of £4.8 million. This project has £700 million, so there is an understandable concern. Will you deliver? Will the Government keep to their promises?

With that in mind, I would pose a first question. How will you ensure that the airport keeps to its pledge to spend more than £1 billion on community compensation, and that includes the £700 million on noise insulation?

Chris Grayling: The answer to that is that these commitments have to be enshrined in the planning conditions. It has to be made legally binding. We talked earlier, before you came in, about the issue of surface access to the airport, about air quality issues. These have to be binding conditions.

Q113       Peter Aldous: Through those planning conditions, those will be regularly reviewed and monitored?

Chris Grayling: Yes. That would be the responsibility of one of the regulatory authorities. I would be looking at the CAA to enforce complete breaches of this kind.

Q114       Peter Aldous: If we look at the noise insulation offer in a little bit more detail, Heathrow say they intend to deliver that over 20 years and they will begin the insulating one year before the new runway is operational. What that means is that for some households they will not be insulated until 19 years after the new runway is operational. Do you think that is fair on them?

Chris Grayling: What we will see with the use of any new runway is that its usage will build up and the money will spread out as the noise impact becomes broader. We will be looking very carefully at making sure that people are treated fairly. If one of the things that comes back in the consultation is that they want to look at the timing of the way that operates, how it operates, we would obviously look at that.


[Q 120]

Caroline Low: The noise contour is measured according to European rules. I don’t think there is any question about the noise contour. I think it may be about the number of new households that might be built within the contour and that is exactly why, when we go out to consultation, that is the kind of information we can take back in and check that the measures are going far enough.


Q123       Chair: A follow-up on the noise. Secretary of State, you said you would not be happy for someone living 800 metres from the runway to be waiting 19 years or 15 years. Who gets the insulation first? Has that been rolled out? Have you done the logistics of rolling out the £700 million noise insulation programme?

Chris Grayling: Not yet, no.

Q124       Chair: No. That is quite granular, but it is very material.

Chris Grayling: To be honest, we could not have done this because we have only just reached the point of recommendation, so if we had been planning it across the summer, that would probably have been held as us having reached a decision in advance.

Q125       Chair: There is a trade-off though, isn’t there, on the biofuels debate between carbon savings and the noise issue? How are you going to balance those competing priorities? You are doing a biofuels competition. What is more important?

Chris Grayling: There are two things happening in parallel at the moment. We are looking to encourage innovation in the biofuels arena. I am particularly concerned that we do this around sustainable sources of material for biofuels. At the same time you have airlines that are very actively engaged in trying to develop biofuels. There is a trade-off, but I think trade-offs get rapidly overtaken by technological development. I would be very surprised if the next generation of biofuels aren’t smoother running, better suited to what we have discussed. This is something that is not going to happen overnight. It is a process over time, but it is a process over time at a time when aircraft noise is coming down sharply as well. I don’t think that will be a major issue for us.