Blog: “One flew over the cuckoo nest, then another hundred, and another, and another…”

In July 2016, a seminar was held in the House of Commons, on the link between exposure to high levels of aircraft noise, and mental health. It is known that the stress of finding one’s home is newly under a busy flight path affects some people very badly. With planes at low altitude – one after the other, hour after hour, day after day – the impact of this new intrusion into someone’s home life can cause anxiety, stress and depression. This is particularly the case for those with pre-existing susceptibilities. The situation is made worse when those now subjected to intense, almost daily, plane noise find there is no source of help, and no way to reduce the problem – causing a feeling of helplessness, and even despair. The problem has only become intense in the past few years, now the aviation industry is using P-RNAV. That means constantly repeated noise for those below flight routes. But what can be done to help people whose mental health is harmed, through no fault of their own, when they find – without warning or permissions – that a flight path has been created over them?  Is “respite” for a few hours per day, or a few days per week, enough to make a difference?  Would providing funding to move house be the answer, for those whose mental health is seriously damaged by the noise intrusion? Read a new blog by a noise sufferer, on the difficult, but important, issue of mental health impact of more concentrated flight paths. 


One flew over the cuckoo nest, then a hundred,……..

The writer of the blog below has consistently blogged and warned of the likelihood of new and excessive aircraft noise tipping severely depressed over the edge, with the very real possibility that some will not be saved.  [That means an increased suicide risk].

And although the link between aircraft noise and depression is now generally accepted, he points out that nothing has yet been done to protect the most ‘noise vulnerable’ from radical, ‘once in a lifetime’, airspace change. This may see the over concentration of low flying, noisy aircraft in narrow tracts, re-creating noise ghettos. These are, he argues, ‘incubators for mental ill health’.

Whilst acknowledging that respite – breaks from aircraft noise – may benefit many, it is not a silver bullet, and he reasons that they will be insufficient for a small, but significant minority, notably including those with severe pre-existing mental health pathologies. Others too are potentially at risk where ‘hotspots’ have been locked into the new flight path designs. These are most likely to arise where there is highly concentrated targeting of particular flight paths (not all are equal), aircraft are at low level, in large numbers, and noise is neither significantly mitigated nor equitably dispersed within communities.

In such, exceptional cases, he urges an imperative ‘Respite plus’ solution, described more fully elsewhere as:

  • Stage 1: an appeal (to an Independent Noise Authority/Ombudsman) for the ‘hotspot’ to be reviewed and adjusted, where practical, to cause less harm. If this fails, then the case should be escalated to the next stage.
  • Stage 2: involves the provision of effective acoustic glazing and insulation for ‘hotspot’ properties.  In instances where, for example, there is an acute mental health concern, then the solution should be ‘stepped up’, increasing the choice, range and effectiveness of products/services- the focus should always be on the required solution. Extremely noise vulnerable need to be able to ‘turn off’ the noise. And, in even rarer cases
  • Stage 3: the possibility of supported ‘move on’, where necessary, using a variety of financial /innovative solutions (details published elsewhere), if previous stages fail. Each local authority, in ‘hot spot’ areas, should be provided with ring fenced funds via the Government to support such a scheme. It would seem appropriate that they worked closely with other housing bodies, taking a strategic approach to the problem.

He urges that Government, Public Health and Local Authorities still have much to do protect the noise vulnerable, as does aviation generally. He urges them to get on with it as a matter of  urgency before it’s too late.

The blog: 

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest


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 reported concern with aviation noise, and 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 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 misery that is created for many. Not only will many lose any right to the quiet enjoyment of their home, their physical and mental health may be adversely affected, life expectancy reduced, and homes blighted.

In addition, no one knows what ‘dose’ is safe! Is it 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 planes 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. We’ll return to this shortly.

Unfortunately, if you care to think about it, this policy is neither fair nor ethical. By accident, and design, it actually creates ‘winners’ by creating and exploiting ‘losers’. And since the ‘winners’ outweigh the ‘losers’ in number terms, it is no surprise that their voice, and power, is diminished. Noise, in such circumstances, is not ‘consulted away’, it is merely exported to another area, often one that is under-represented.

Nothing is being done, it seems, to satisfactorily address this, at present

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 (must not forget particulates and other environmental pollution). 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. But it is very unclear whether the aviation industry’s feet are yet following the words (industry/organisation cultures are hard to shift).

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, [Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise] had 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 solution for many, it may create a nightmare for others as noise is effectively relocated elsewhere, but in a highly concentrated and targeted way. Unaddressed this is most likely to cause blight and physical, and/or mental ill health.

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 as there will be no Independent Noise Ombudsman, who one can go to, who could adjudicate on the impact of changes and to provide redress? Yet this is what was unanimously called for at the Let Britain Fly Aircraft Noise Summit 2014, but nothing has happened since. It is wrong to effectively subjugate and deny the rights of decent people in this way. Why should they have to lose out, through no fault of their own? Why should their life’s work be compromised by a ‘once in a life time’ flightpath change and redistribution of historic noise?  Two wrong’s don’t make a right.

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 your life and enjoyment of your home profoundly affected in a very negative way!

This is so very wrong, and surely must be unacceptable? It doesn’t happen with HS2 or any major road scheme does it? Why should the impact of airspace change, and such, I repeat, ‘once in a lifetime changesbe treated any differently to new runway impacts???

Peoples’ lives are at stake here – the sort of people who have done the hard yards, paid into the system, taken zilch out, put something back into society, yet they are still being seen as cannon fodder.

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?

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. The downside is that for breaks to be provided other new or existing areas need to be overflown – noise will be redistributed. This raises issues about fairness and the adequacy of existing governance arrangements which are not what one might expect given the lives that will be affected one way or another.

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.

It is crucial, therefore, that the risks inherent in this approach are fully understood, evaluated and communicated. Above all it is crucial that those who will be expected to ‘suck it up for others’ are assisted, where necessary with noise reduction initiatives, and in exceptional cases, assisted to move on. There are a raft of innovative schemes that can be developed to deliver this, as many people will be locked in by depreciation. I presented the ‘Respite Plus’ solution at the House of Commons seminar on Aviation Noise and Mental Health 2016, as in some 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 I have since 2014 been privileged to have shared several platforms with John Stewart addressing aviation noise, and in my case its relationship with mental health. It has been essential, therapeutic, and I had thought 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 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 to comment on the unacknowledged.

It so easy to selfishly park noise on others. If that’s what’s being done, especially in a highly concentrated way, the least that can be done is that they are adequately protected. Give them the means of redress. Don’t pretend noise is no big deal and that periodic breaks will ‘sort it’ for everyone. It won’t. Some may be so exhausted/ill waiting for a break that they are unable to benefit from it when available, and so a slow but irreversible cycle of decline is likely to be triggered. Pills won’t cure this, or breaks (although they may for many).

I have also encountered some excellent people including Ruth Cadbury (MP) and Dr Tania Mathias (MP), amongst others – people who cared, in positions of responsibility.

Even Matt Gorman (Heathrow’s Sustainability and Environment Director), I would include on my list. I have sought to persuade him that LHR should be world leaders in developing products and services to assist the noise vulnerable in living with aircraft noise. 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 badly done by constituency. Why don’t we get on and do it?

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