30 OCT 2016

A new runway at Heathrow

Last week I gave a cautious welcome to the announcement that the Government was backing the independent Airports Commission proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. It is, quite simply, time the Government made a decision on the shape of our airport capacity in the South-East and it gives us a chance to bring into the open many issues around noise which are affecting the constituency and which have dogged discussion.

The Commission took evidence from a wide range of people and concluded that the economic case for a third runway at Heathrow is far stronger than for a second runway at Gatwick although in the end I suspect we will need both. It is an economic case of which most of us are part. For example, in the last year I have made five flights on parliamentary business from Heathrow. On each occasion I have met numbers of constituents in the terminal at Heathrow waiting to board planes.

Regardless of Brexit, we need a strong hub airport in the South-East to compete with the likes of Paris and Amsterdam. We have to recognise that we need to promote Britain and to find a solution for the business and pleasure trips we are all taking. The idea that there is no necessity for increased capacity in the South-East stands in marked contrast to all the professional evidence taken, including from pilots. The idea that we can prevent people flying by taxing them at increasing rates per flight is utterly unrealistic.

However, I have only given a cautious welcome to a new runway at Heathrow because the real issue is about how the runway will be used and what can be done to mitigate the impact of noise in the constituency over the Henley area and wider afield. This is a time for cool heads rather than hot heads and for a proper evaluation of the proposals. The media today work on instant judgement and soundbites. But this is a time when the judgement needs to be informed and based on detailed work rather than on a self-indulgent throwing of the toys out of the pram.

I have been working on the issue of aircraft noise for some time. Over the past year or so, I have arranged for meetings in Henley between local people and Heathrow, the CAA and NATS (the air traffic controllers). I have also visited NATS control centre on the south coast to see for myself how they operate to make us safe in the sky. With neighbouring MPs we have had further solid meetings with NATS and others to go into detail about the issue and I will be having further meetings. I recently held a meeting with senior personnel from Heathrow at which we discussed how the new runway will ease pressure on traffic and help reduce the need to hold traffic in the holding stacks around London. This is important for assessing where planes will line up to land at Heathrow and where they will turn including over Henley. In addition, the CAA will be conducting a review of air space across the country and how we use it and we are also seeing changing technology in aircraft engines for example which will help alleviate some of the noise issues. Finally, I am trying to reconcile detailed analysis of the use of flight paths over Henley with what is actually going on.

For many the issue of aircraft noise is a major problem and I take those concerns seriously. I am particularly pleased that in the forthcoming scrutiny, issues of noise will be considered. I will be looking to evaluate what impact the new runway will have and to ensure that there is adequate noise mitigation in the final deal. I will, therefore, be looking at the data which will be published in the New Year to understand the implications of this for constituents especially those currently experiencing nuisance from air traffic. This is a long-awaited opportunity for full and robust review which I welcome and I will be encouraging constituents to engage with the public consultation and share their views with me.

However the attitude of constituents to the new runway is by no means one-sided or clear and, as ever, there are different views put forward. I have, for example, received emails from residents of Henley asking what all the fuss is about. One said to me "I have lived here for all my 72 years and can honestly say that not once has noise from a plane going into or leaving Heathrow annoyed or alarmed me". Another said that he wondered why I was spending time on the issue since it was not creating major problems, particularly compared with the days of the VC10.

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