PUBLISHED: 15:19 09 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:55 20 February 2013
New proposals to change flight paths over East and West Berkshire could have a huge impact on some residents, reports Lucy Allen...
The rolling North Wessex Downs are one of the most peaceful areas of Berkshire, but imagine the sound of airplanes roaring overhead. Not just the occasional airplane, a long way up in the sky, but the sound of up to 27 planes a night, only a few thousand feet above your head, making a noise equivalent to a car speeding past your house just a few metres away.
And all this in one of Britain's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so designated because they afford the walker a chance to get away from 21st century life.
But this is the prospect that faces residents in the very west of Berkshire as part of a plan to create a new flight path above their heads. If implemented, the proposal by NATS, the National Air Traffic Service, would see up to 27 planes a night flying over West Berkshire in a new five-mile wide motorway in the sky that starts over Hungerford and extends 14 miles south to Romsey in Hampshire.
The flights, southbound for Southampton and Bournemouth airports, would be restricted to between the hours of 5.30pm to 9.30am but would fly between 5,500 feet and 11,500 feet overhead.
The proposal for the 'R41 extension' - it is an extension to existing controlled airspace - is outlined in a document published by NATS earlier this year, and if approved by the Directorate of Airspace Policy (DAP) at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA),will be implemented on April 10 next year.
Newbury MP Richard Benyon is very concerned by the proposal and the consultation on it. He received a copy of the 82-page proposal in May, asking for his views, but noticed that parish councils affected by the plan were not on the list of consultees.
He told Berkshire and Chilterns Life: "I asked NATS to send it to every parish council affected, but they would not - I had to write to the parish councils to say how to find it online. I have been very concerned about the flawed nature of the consultation. What this requires is for public meetings to be arranged, and for there to be presentations to the district councils involved. That would be consulting the public, not hiding behind a document like this. NATS are just ticking the consultation box."
Mr Benyon, along with North West Hampshire MP Sir George Young, whose constituency is also affected, asked NATS to extend the consultation period until the end of September. NATS agreed to allow people to submit their comments until September 7. But Mr Benyon is also worried about the noise that will be generated by the aircraft, which will include Boeing 747s and 737s.
According to the NATS document, a Boeing 737, which will use the airspace several times a day, would generate noise in the range of 61 to 63 decibels, while a Boeing 747, which would use the airspace around three times a week, would generate between 62 and 69 decibels. For comparison, a car travelling at 60km/h around seven metres away will produce 70 decibels, and the Government considers 57 decibels to be the 'beginning of community annoyance'.
"Some areas in my constituency, like Inkpen and Coombe, are 1,000 ft or nearly 1,000ft above sea level. I want to know the impact on them", said Mr Benyon. He added: "This has to be put in plain English, in a way that everyone can understand. It should not be for expensive lawyers to interpret this. That is my chief objection." Mr Benyon plans to take the matter up in parliament and has already written to the aviation minister. The area affected by the R41 extension includes part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NWDAONB), a fact which its protectors are struggling to come to terms with.
The NWDAONB's Council of Partners has written to NATS.
The Council said in a statement: "The letter outlines our concerns that the proposed extension to airspace will be detrimental to the special character and qualities of the area. "NATS and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) have a duty to regard the purpose of the AONB when considering proposals such as the extension of airspace. "The purpose of AONBs is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of their areas."
West Berkshire Council has also responded to NATS about the flight path. Public relations manager Keith Ulyatt said: "There are concerns about any impact on the tranquillity of our AONB, and about the amount of information used to make the noise impact assessment, and how well a layperson would be able to interpret it.
"We have been assured this response will be conveyed to the CAA for their decision." However, he added: "From the evidence given, we don't believe there will be a significant impact on residents of West Berkshire."
NATS says the extra airspace would reduce delays caused by heavy traffic over the Compton Beacon near Newbury, an area where flights to and from Southampton and Bournemouth compete for airspace with planes to and from Heathrow and Gatwick. A NATS spokesman said: "We are forwarding the comments from the consultation to the DAP of the CAA. "They will look at what has taken place and review the process and make a decision, so it is in the hands of the DAP now."
She added that the list of consultees was decided in agreement with the CAA and consultees were then asked to 'cascade' the information to people they felt appropriate.
It's not just West Berkshire that is under threat of increased aircraft noise, though.
At the other end of the county, Windsor and Maidenhead residents are also battling to keep their skies free of noise in the midst of a raft of proposals for the ever-expanding Heathrow airport. These include a new third runway north of the two existing runways, a plan to which the Government announced its commitment in December 2006.
It will be built by 2017 if the Government can overcome certain environmental issues. Other proposals include a possible sixth terminal, an increase from 480,000 to 800,000 movements per year at the airport, and plans to increase capacity by allowing dual use of the existing runways, whereby both runways are used for landings and take-offs at the same time, and all this hot on the heels of Terminal 5, due to open in March 2008. A consultation on environmental factors surrounding the third runway and the new 'mixed mode' use of runways is planned for the late autumn.
Steve Mayner is the spokesman for the 2M group, a group of 12 councils including the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which got together last year to fight the growth of Heathrow. Mr Mayner said the group is now waiting for the consultation to begin. "We have been trying to persuade the Department for Transport to run public meetings in all the 2M boroughs, in the evening when people can attend, and to publicise the consultation in the borough magazines," he said.
"We want everybody to be aware of what is proposed, but we are waiting to hear from them. We have also asked them to make the consultation longer than three months.
"This is an incredibly complex consultation, and it is not about the principle - the third runway is a done deal. It is whether it can clear the air pollution and noise pollution hurdles."
He added: "They have been swapping this data for months. Then come November 1, or whenever the consultation starts, we will be given this data, and given three months to analyse it all, and to organise the public meetings. It's not long enough."
Mr Mayner said information on the flight paths for the third runway, expected to account for an extra 240,000 flights a year, was sparse, with a CAA consultation on them not planned until the start of 2008. "Going from 480,000 to 800,000 movements per year is a big increase," he said. "They cannot all go on the same flight path, but we do not know exactly where the new flight path will go."
The 2M group has drawn up a map (pictured left) that shows how flights using the third runway would go over Maidenhead and Slough. But Mr Mayner said: "This is only our best estimate because no-one has come up with an official one."
John Stewart is chairman of HACAN (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) Clearskies, a group set up to represent people living under Heathrow flight paths.
He said: "One of the criticisms we have got is that the Government has got quite far with these proposals but they have not said where the flight path will be. The local authorities are having to work it out for themselves."
Mr Stewart said the issue of mixed use of the runways means that while Windsor may end up with slightly fewer planes descending overhead, places like Old Windsor and Wraysbury will have planes overhead for the first time. And he said the sheer number of proposals regarding Heathrow were creating confusion.
"We think what they are trying to do is make it so complex that people will not understand what is happening," he said. "We are trying to simplify it as much as possible. The basic message is that whatever happens with Heathrow expansion, there will be more planes affecting more people."
Of the R41 extension, Mr Stewart added: "This is typical of what is happening. "Airports are expanding and areas that have never been affected by aircraft noise in the past are suddenly being affected. "People have bought houses in these areas with no aircraft noise and have never even thought about it. Now they are realising they have to."
For more information:
Go to www.2mgroup.org.uk, www.hacan.org.uk, www.notrag.org.
The R41 extension proposal can be viewed at www.nats.co.uk/text/134/terminal_control_south_west_2.html