Sitting amongst my betters in the majestic surroundings of the main hall at the borough council offices, I was reminded of the poem ‘The Second Coming’ by Yeats:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer:’
I was thinking it could be renamed ‘The Second Runway’ instead.
Half of the sixty or so people attending the meeting about aviation noise chaired by KCC member and Kent’s GATCOM representative, Matthew Balfour, were members of the public, the other half district and parish councillors from across Kent and Sussex including Major Streatfeild, Chair of the High Weald Parish Councils Aviation Action Group (HWPCAAG). No representative MP’s were present. Everyone stared towards a central information board. Speakers, including Mr Joe Ratcliffe, Principle Transport Planner for the KCC, referred to various maps that glared red with flight path densities, and the slow bearing of British bureaucracy reflected in the Chairman’s face: everyone looked like amateurs by contrast to the ruthless operations of big business.
Gatwick expansion via the new ‘Superhighway’ route means about 350 planes per day – ALL southern airport arrivals – in a concentrated stream above West Kent most of the year from 06:30-11:30 hours without respite. What we were all looking at on the maps was the beautifully stark as well as ugly reality of Gatwick’s pursuit of profit involving the flight of giant lumps of metal burning kerosene, and thereby the expected demise of West Kent’s Tourist and Leisure industries.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has come to this process rather late. The Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB’s) of the High Weald and adjacent wildlife areas, together with West Kent’s empirical stately homes, are already significantly compromised by aircraft noise and air pollution. Aircraft expansion increases Public Health issues for West Kent residents, particularly stress induced effects on cardiovascular health as well as increased incidences of lung disease. Expected property blight could be pronounced as a result of the Superhighway, together with pressure on the learning environment for children in otherwise well performing Tunbridge Wells schools. And even without a second runway, Gatwick plans to increase passenger numbers from 35 million to 45 million over the next couple of years.
Some key points arising from the meeting included:
- Aviation noise (like noise from trains and cars) is not a statutory nuisance
- CAA has legal duties to protect AONB’s from overflight but, from the Government’s Aviation Policy Framework (March 2013) only ‘where practical’ i.e. Gatwick is surrounded by AONB’s
- Noise from planes is mainly measured for departures. All measurements are averages over a 16 hour period. This takes no account of the number of planes flying i.e. neither the Government nor Gatwick acknowledge any noise problem over West Kent and East Sussex. The Government show no intention of changing this outdated method of measurement, despite evidence of bias in favour of aviation companies.
- Gatwick expect a ‘noise shadow’ of 2km from the ‘Superhighway’ of 60dB or more. Planes make more noise when turning.
The extent of feeling on the issue of aircraft noise was very apparent throughout the meeting, and especially keen from attending members of the public. Some were from as far afield as Broadwater in south Tunbridge Wells. There were many accounts of how planes are now flying lower and more frequently, together with the sense of wanting to do something about the problem, while at the same time not knowing what.
Parish Councillors, most of them mentioning increased numbers of complaints from their residents about aircraft noise, put forward a number of measures by which noise from planes might be reduced. Many expressed surprise that there should be such noise disturbances so far from Gatwick airport – a matter of around twenty miles – when at one time Gatwick’s main approach path barely extended beyond East Grinstead, which now has a flight exclusion zone in effect.
I may be an amateur but at least I was there at the TWBC meeting last night. The concluding agreement for better coordination of resistance to Gatwick’s expansion amounted to no more or less than a democratic call to arms: it’s never too late for that. Especially when it’s a matter of protecting where we live and what we value most.