Artificial Light and Noise: Effects on Human Health (Science and Technology Committee Report) Debate

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Department: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Artificial Light and Noise: Effects on Human Health (Science and Technology Committee Report)

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate the Government on setting up a committee on this important but neglected subject, and the committee itself on an excellent report. I have listened with great interest to the valuable speeches from its members today.

The report rightly concentrates on the effect of light and noise on human health, but that assumes that there is a positive good in the first place. If too much noise is harmful, then the assumption is that lack of noise, silence, is of value in itself, so I want to begin by emphasising this simple point. In March and April 2010, a volcano in Iceland erupted, sending billions of tonnes of ash into the air and resulting in the cancellation of some 100,000 flights over an eight-day period. The effect on the ground literally felt miraculous. It was as though we lived in a world born anew, one characterised by a deep quiet. We may remember that there was something of the same healing silence in the worst days of Covid, when movement of traffic by air and road was at a minimum. Those experiences remind us that, for most people, silence, or at least a minimum noise level, is a positive good and that if we are deprived of it there are inevitable implications for mental, physical and spiritual health. It is not surprising that within at least most religions of the world silence has been of so much value and people have gone to such lengths to find it in deserts and monasteries. Let me quote just one example, from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear”.

A great deal could be said about traffic noise—I would have liked to hear more about that—but, against that background, I will focus on aircraft noise. I was surprised that it was not mentioned in the report, although the Government refer in their response to two Department for Transport-funded domestic cross-sectional studies, one on aviation night noise and one on attitudes to aviation noise. I do not criticise the committee; I will later come on to the fact that, at the moment, strangely, aircraft noise does not seem to be covered by the statutory definition of noise or a pollutant.

I declare an interest as someone who lives in west London, one of the many millions along the Thames, from Fulham and Putney through Barnes, Richmond, Kew, Windsor and Hounslow, who suffer—I use the word deliberately—aircraft noise. If you look up “aircraft noise” on the internet, you find adverts for soundproof windows. That is fine when you are in the house, but being outside on a summer’s day can be destroyed by the regular deafening noise coming from overhead every minute or so, and you are forced indoors again.

Paragraph 10 of the Government’s response refers to the benefits of green spaces and claims that £2 billion of treatment costs could be saved if everyone in England had access to green space. However, if you go to some of the best green spaces in Britain today—Richmond Park, Kew Gardens, Windsor park and the smaller parks in the Hounslow area—the day’s outing can be totally blighted and destroyed. More widely, children’s learning at school gets disrupted and health suffers in all sorts of ways, as the report emphasises. A large-scale study of people living under the flight path in the Heathrow area found that they were 10% to 20% more at risk of stroke and heart disease.

As I suggested, I imagine aircraft noise did not feature in the report in the way it might have done because it seems to be legally exempt from the charge that it could be polluting. The Civil Aviation Authority guidance notes that aviation noise does not constitute a statutory nuisance, unlike other forms of noise pollution, and nor is it covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or the Noise Act 1996. This means that local authorities do not have the legal power to take action on matters of aircraft noise, and nor does the Civil Aviation Authority have the legal power to prevent aircraft flying over a particular location or at a particular time for environmental reasons.

This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is as though aircraft noise occupies its own space, legally exempt from the kind of challenges you would normally get from the public in so many other spheres of life. The public can make complaints—as we have heard, they do so regularly—but aircraft noise is exempt from any kind of legal challenge. Surveys show a great deal of public dissatisfaction at this. Although it is claimed that engines are now much quieter than they were, as somebody who has lived under a flight path for three or four decades I can say that there is no sign of that in my hearing. The level of public annoyance remains extremely high and the ability of Governments to pressure the aircraft industry seems very limited.

Although in modern life we have to accept much noise, as we have to accept the weather, we should not just continue to accept the present level of aircraft noise as though nothing can be done about it. Present levels are totally unacceptable for so many people. What steps are the Government taking to address this situation? I suggest that it would be worth having a special committee or group of some kind on aircraft noise. There are due to be 40.1 million flights this year, a number which is due to increase by 4.3% a year up to 2042. A committee on this subject, set up by the Government and with a brief to look at this seriously from all sides and make recommendations about what might be done to reduce and minimise aircraft noise, would be widely welcomed.