Residents affected by aircraft noise from George Best Belfast City Airport have welcomed confirmation by the Minister for Infrastructure, Chris Hazzard, that he has instructed officials to work towards full implementation of the recommendations of a crucial public inquiry report.
The airport had been seeking significant changes to its planning agreement which would have greatly increased permissible noise levels, with a serious impact on up to 18,000 residents, while also removing an annual cap on the number of aircraft seats from the airport offered for sale.
A report drawn up by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC), which held a public inquiry into the proposals in 2015, recommended that the so-called ‘seats for sale’ cap should be removed, but also recommended noise control measures which, if implemented, would mean permissible noise levels won’t be as high as they would have been under the airport’s proposal.
The Minister’s view on the matter was expressed in a letter from the Minister to south Belfast MLA, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, passed to the umbrella residents’ group, Belfast City Airport Watch (BCAW). The letter states:
I have considered the PAC [Planning Appeals Commission] report of the public inquiry and agreed “in principle”, to endorse their recommendations in full, subject to resolving the technical issues around the proposed noise management system. I have instructed my officials to liaise directly with GBBCA [Belfast City Airport] on the detail of a modified planning agreement based around these recommendations. My Department will continue to work with airport representatives to bring the process to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
Responding to the news, Dr Liz Fawcett, Chair of the BCAW Steering Group, said:
“While, obviously, we would have preferred that there was no relaxation of noise controls at Belfast City Airport, we welcome this declaration by the Minister that he supports full implementation of the PAC’s recommendations.
“The Commission clearly tried to strike a balance between the commercial interests of the airport, and the health and quality of life of the tens of thousands of local residents affected by this issue.
“Although permissible noise levels will rise, once the report’s recommendations are implemented, we can be confident that we won’t have to suffer the extreme levels of noise which could have occurred, had the airport been given everything which it was seeking.”
During the public inquiry, BCAW highlighted the findings of an independent survey of 423 residents who live close to the airport’s flight path, which the group commissioned. This revealed the extent to which aircraft noise was already disrupting their lives:
- 38% of respondents described the noise of planes, while they were at home, as “very high”, compared to just 4% who described traffic noise in similar terms
- 1 in 5 respondents said planes disrupted their sleep “very often” or “quite often”
- 1 in 4 respondents with young children said their children’s sleep was disrupted “very often” or “quite often”
A total of 1,308 objections were received by the Department of the Environment after the airport’s application was first made in 2012.
One of the worst affected residents is 75-year old Elizabeth Bennett whose home in Sydenham, east Belfast, is right under the flight path. She said she’s very relieved at the news:
“I find the constant noise of the planes really stressful – they wake me up really early most mornings and carry on until late in the evening.
“You can’t hear the TV, you can’t hear people on the phone, and you have to stop speaking when the planes go over.
“I’ve been really worried that the noise was going to get a great deal worse and I’m glad to hear that the Minister intends to do what the public inquiry recommended.”
Another badly affected resident is Barney Gadd (69) who lives in Stranmillis, south Belfast. He also welcomed the news:
“Aircraft noise stops me and many people I know from enjoying our gardens in the summertime.
“It’s hard to relax properly when planes are constantly flying over and you have to keep stopping your conversation.
“So I’m very pleased that the public inquiry recommendations are being implemented; it won’t make things better but I hope it will prevent the noise getting much worse.”
One of the key issues considered by the public inquiry was the size of a noise threshold, called a noise control contour, which determines the geographical area and number of people which can be subjected to relatively high levels of aircraft noise.
The PAC’s report recommended the imposition of a 5.2 sq km noise control contour which was smaller than the 7.5 sq km contour sought by the airport, but larger than the 4.2 sq km contour which BCAW had supported.
The airport’s current planning agreement stipulates an indicative noise contour of 4.2 sq km but the airport has refused to adhere to this.
The airport’s own figures showed that up to 18,000 people could be affected at or above a noise level which would cause serious annoyance, if its 7.5 sq km contour proposal was implemented. By contrast, a maximum of 5,000 people would be affected at that level if the 4.2 sq km contour was adhered to.