Residents welcome concession of airport court case but cautious about inquiry move
Numbers seriously affected by aircraft noise treble to 11,000 in just three years
Local residents have reacted cautiously to news that the Environment Minister is considering modifying the noise regulations governing the operation of George Best Belfast City Airport.
The Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, has announced an inquiry which will investigate how the current planning agreement between the Department and the airport can be altered.
His announcement comes after the Department told the High Court this morning that it was dropping its defence in a legal battle with residents’ group Belfast City Airport Watch (BCAW) over the planning agreement.
“While we welcome the fact that the Department has, in effect, conceded our legal case and appreciate the Minister’s active interest in the noise issue,” said Dr Liz Fawcett, Chair of BCAW’s Steering Group, “we believe that he could simply implement in full the recommendations from the last official inquiry on this matter, rather than starting again from scratch.
“The airport’s own figures show that the number of people seriously affected by aircraft noise has trebled in just three years and now stands at more than 11,000 – far higher than the numbers affected by this level of noise at major airports like Stansted and Gatwick.
“This is a crazy situation when we have a perfectly good international airport just 30 minutes’ drive from the centre of Belfast which affects relatively few residents.
“If the Department implemented the recommendations of the last inquiry, it would bring immediate relief to tens of thousands of residents whose lives are affected by some degree of aircraft noise, and who currently face the prospect of a spiralling noise problem thanks to the airport’s plans to expand international flights.”
BCAW had been given leave to seek a judicial review in the High Court over a decision by the previous Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, to drop a key environmental clause in the planning agreement between George Best Belfast City Airport and the Department.
The clause limited to 2 million the number of seats which could be sold in any one year on flights from the airport, restricting the proportion of larger, noisier aircraft which could be operated.
This morning, in the High Court, lawyers for the Department of the Environment said the Department was withdrawing its defence against the case taken by campaigners and also, separately, by Belfast International Airport.
“We welcome this development,” commented Dr Fawcett. “It’s unusual for a government department to concede defeat in a case of this nature.
“However, our prime concern is that the seats for sale clause should now be implemented and properly enforced, along with the other elements required for a robust system of noise management which will offer real protection to local residents.
The facts about aircraft noise linked to Belfast City Airport are as follows:
· Consultants’ reports commissioned by the airport show that 11,422 people now suffer from a level of aircraft noise deemed by the UK government to cause “significant community annoyance” – compared to just 3,522 in 2007.
· A mere 1,500 people suffer from noise at the same level close to Stansted airport, and just 3,600 experience this level of noise near Gatwick, according to figures from the Department for Transport.
· The same consultants’ reports show that 23,810 people living near the City Airport suffer aircraft noise at a higher level than that recommended by the World Health Organisation – compared to 12,084 in 2007.
· Further information released by the airport show that there was a 40% increase in the number of late flights at the airport last year, compared to the previous year.
· The airport’s statistics show that there was a total of 503 late flights after 9.30pm last year – an average of 1.4 late flights per day – despite the fact that the airport’s planning agreement stipulates that late flights should only occur “in exceptional circumstances”. This compares to 359 late flights in 2009.
In April, low-cost airline, bmibaby, announced that it was going to start operating seven new international routes using the same type of aircraft which it currently operates out of Belfast City Airport, the 737-300, but with additional engine thrust.
Campaigners believe the use of the extra thrust, combined with the likely higher and heavier load of fuel required will make these flights even noisier than the domestic flights currently operated by bmibaby from the airport.
Bmibaby said it had not ruled out operating further international routes from the airport if the planned ones proved successful.