North Sea hope in flightpath battle

THE Civil Aviation Authority could intervene to force controversial new stacking zones planned for the Suffolk countryside to be moved to over the North Sea, a Government minister has revealed.

Graham Dines

THE Civil Aviation Authority could intervene to force controversial new stacking zones planned for the Suffolk countryside to be moved to over the North Sea, a Government minister has revealed.

As MPs complained at both the "lack of consultation" with the general public and the absence of any alternative proposals, junior transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick said an investigation into the practicality of stacking over the sea could be ordered in the autumn.

He sought to reassure MPs that the final plans would be carefully examined at the CAA, which had the power to recommend them to the Secretary of State or to order alternatives to be examined.

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Concerned MPs led by Suffolk West Tory Richard Spring forced a parliamentary debate today into the plans to double the number of stacking areas over Suffolk for flights into Stansted airport and also the lowering of flight paths which would impact on the countryside and the horse racing industry at Newmarket.

Mr Spring queried the lack of detailed groundwork on the proposed changes. There had been no field investigations undertaken, just a desk bound exercise by NATS, the agency responsible for managing flight paths and aircraft movement over the UK.

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Mr Spring acknowledged that the agency had a difficult balancing act, with a 344% increase since 1997 in flights serving Stansted and a 212% rise in aircraft movements at Luton.

But he pointed out a proposed new stacking area, one of two for Stansted, would be over a large swathe of Suffolk countryside between Sudbury and Stowmarket.

If approved, a new flight path to the airport would have to come into operation, which would severely impact on Newmarket, with overflights of 4,000 feet and below.

Mr Spring said the Newmarket area had two of Britain's best race courses, 2,900 horses in training, 62 stud farms and 89 trainers. The industry had grown because breeders and trainers had been attracted by the quiet and tranquility which was essential for race horses.

But under the proposals, 33 flights an hour heading for Stansted could be routed over Newmarket, putting the industry's future at risk.

Mr Spring said the amount of money pumped into both the local and national economies meant it would be an utter catastrophe if the decision to re-route flight paths over the town caused breeders to move abroad to France or Ireland.

"My constituents feel a genuine public consutlation has not taken place," he said, adding that there seemed to have been no consideration of moving the stacking area 50 miles to the east over the North Sea.

David Gauke, the Ipswich-born and raised Tory MP for Hertfordshire South-West, complained: "NATS does not offer alternatives. It is a take it or leave it consultation."

Mr Gauke said there had to be better ways of dealing with air traffic movements and urged that consideration be given to relocating the stacking area - which will be used to hold a backlog of flight arrivals at Stansted - to over the North Sea.

John Leach (Liberal Democrat, Manchester Withington) said moving routes from over town to the countryside would have a massive impact. Rural areas did not suffer background noise but would find that they would have noise forced on them.

The minister said the area known as "terminal control north" which handled flights serving Heathrow, Stansted, London City, and Luton was the most complex in the UK.

The skies were getting busier and NATS had the duty to ensure that new flight paths and stacking areas enhanced safety and mitigated the environmental consequences.

He told Mr Spring that the Government recognised the importance of the horse racing industry to the Newmarket and UK economy and said NATS would give it "due consideration" before publishing its final recommendations later this month.

An impact on the racing industry would also be investigated by the CAA and also the Secretary of State, who had to sanction any changes.

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