Suffolk still stuck in path of air war

THREE years after The Evening Star revealed Suffolk skies are being swamped with thousands of extra plane journeys every week, a House of Commons debate has forced a government minister to take notice.

THREE years after The Evening Star revealed Suffolk skies are being swamped with thousands of extra plane journeys every week, a House of Commons debate has forced a government minister to take notice.

But with no democracy in our skies, what can campaigners hope to win from the latest developments? RICHARD CORNWELL reports.

AN English spring or summer evening is one of the great joys of living in this country.

In warmth and late sunlight, bird song merges together in a glorious harmony - nature's evensong, sweeter for most than the slightly-annoying morning counterpart, the dawn chorus.

Song thrushes reach magical heights, blackbirds gather for an almighty nagging session and for some, nightingales defy their dull brown clothing to charm as no other winged one can.

It's not only bird life that makes things so special . . . the walk on a beach, down a green lane, or the simple joys of sitting out in your back garden

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This peaceful patchwork of life has happened for centuries in Suffolk - one of the last bastions of English shire county solitude.

But go to many parts of the area now and the reality is very different. Instead of the peace and tranquillity, the sound of silence has been replaced by a constant roar from jet planes going in and out of Britain's major airports.

Thousands more passenger planes - nose-to-tail in aeronautical terms - have blighted our skies in the past few years as air travel, particularly the upsurge in cheap flights, has grown dramatically, and we, as a society, haven't been able to do a thing about it.

Now we are faced with the prospect of even more planes with the government saying air travel will double by 2030, and Stansted is set to grow in the short-term to 35 million passengers a year and to double in size if a new runway is built.

Our councils have been impotent on the issue, our MPs have been late to take up the cudgels and fight on our behalf.

So where has it all come from - and why has Suffolk suddenly become the front line of Britain's Airwars?

THERE has always been some flights over Suffolk but it was four years ago that the onslaught really started.

In 2004 the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) agreed changes to increase flight capacity in what is known as the Clacton airspace sector by 30 per cent.

Ironically, what the changes did was move the main flow of incoming aircraft for Stansted and Luton from over Clacton and Frinton to right over Felixstowe, Harwich and Woodbridge - removing virtually all flights over Clacton.

Councils were consulted on the changes but few, by their own admission, actually understood the question - or the consequences.

The public was not asked for its views and the first people knew there had been a major change was when flights suddenly started going straight over the Felixstowe peninsula.

In addition to this, flights from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City fly over the area all day, in and out, and many planes overflying Britain can also be seen high in the sky.

Other parts of Suffolk also take planes from these and many other airports from all over Britain.

The situation now is that around 600 planes a day fly over the Felixstowe area - half the total flying over Suffolk every 24 hours.

There can be more than 30 an hour at peak times, one every two minutes, with the dull roar of one subsiding just as the next arrives.

Between 10pm and 11pm at night, when the area is quiet and people are settling for the night, the planes get unbearably loud, jets from Heathrow heavily-laden with fuel and unable to climb high enough passing over en route to the Far East.

Go down to the picturesque villages of Trimley St Mary and Martin andWalton, and there's a regular cacophony.

Look into the night sky and it is a revelation.

Lights of planes passing each other in every direction, criss-crossing the sky thousands of metres apart - sometimes seven or eight jets in the sky at once.

The government takes little responsibility for air travel other than to set the broad policies - its arm is the CAA, which, although not government funded, regulates the industry, dealing with airspace use, consumer issues and economic matters, and advising Whitehall on aviation concerns.

The third party is NATS, a profit-making air management company which runs air traffic services under contract at the UK's busiest airports.

It was NATS which in its wisdom suddenly decided many parts of Suffolk would take the extra air routes. The CAA agreed the plan.

But why the Felixstowe peninsula was targeted is a mystery which remains unsolved.

Ironically, the Felixstowe area is the worst noise-blighted area of the whole county. After the A14 and A12 merge in Ipswich, all the container lorries for the Port of Felixstowe - all 4,000 a day of them, and that figure set to rise by 2,700 a day in the next 15 years - thunder in and out of the dock area.

Then there's the railway, general port noise - and then, of course, the planes,

Worryingly for those on the Felixstowe peninsula is that NATS may have targeted this area as a tactic - clustering jet noise above the area because of the noise already there.

I visited NATS' HQ and stood behind an air traffic controller watching on his radar screen as planes were directed straight over the Felixstowe area.

Three flew side by side south-west to north-east from Gatwick/Heathrow while another flew in east to west under the path of the others, bound for Stansted. Others were sweeping over to Suffolk, and from the Continent into Suffolk, following in from the same directions to make the same journeys.

We can't find out why these flightpaths have been selected - despite repeated questioning, which is why we're repeating all our unanswered questions tonight on pages 18 and 19.

Simply altering the flightpaths so the planes coming out of Heathrow go further out along the Thames estuary before turning northward so they would be out over the sea would remove a large amount of jets each day.

One of the biggest questions is over the number of planes flying over Suffolk.

Although they have given a few figures, NATS says it does not count the planes - ensuring the jets fly safely is their main concern.

However, for those on the ground living below this noise, numbers are the only true measure of what is experienced now, how it has changed and how it could change in the future.

Stansted, our nearest airport, says it is listening to the concerns - but it still wants a second runway, the need for which is highly debateable.

What is clear is that the airport is planning for a demand it hopes to be there, not one that is necessarily needed.

Cheap flights to non-descript destinations (just for the ride) - such as Tampere (no-one in an Evening Star survey could say where it was) and Bergerac (where you won't see John Nettles!) - are not vital air links at a time when the world is increasingly concerned over the environmental impact of flying.

Which brings us back to democracy and openness.

Secretive NATS won't answer many of our questions - if they did we could all ponder on alternatives - so the facts are not out in the open.

NATS says some questions should go to the CAA, the CAA sends some of the same ones back to NATS. Government says the CAA or NATS should answer - it has no answers itself.

So where does it all lead?

Fact 1: Suffolk has lost the sound of silence forever.

Fact 2: Thousands more planes will be heading our way in the future.

Fact 3: Villages will be blighted by holding stacks.

Fact 4: Ipswich could be next in line.

Fact 5: Redrawing the map could put some of these flightpaths and stacks over the sea.

Fact 6: The ridiculous “clustering” of planes, directed as if by laser on the same routes day after day.

Fact 7: No sharing of the burdens - no “load sharing” by changing routes so people can enjoy quiet days.

The trail leads to the government's door - and air minister Jim Fitzpatrick who stood up in the House of Commons last week and admitted the buck stops with him.

The government leaves the air industry to the CAA and the CAA licenses NATS. So who is representing the public?

It's time Mr Fitzpatrick grabbed hold of the air debate good and proper - and let's get all the facts out into the open.

Meanwhile, we (and thousands of others) say put Stansted's expansion on hold until the need is investigated and the demand really exists.

As we try to avoid the growing horror of plane noise - and while wonderful Essex villages stand under threat of being bulldozed - we are certain there's still no democracy in the skies.

- Are too many planes flying over Suffolk? Should the government safeguard our county's special tranquillity? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail