8 January 2002

Strasbourg ruling on night flights may cost £2bn

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Taxpayers could have to provide up to £2 billion in compensation to residents near airports because of a European Court of Human Rights judgment against night flying.

The Department of Transport estimates that up to 500,000 people could be eligible for pay-outs, following the Strasbourg decision that the loss of sleep resulting from night-time landings at Heathrow violated residents' right to "respect for private and family life". The eight west London householders who brought the case were each awarded £4,000.

Officials calculate that if such payments were made to all residents within Heathrow's noise "envelope", the cost would range from £400 million to £2 billion, depending on the decibel level used for the compensation threshold.

The amount could be even higher if the case triggered further claims from neighbours of other large airports, such as Gatwick and Manchester, where the incidence of night flying is much greater than at Heathrow.

The size of the potential bill is behind the Government's decision to appeal against the judgment.

As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain normally accepts the court's rulings as a matter of course. However, Government lawyers believe that they have a good chance of mounting a successful challenge on the grounds that the court did not take sufficient account of the economic benefits of night flights, and denied
Britain the normal degree of discretion in dealing with environmental protection issues.

The west London anti-noise pressure group that initiated the case, Hacan, said it wanted to see night flights banned.

John Stewart, the group's chairman, said: "The Government has totally misunderstood where we are coming from. We didn't go to Europe to make ourselves rich, but to get a good night's sleep."