For whom the decibels toll

Special report - The night before Andrew Martin took his first flight, at the age of 13, he couldn't

In deep countryside you have a view of the stars at night. In London you might see what you think is a star, but it will immediately begin bustling towards you, blinking furiously and accompanied either by a whine, similar in sound and effect to the dentist's drill, or by a grating roar, like somebody dragging a heavy packing case across the floor of the flat above.

I took my first flight at the age of 13. It would have been 1975. Destination: Innsbruck, on a school skiing trip, and I didn't sleep for excitement the night before. The carrier was Dan Air, which sounds - intentionally, for all I know - like Dan Dare. I loved aeroplanes at that point, but I have a different view now. That business of familiarity breeding contempt, I suppose. It's not that I fly very often; it's just that I live in central north London.

We're 20 miles from Heathrow here, and five years ago aircraft noise was not a factor. Today . . . well, a poll conducted by our MP showed that 45 per cent in the constituency are troubled by it, and I can watch those distant stars mutating into aeroplanes every 90 seconds for hours on end. It's grotesque but also fascinating, like watching a magician who produces not just one handkerchief from his hat but dozens and dozens in rapid succession.

In October I made my way by bike, under the aeroplane-filled night sky, to Westminster Central Hall, where a meeting was being held to mark the end of the public consultation on government proposals for extra night flights at Heathrow and Stansted. The mood was one of muted fury. After all, whenever protesters and the aviation industry have done battle, the latter has always won, or been allowed to win by governments. As though still transfixed by the miracle of manned flight, British governments have given the aviation industry everything it has wanted ever since it began, and none has been more generous than the present one, whose white paper of 2003 envisages a threefold increase in civil aviation over the next 30 years. The pattern has been as follows: government/ aviation industry proposal for expansion; consultation; expansion plan proceeded with. (The consultation is conducted so that the British Airports Authority - BAA - can begin press releases, "After extensive consultation . . .")

But as the preparations for the meeting continued, a frisson of excitement began to develop. People just kept on streaming into the room allocated to the meeting, so we had to shift into the biggest one in the building; then the MPs entered. I have seldom seen so many in one place outside parliament - more than 40 in all. As they spoke, they ranged beyond night flights, and speaker after speaker made the same point: that the untrammelled expansion of aviation has become more than worrying; it is horrific. It is a slow disaster for the character of London and the countryside. As for carbon emissions, it is as though Britannia, diagnosed as suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, were to treat herself to a few cases of whisky. Aviation is the fastest-rising cause of our carbon emissions, and one of the easiest to check - as Tony Blair, at the UN climate-change conference in Montreal, is presumably rather guiltily (if silently) aware.

Let's stick with noise for a minute, though. Here's a scenario from the past five years. You buy a property in the south-east of England. Not a property under one of the predetermined noise preference routes (NPR), along which planes leaving airports are supposed to stick until 4,000ft high. No, a quiet property in a quiet area. After a year or so, you notice an aeroplane overhead. It is approaching the airport, subjecting you to the dentist's drill noise, but it's a novelty, and beautiful, as individual aircraft are. A day later there's another. Soon, there are a dozen a day . . . twenty a day . . . fifty . . . a hundred . . . five hundred.

You investigate, and realise that incoming planes go only where the air-traffic controllers send them. Safety in the air is paramount and no outside interference can be brooked. You complain to BAA and you receive - just after you've given up hope of ever being replied to - a letter beginning: "We acknowledge that aircraft noise can be one of the most significant environmental aspects of airport operation and development." You also receive a map showing aircraft movements in your area.

On reading through this material, you realise with alarm that Heathrow - the likely cause of your problem, being the world's biggest international airport - is actually in the wrong place. It takes about five seconds to reach that conclusion, and a further two to think of a better spot: somewhere within striking distance of London, yet near the sea, over which most aircraft can be harmlessly directed . . . the Thames Estuary!

Permission was given for Heathrow in 1944, while Winston Churchill had his mind on other things. When the wind is westerly (which it is for 70 per cent of the time) all approaching air-craft arrive over London. When the wind is easterly London is, so to speak, fucked from the other direction: Berkshire gets the dentist's drill, and those in the capital under the NPRs get the dragged packing case.

Filing the BAA bumf in the bin, and realising you have no option but to take legal action, you call a lawyer who tells you that legislation enacted in the 1920s prevents any action over noise nuisance from aircraft. You now consider moving, but where is safe from the brash-hued hulls of easyJet and the like? You read a newspaper report about how flight paths are being created over open countryside all around Britain. And so you eventually end up at Westminster Central Hall reflecting on this, the latest of many fights you've had to conduct in order to secure a standard of civilisation you'd thought to be your birthright: that against night flights.

All along the back of the room in Central Hall were children from around Stansted. They held up placards broadcasting a demand shocking only in its modesty. They sought an uninterrupted night's sleep. Not a lie-in.

They defined night very stringently as 11pm to 7am, but for the purpose of aviation noise, the government defines night more stringently still: as lasting from 11.30pm to 6am. The limiting "night quota" of flights - which the government is seeking to increase - applies only in that time, stopping short of the cacophonous morning peak.

The protesters once nearly had a success on this. In 2001, Hacan ClearSkies won a victory at the European Court of Human Rights, securing a declaration that a peaceful night's sleep was a basic human right. The government and British Airways had it overturned, arguing that night flights were essential to the UK economy. It's very hard to see how this can be true. Even at mighty Heathrow there are currently 16 flights per night, on average, and the main beneficiaries are businessmen who are thereby able to arrive at their destinations at a sociable hour.

No, the chief practical consequence of those flights is that they keep people awake, adding sleeplessness to the other known inflictions of aircraft noise: stress, high blood pressure, rage, lapses in concentration (children at school under flight paths perform worse, not least because the teacher has to stop talking every 90 seconds). I should mention here that in 2000 the government signed World Health Organisation guidelines to the effect that people ought not to be exposed to more than 60 decibels at night. If this were applied immediately, no British airport would operate at night. A very attractive prospect to you and me, of course, and not so outlandish (City Airport doesn't operate at night), but not so attractive to the industry, which is why the government treats achievement of those standards as a long-term aim.

Of more consequence is a clause in the Civil Aviation Bill going through parliament, which allows the secretary of state to set night-flight levels not by numbers of flights but by noise and carbon-emission levels. The minister will be able to take the total sound energy emitted during any night and divide it by six and a half hours. This - the "noise budget" - is a sort of fudge-making mechanism, a sleight of hand that will allow the government to say, "Yes, we're allowing more aircraft but overall they make less noise," whereas the nub of the matter is not a mathematical question of noise (as the shadow transport minister, Alan Duncan, recently said to me, "decibels are balls") but whether any given aircraft wakes up hundreds of thousands of citizens under its path. Similarly surreal formulae are applied to measurement of noise caused by daytime flights, and in 2002 BA nerved itself to claim that: "Heathrow has seen a record of continuous long-term improvement in the noise climate, with the number of people within its 'noise footprint' reducing from two million to about 300,000 over the past 25 years." It's magic, I tell you!

But to come back to reality, the government is proposing its biggest increase in night flights for Stansted - a rise of 41 per cent above current levels. The brilliantly organised Stop Stansted Expansion group has fought the proposal all the way, but it is simultaneously battling on another, wider front opened up by the white paper of 2003. On presenting the paper, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, said of our crowded air lanes, "Doing nothing is not an option" - whereas in fact that might have been a good idea.

Instead, the white paper sets about the challenge of meeting that rapidly rising demand for flights, even though the demand is based on what the government has elsewhere admitted to be "an anomaly", namely the exemption from tax of aviation fuel. This represents a loss to the public coffers of £9bn a year, which means that we're all paying for cheap flights, even if we don't take them.

And how is the planned tripling of aviation compatible with the government's aim of reducing carbon emissions by 60 per cent before 2050? (If that still is the aim, because Blair is changing his "thinking" on targets.) According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the circle can be squared only if everybody else stops producing any carbon emissions at all.

There is one person in Britain ringing "alarm bells of urgency" on climate change at the same time as encouraging a huge expansion in aviation, and that's Blair. The contradiction is easily explained. On the one hand, in February 2005, he said to a meeting of MPs: "Hands up around this table . . . how many politicians facing a potential election at some point in the not-too-distant future would vote to end cheap air travel?" On the other hand he wants to look as though he's doing something about climate change.

We will all pay for this expansion, some of us with our lives. The white paper spared the haggard folk living around Heathrow the further burden of another runway - for now, but only because pollution there is so high that it is likely soon to contravene EU directives. Instead, the white paper - in defiance of hundreds of pages' worth of argument from Stop Stansted Expansion - proposed that the new runway deemed necessary be built at Stansted. BAA is now pressing for this, but it is uncertain how it can afford to build it without transferring profits from Heathrow, which is not currently allowed.

Anyway, most of the aviation industry wants the new runway not at Stansted but at Heathrow, where all their hardware is based. BAA has just published its interim master plan for Heathrow. Arguably the word "interim" mitigates the horror of "master plan", but only slightly, and the content is frightening enough. It concerns not just the £4bn earmarked for Terminal Five, but also a further £3bn for the rejuvenation of the rest of the airport. According to the requirements of the white paper, a boundary for a possible third runway has also been earmarked while the government gears up for a big campaign of spin about local pollution.

As if this weren't enough to worry about, British Airways is now proposing to erode the scheme of runway alternation at the airport which provides some respite for locals. At the moment, planes land on one of the two runways from 7am until 3pm, and on the other thereafter, but BA and other carriers would like to use both runways from 4am to 11.30pm. The millions around Heathrow plan their weddings and garden fetes according to this alternation, but it is most important to allow the airlines to "grow their businesses", as BAA, with its special gift for language, keeps reminding us. The consultation on this latest assault will begin in spring, and maybe there will be another petition in Richmond. There was one recently on the night flights question, and the local MP, Susan Kramer, mentioned it at the Westminster meeting: "Somebody came up to sign every 90 seconds," she said - "just as often as the planes were coming in overhead."