Belfast campaigners call for independent airport noise regulator
The creation of a powerful independent airport noise regulator in Northern Ireland would help strike a better balance between commercial interests and nearby residents' well-being, campaigners have claimed.
Robust fines for breaches of current noises limits would provide a strong deterrent against infractions, Belfast City Airport Watch (BCAW) told a Stormont committee.
The umbrella group that represents more than a dozen residents and community associations under the flight path of George Best Belfast City Airport (GBBCA) was giving evidence to members of the Assembly's Regional Development Committee.
The hearing was held as Stormont Environment minister Mark H Durkan continues to deliberate on a planning application lodged by the airport to lift the two million annual cap on the number of seats it can sell.
While Mr Durkan's department has responsibility for planning issues related to the airport, the Department of Regional Development (DRD) has a role in the regulation of aircraft noise.
BCAW is opposed to the removal of the sales cap, claiming it will turn the airport into one of the noisiest in the UK.
It has also recommended a range of other steps that the Stormont Executive could take with regards to regulating the air travel sector in the region, some of which would fall to the DRD to oversee.
Dr Liz Fawcett from BCAW told committee members the establishment of a regulator would ensure conformity with existing noise control measures.
She said the body could also deal effectively with public complaints and produce "meaningful" five-year action plans aimed at minimising noise pollution from aircraft.
The campaigners have also advocated the development of a wider airports strategy for Northern Ireland.
They claim unchecked competition between Belfast City and Belfast International, often with duplication of routes, will only force customers across the border to Dublin airport.
"We believe that the Northern Ireland Executive faces a choice," said Dr Fawcett.
"It can continue to permit the piecemeal expansion of airports, allowing them to duplicate provision and permitting GBBCA to become one of the noisiest airports anywhere in the UK and the island of Ireland in terms of population impact.
"The only winners will be Dublin Airport and the airlines, while the losers will be our local economy, and the health and quality of life of tens of thousands in residents in Belfast and north Down.
"Alternatively, the Executive can put in place a robust economic and regulatory framework which allows our aviation industry to compete effectively with and complement Dublin Airport's growing portfolio of routes, while ensuring that the negative impacts of aircraft noise are kept to an absolute minimum."
Earlier this month, Northern Ireland's Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) said lifting the seat sale cap should be accompanied by tougher noise controls.
The PAC's findings came after a public inquiry into the controversial issue last year.
In response to the Belfast City Airport Watch evidence to the committee, a spokesman for Belfast City Airport said: "There are already well established noise regulations in relation to all UK airports, of which Belfast City Airport is fully compliant.
"These were taken into account at the recent public inquiry into the removal of the airport's redundant 'seats for sale' restriction which heard evidence from all parties, including the Department for Regional Development and Belfast City Airport Watch.
"Last week's Planning Appeal Commission report recommended that the removal of the seats for sale restriction should be accompanied by additional noise controls, and the airport will be making representation to the Department of the Environment in the timeframe requested."