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    Night flight noise could cost £2bn in claims

    The government could have to pay up to £2bn in compensation to people affected by night flights out of London’s Heathrow airport.

    The potential cost has been calculated by the government after the European court of human rights found in October that the human rights of residents near Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, had been violated.

    Confidential documents obtained by the Financial Times show the Treasury is backing an appeal against the judgment because of the cost of compensating up to 500,000 people whose sleep may have been disturbed.

    The court said the level of noise allowed by regulations on night flights at Heathrow unfairly breached the right to respect for private and family life. The eight residents who brought the legal action were each awarded £4,000 in compensation, to be paid by the government.

    The Department of Transport has calculated that between 100,000 and 500,000 people living around Heathrow might be able to claim compensation as a result of the court’s ruling, depending on the level of noise used as qualifying criteria. It would result in a bill for taxpayers of between £400m and £2bn.

    The bill could be even bigger if people living near other airports, such as Gatwick and Stansted, took legal action.

    It is unusual for the government to seek leave to appeal against judgments by the European court because it deals with the sensitive issue of human rights.

    However, Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, would “strongly support” an appeal, according to a confidential letter by John Prescott, deputy prime minister.

    Mr Smith believes the judgment has “significant cost implications” says Mr Prescott in his letter to Stephen Byers, transport secretary.

    The letter also suggests Margaret Beckett, environment secretary, is lukewarm in her support for the appeal.

    The government’s chances of succeeding “on the merits of the appeal” are 60-40 in its favour, according to legal opinion sought by Mr Byers and obtained by the FT.

    Philip Havers, a leading QC, says his assessment reflects “what we consider to be good evidence as to the economic benefits of night flying”.

    There are about 15 flights in and out of Heathrow between 11.30pm and 5am, mainly to and from long-haul destinations such as Asia.

    Mr Havers says the European court “seriously undervalued” and “plainly ignored” some of the evidence put before it on the economic benefits of night flights.

    He highlights evidence from British Airways suggesting that night flights at Heathrow contribute about £1.3bn to gross domestic product and support 11,000 jobs.

    Mr Byers said in November that he would consult on further controls on night flights by the end of 2003, as he gave the go-ahead to a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

    “Financial Times” 7th January 2002