The coroner who conducted the inquest into the fatal Vauxhall helicopter crash has written an official report expressing his concern that not enough is being done by the planning authorities to prevent helicopters crashing into tall buildings along the Thames in the future – OurCity.London can reveal.
At one minute to 8am, January 16, 2013 a helicopter flying in heavy cloud along the Thames flew into a crane attached to One St George’s Wharf, London’s tallest residential building.
The helicopter crashed to the ground on Wandsworth Road. Debris and jet fuel hit a pedestrian, Matthew Wood, who died of burns. The pilot, Peter Barnes also died.
The Vauxhall helicopter crash was the first in central London since official air accident records began in 1976. And with new tall buildings being given permission everywhere in London are public authorities doing enough to prevent future accidents and future deaths? The answer is no according to the coroner who held the inquest into the deaths.
What should have been done?
In 2014 the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) concluded an inquiry into the crash. The inquiry noted that the manager of the heliport had concerns about the new tower when it was being planned, and thought that it may make flying in poor visibility more difficult. He had had informal discussions with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but the planning authority (it is unclear in the report which planning authority) did not respond to his concerns and he took them no further.
The AAIB recommended that the Civil Aviation Authority be given the ability to assess the implications of new planning applications for tall buildings on air transport before the grant of planning permission. At the time the Senior Inspector of Air Accidents said that if the recommendation was not implemented, lives could be put at risk.
What has been done?
Two years on, that recommendation from the AAIB has never been acted upon, and this has raised concern from the coroner at the inquest into the Vauxhall helicopter crash.
The inquest into the deaths at Vauxhall concluded in December 2015. It found that the deaths were accidental. However, what appears to have gone unreported is that in the weeks after the inquest the coroner wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport expressing concern that neither the government nor planning authorities had done anything to act on the recommendation of the AAIB.
In fact the coroner found that more than a year after the AAIB had made their recommendation the Department for Transport had done nothing to implement it and had told him they had no intention of implementing it, as it would be contrary to government plans for the planning process.
Coroners are under a legal duty to make what is called a ‘report to prevent future deaths’ if they think an organisation can and should take action to prevent future deaths. As a result of his concerns, the coroner Andrew Harris issued such a report in January 2016. He sent his report to the Secretary of State for Transport, but also sent a copy to a senior planning officer at the London Borough of Lambeth and the Head of Development Permission at Wandsworth.
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In his report the Coroner criticises the government for not implementing the recommendations of the AAIB and says:
“It is not clear that helicopter aviation considerations for the heliport, or more widely for flights along the Thames are adequately considered by the planning process for tall buildings”
He concludes by saying that action should be taken to prevent future deaths.
And yet it appears that still, little is being done. The Department of Transport had a legal obligation to respond to the report by 29th of February 2016, and yet according to the website of the courts and judiciary service, as of the date of writing (September 2016), no response has yet been made. Neither did the Department respond to a request for comment from this website.
I also contacted Lambeth and Wandsworth councils and the Mayor’s Office. A spokesperson for the Mayor London said:
“Aviation is taken into account in the London Plan to ensure all new tall buildings are built in suitable locations. This document, which is the overall planning strategy for the capital, is currently being revised and will ensure that safeguards are put in place to keep the capital’s flight paths safe.”
Wandsworth replied. A council spokesperson told me:
“We replied to the coroner earlier this year pointing out that although it is not a statutory requirement, we were already routinely consulting the heliport and the CAA on any tall building applications we receive that could affect flightpaths and we specifically consult the heliport on any applications along the river or in close proximity to its landing site.
“We also require all developers of sites close to the heliport to carry out extensive wind modelling studies to ensure they do not affect the heliport’s operations or have any impact on helicopter movements into and out of the heliport. This tragic accident did of course involve a tall building in another borough, but nonetheless we are fully committed to working closely with the heliport and the CAA to ensure the highest levels of safety for pilots, passengers and people on the ground.”
But Lambeth, the borough where the Vauxhall helicopter crash occurred, despite acknowledging my request, failed to respond.
Since the crash hundreds of tall buildings have been granted planning permission in London. In Vauxhall, permission has been granted to build a tower which is taller than St George’s Tower at 200m. The coroner, and the AAIB were not asking for much. All they wanted was for the CAA to be able to assess obstacles that might get in the way of aircraft before those obstacles are built so that any issues can be raised and lives potentially saved.
It seems to me that the this is just another example of the government sacrificing sensible planning control to an ideology which believes that all regulation is a cost on developers which should be eliminated. But should planning authorities and the Department of Transport be so complacent that this could never happen again?