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Drones, airports and an already constrained airspace: are the latest government proposals enough?
Last week, for the second time in less than a month, flights at a major London airport were halted by drone activity. On 8th January flights out of Heathrow Airport were suspended for over an hour, following drone sightings. Between 19th and 21st December, the runway at Gatwick Airport was closed for nearly 36 hours after drones were reported over the airfield, with flights unable to take-off or land. At Gatwick, as the world’s busiest single-runway airport and on one of its busiest days of the year, there were estimates of 140,000 passengers that were due to use the airport being affected. The media, aviation sector and public have all watched with interest. Malicious use or otherwise, this is clearly a very serious ongoing issue whereby substantial drones have been used to bring about the temporary closure of two major international airports. Questions have been raised: why was it apparently so easy to shut a British airport with a drone, what controls are there to avoid it happening in the future, and can drones actually co-exist with existing operations in our airspace? To add to the drama, the Heathrow Airport drone sighting followed only days after announcements by the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, of plans for further drone regulation.  In a previous blog of June last year, I set out the current policy and regulatory framework and explained new laws for drone operators. Announced in May 2018, the new laws came into force in part from July 2018 with the remaining provisions coming into force on 30 November 2019[1]. At the time of announcing the new laws, Government said that these new measures, alongside an upcoming draft Drones Bill, would be the first step in setting the UK on a path to be a global leader in the drones use, tackling misuse to build public confidence in drone technology and encourage positive, innovative drone use in the UK – stating ‘ensuring drones are being used safely will pave the way for the devices to play an increasingly important role in society, and demonstrating that the industry can operate safely will be key to its advancement’. So, what’s next for government to ensure this societal and safety objective – and within the context of these drone incidents? Last summer, Government published a consultation paper ‘Taking flight: the future of drones in the UK’, seeking views on proposed legislation regarding the use of drones. Government also released a Drones and Other Unmanned Aircraft Bill impact assessment. The consultation period ran from July to September 2018 and detailed a number of proposed policies, including: a minimum age requirement for operators for small unmanned aircraft; whether the 1km flight restriction around protected aerodromes is sufficient; proposals to mandate and regulate a Flight Information and Notification System (FINS) as part of future unmanned traffic management and airspace modernisation programme; the powers required by enforcement bodies in order to properly police drone use and penalise incorrect use; and counter drone technology system proposals. The consultation also looked ahead on how counter-drone technology could be used as a means of addressing the potential threat malicious misuse of drones can pose; and the estimated growth in numbers of commercial drones in the UK over future years. On 7th January, Government published its response to this consultation. The response outlined government’s decisions, in particular, to legislate to give the police greater powers to tackle drone misuse, including the power to issue on the spot fines, and to better protect airports by extending the area around airports and runways in which drones are banned. There will be new powers for the police to order an operator to ground a drone if it’s deemed necessary. The police will also be able to seize drone parts, to prove the drone has been used to commit a criminal offence. This all builds on the new laws announced last year. The Heathrow drone sighting occurred the day after this government announcement, reinforcing just how important these new measures are and the need to implement them into legislation as soon as practicably possible. By the end of the week, the Aviation Minister, Baroness Sugg met UK airport bosses to discuss the technology already in use and how airports can strengthen their defences. Government has now said that it is considering implementation of military-grade anti-drone equipment at all major UK airports, as well as other critical infrastructure such as power stations and prisons. However, cost will no doubt be an issue. In the aftermath of the Gatwick drone incident, it was reported that the airport installed a £1million protection system, comprising 360-degree radar and thermal imaging systems, as well as a radio jammer. An airport’s security ‘fence’ will no longer be just the standard 1.8m chain link fence around an airport boundary. While big airports like Gatwick and Heathrow may be able to meet the cost of several million for drone protection, smaller operators will not have that luxury, potentially simply shifting the problem to the places that are less able to deal with it. Are these plans enough? Until now, Government has followed a light touch approach and the only legislation that has so far been passed focuses on regulating the drone user. Will this latest round of proposed regulation, combined with that announced last year, provide sufficient checks and controls to mitigate against another Heathrow/Gatwick drone incident? The Aviation Strategy Green Paper consultation ‘Aviation 2050 — the future of UK aviation consultation’, which commenced in December 2018, and the House of Commons 2nd reading of the Drones (Regulation) Bill 2017-19, which is expected sometime this year, should build on this work to date. As drones continue to play an increasingly important role in our society there will be pressures placed on our airspace and there is a growing need to understand how current users and new users (drones and other unmanned aircraft) can co-exist, and co-exist in an already constrained environment. The potential of drone technology to aid the way we live, work and play is wide-ranging, offering so much more than solely a recreational application. The Heathrow/Gatwick incidents must not prejudice its future. What is certain is that regulation and policy must continue to play catch-up, and then in consultation with industry, anticipate innovations in advancing technologies; safety must continue to be its focus. This includes aerodrome safeguarding and facilitating an airspace that can benefit all. Failure to do so will likely lead to another airport shutdown, or at its worst, a major aviation disaster.   [1] Announced 30 May 2018. In force in part from 30 July 2018 with the remaining from 30 November 2019, in an amendment to the Air Navigation Order 2016 (The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018.  


The case for the high street – part two
This blog follows on from my blog last week, describing our research into the issues facing town centres in the North East, and our findings following the roundtables we held in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Hexham, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Stanley. In this second instalment, I look at the recommendations coming out of our work with the North-East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC), and the need for a holistic approach in making our centres fit for the twenty-first century.    There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to ‘saving’ the high street. If there was, then we would have cracked the problem long before now. Each and every town centre is different. That goes as much for the approach of traders towards engaging with other stakeholders as it does to the retail offer and shopping environment provided. Whilst the Business Improvement Districts (BID) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne has racked up some impressive achievements – increasing average spend by 16% in a three-year period – that in Hexham (in nearby Northumberland) has ended up in relative acrimony. Their success can only be achieved through effective collaboration but, as my colleague Summer Haly has highlighted in her own blog, they can play a significant role in generating economic growth. With the views from the roundtables held in these and three other town centres (Hexham, Berwick and Stanley) at the forefront of our minds, our joint (NEECC/Lichfields) report provides recommendations in four key areas. 1. Creating a vision The single-most important objective should be to create a vision of what town centres should look like and offer to visitors - enshrining this in a strategy, with a set of short, medium and long-term actions. One or more Unique Selling Points (USP) should be developed as part of this vision, and then promoted along with every aspect of the centre. This includes the retail and leisure offer, other things to do/places of interest and how to get there (not forgetting where to park…). The coastline in Northumberland is stunning, but how many tourists actually consider visiting Berwick upon Tweed Town Centre, or even know where it is? Not many, apparently – but surely, this is a missed opportunity? 2. Broadening the offer Of all the attention paid to town centres over the last year or so, probably the biggest theme has been the shift away from retail. This is not as easy to solve as it sounds, given that the food and drink sector has shown signs of saturation in some locations. That said, smaller centres still have some catching-up to do, particularly those with an evening economy focused towards alcohol – and ‘family friendly’ is the watchword here. To its credit, the Government is alive to the need for more flexibility, as shown by a succession of amendments to the permitted development rights (PDRs) regime, and further PDRs proposals included in a consultation currently underway. But local authorities must also think about what new (non-retail) ‘anchors’ they can attract, in order to keep people coming in. 3. Taking a pro-active and holistic approach Environmental improvements alone won’t solve all town centres’ problems but they do help. Getting the basics right means keeping the centre clean and tidy, safe, attractive and easy to navigate. To see these improvements, though, people need to be drawn in on a regular basis, and a well-curated programme of events can play a part, reinforcing the centre’s role as a civic heart. New residential development and student accommodation (in the right locations) also help to generate additional footfall and spending in existing facilities. They are not Main Town Centre Uses in planning speak but bring a range of benefits. 4. Business leading the way They might not want to hear this, but retailers could do more to secure their future – by reinvigorating their offer and the customer experience, for example. Independents, however, also need better support from local authorities in order to thrive. Perhaps more than national multiples, the more tailored-service independent traders typically offer gives them a decent chance of bucking recent trends towards use of the internet and out-of-centre retail parks, but to do this they need help and advice (the ones we met in Stanley, County Durham, certainly felt so). As I suggested in my previous blog, they need to embrace the internet, develop and promote their online offer, and promote delivery and click-and-collect services where they can. Final thoughts We cannot look at these issues through rose-tinted glasses. The economic circumstances of individual areas, particularly in the North-East, mean that some centres will inevitably contract and their importance diminish. But is it worth investing in our town centres? Certainly it is. Although their social role is perhaps even more important, the economic benefits of a thriving town centre far outweigh the short-term costs in, for example, creating an effective centre management function or creating a prospectus for investment (as Middlesbrough Council has done). What is the right approach for one centre may be wrong for another. Our recommendations could be seen as a shopping list (excuse the pun) for town centre stakeholders to pick from. Neglecting one area at the expense of others, however, is unlikely to reap the same rewards. In an age when social media and instant information rule, it is not enough having the right offer if no-one knows about it. Having met people from all parts of the North-East, I’m confident we can re-establish our centres at the heart of the community. Where there is a will, there is a way.