By James Carson
Last year, a survey for Churchill Home Insurance reported that in the first nine months of 2013 nearly 500,000 complaints had been made to UK local authorities. By far the biggest single issue concerned noisy neighbours. Loud voices and arguing, loud music or television, and doors slamming were among the greatest annoyances.
The impact and cost of noise
On the face of it, noise from a neighbouring property might not appear as serious as other types of anti-social behaviour, such as physical assault or vandalism. But the effects of undesired noise on the quality of life, health and wellbeing of individuals can be severe and enduring.
Among the risks of intrusive noise identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are:
- altered behaviour (such as aggression or feelings of helplessness)
- sleep disturbance
- cardiovascular effects
- reduced academic and professional performance.
A recent report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment underlined the health effects of neighbour noise, finding “surprisingly widespread health effects of residential noise annoyance, with neighbour noise relatively more damaging than street noise.”
For local authorities, tackling noisy neighbours is one of the most challenging aspects of their work. Unlike traffic or airport noise, neighbour noise can be unpredictable and difficult to measure.
Dealing with noise complaints also imposes substantial costs on local councils. A 2012 Defra report found that:
- it takes local authority environmental health departments in England between 3 and 5 hours, on average, to negotiate the complaints procedure
- the cost of each complaint investigation is estimated to be between £130 and £270 per complaint
- a convoluted incident requiring significant council input was estimated to cost between £3,400 and £6,810.
Addressing nuisance noise
Most councils advise residents to try to resolve noise nuisance by talking to their neighbours about the problem. Mediation may also be an option. Brighton and Hove Council is one of a number of local authorities offering an independent mediation service to help resolve disputes between neighbours. The service reports that 80% of cases that go to mediation are successful.
If these attempts fail, most local authorities, such as Dartford Borough Council have teams dedicated to tackling antisocial behaviour, and some, such as East Lothian Council, employ teams specifically targeting noise nuisance. Westminster City Council has gone further by developing a comprehensive noise strategy and setting up a 24-hour noise team.
Where evidence is obtained, local authority officers have the power to issue a warning notice. If this is ignored, the local authority or the police may issue a £100 fixed penalty notice, and may also take steps to seize and remove noise-making equipment.
Some individuals may resort to legal action in a Magistrate’s Court (the Sheriff Court in Scotland), using Section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. To be successful, claimants need to persuade the court that the noise is a ‘statutory nuisance’, having a substantial and negative affect on their home life. If the action is successful, the court will give the offending neighbour a noise abatement order and may also impose a fine. However, taking this route may be expensive, and there is no guarantee of success.
Obtaining evidence of domestic noise can be difficult, especially if the noise is intermittent, or neighbours become aware that a noise team is in the vicinity. To counter this, some councils are turning to technology.
Newham Council, in East London, receives around 155 noise complaints each week. To support its efforts in tackling noise nuisance, the council has been using noise nuisance recorders. These portable machines may be left in a complainant’s home to record noise levels over a 7-10 day period, and can help determine whether they constitute a statutory nuisance. The machines have also been adopted by councils in Hull and Wakefield. However, many local authorities continue to maintain that noise nuisance must be witnessed by enforcement officers if further action is to be taken.
A higher volume of complaints
Noise is a fact of modern life, especially within higher-density urban areas, but there are signs that people are becoming less tolerant of noise pollution. Which means that hard-pressed local authorities are likely to face increasing numbers of complaints about noisy neighbours from residents unwilling to suffer in silence.
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