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21 Mar 2002 : Column 536

Noisy Neighbours

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

7 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): I wish to dedicate this debate to the memory of the late Spike Milligan, who was the patron of the Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign, predecessor to the Noise Network and a great supporter of the UK Noise Association, which was formed in 1999 as the umbrella organisation for various groups involved in the battle to combat noise. Over the years, Spike attended many events in the Jubilee Room to meet Members of Parliament and highlight noise issues with them. I am told that he had a personal dislike for piped music and noisy neighbours.

The UK Noise Association, which receives a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, campaigns—perhaps too quietly, for I wish it were better known—to reduce noise in our everyday lives and to silence, or at least quieten, the cacophony of noises that disrupt what we would like to think is civilised living. The noise fighters can hardly shout from the roof tops, so I shall speak up for them this evening.

I also wish to place on record the excellent work of Mrs. Val Weedon, who formed the Noise Network as a result of her experiences with a particularly annoying noisy neighbour and who has subsequently been awarded an MBE for her unstinting work in seeking to reduce and eliminate noise. She is secretary of the UK Noise Association.

A noise is a noise is a noise. Noise annoys, but it can do more than annoy; it is increasingly causing more and more people considerable distress, ill health and, in some cases, it ends in death—the victims take their own lives because they cannot put up with things any longer, or they take the law into their own hands and kill the perpetrator. It is estimated that every 10 weeks, on average, someone dies as a result of neighbour-noise conflict.

The negative impact of noise in society is recognised by the Government, and I welcome the publication late last year—five days before Christmas—of a consultation paper from the air and environmental quality division of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Unacceptable noise is not just an urban issue, for I suspect that an early morning crowing cockerel may not be everybody's idea of a welcoming dawn chorus; it is a sound that country folk should accept as being part of rural life, whereas it would not be at all popular in an urban setting. I use that illustration to make the point that what is an unacceptable noise for one person can be perfectly acceptable to another. It is a question of common sense and fairness. Thudding heavy-metal music is unbearable at any time—unless people like it. In my opinion, it is a form of non-physical thuggery for someone to inflict it on others, particularly during the traditional quiet hours of night and Sunday afternoons.

I understand that the consultation period for DEFRA's proposals entitled "Towards a National Ambient Noise Strategy" ended on 15 March. Perhaps the Minister would be kind enough to state when the findings will be published and when he expects new measures to be taken to remove unacceptable noise from our lives. However, although I welcome the consultation paper, I must register

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my strong disappointment that measures to deal with noisy neighbours are specifically excluded. Having devoted a whole chapter to what is headed "Neighbour Noise", its introduction states:

If we are being asked to accept that the Government are serious about tackling the problems caused by the growing number of antisocial noisy neighbours, that is clearly a wasted opportunity. I shall return later to what chapter 3 says.

According to the UK Noise Network, quoting a study by the University of Sheffield, our towns and cities are 10 times noisier than a decade ago. It is said that a fifth of the European Union's residents suffer a noise problem.

In its publication "Noise and Liveability", the UK Noise Association states:

It also states that noise tends to be more of a problem for poor people, who often live in noisy areas and do not have the opportunity to move away.

Noise comes in so many different ways—obvious examples are from road traffic, flight paths and railway lines, but there are many others. Tonight, however, in the limited time available, I shall concentrate only on the noise nuisances caused by neighbours—hence the title of my debate.

I am told that the Government have issued a leaflet entitled "Bothered by Noise?", in which they advise residents what action is open to them if they suffer from noisy neighbours. Will the Minister inform me when that leaflet was last updated and where the public can obtain copies?

I understand that later this year the EU Commission will issue a noise directive. I am not sure whether this has prompted the UK Government to publish their consultation paper, but in any event both moves are welcomed provided, of course, that we see immediate and positive action.

I hope that the Minister will be able to offer us good news—that there will be action, and that the Government are determined to reduce noise and where possible eliminate it completely. If the Government could introduce "Silence is golden" measures, that would be an opportunity for us to give three hearty cheers of approval. Yes, there is a place for noise, such as a standing ovation, which is unlikely tonight, musical delights, such as the last night of the Proms, and spontaneous loud cheering such as I witnessed three times on Saturday when Colchester United beat Queens Park Rangers 3-1.

Noise has its place, but that place is not transferring noise from one domestic dwelling to another or many others, or to their gardens. As the Prime Minister said on 24 April last year:

I am sure that he was not talking about his immediate next door neighbours but was making a generalisation.

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In support of the Prime Minister, I should again like to quote from what the UK Noise Association has told me:

If there is one thing worse than a noisy neighbour it is a neighbour who is deliberately noisy—someone who gets perverted pleasure from inflicting misery on others by deliberate acts of noise aggravation that he or she pursues with callous zeal. This can take the form of loud music at all hours of the day and night, early morning do-it-yourself builders who think that banging and electric drills are all right, binge parties that last for hours, and running up and down carpetless floors and stairs. Unattended barking dogs are also a major cause of concern. There are many other examples of noisy neighbour behaviour. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" is sadly so often lacking in 21st century Britain.

It seems that the 24-hour lifestyle that this country is increasingly witnessing has regrettably not seen some active participants realising that they must adapt their behaviour accordingly. What may be acceptable during normal hours is often totally unacceptable to the rest of society in the early hours.

I am sure that all Members can recount tales of woe and misery raised with them by anguished constituents who are at their wit's end. Examples I have in Colchester include a young man with an electric guitar who slept by day and played his guitar by night, ruining the sleep of the family next door. This ended only after months of distress when the council's environmental noise people confiscated his equipment and he was taken to court. Some may feel that a punch on the nose would have been more effective, but it would be wrong of me to support such direct action.

Another example is the couple living in an upstairs flat who felt that removing the carpet, as some form of fashion statement I believe, and constantly walking over the bare floorboards in heavy shoes was acceptable. The noise for the elderly lady living below was intolerable and she was forced to leave her home for days at a time to get peace and quiet elsewhere.

There have been numerous occasions involving loud music at all hours of the day and night, with open windows allowing the high volume sound to annoy the immediate neighbourhood.

We are told that there are powers to deal with such antisocial elements in society. Are they working? Are they strong enough? How effective are they? Evidence suggests that they are inadequate, and even when the powers-that-be get involved the process is time-consuming and slow. What are the Government going to do about it?

Mr. Colin Daines, environmental control manager for Colchester borough council tells me:

Chapter 3 of DEFRA's document says that neighbour noise is not part of the consultation. It outlines a catalogue of measures, which, if they are to be believed,

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will provide a framework to ensure that England is a green and pleasant land, where at all times neighbour quietly speaks peace unto neighbour, where the only noises to be heard are the twittering of song birds and the joyous laughter of small children playing—and over there we can see pigs flying past. The world is not like that, and the consultation paper is wrong to con us into thinking that there is adequate legislation—let alone an enthusiasm from local authorities, the police and other agencies—to deal with noisy neighbours. The theory is fine; the reality is somewhat different.

In explaining why neighbour noise does not form part of recent noise strategy consultation, the consultation paper states:

The legislation is clearly not working. Noise complaints are increasing, certainly in my constituency if my postbag and advice bureau are a good guide. The Acts of Parliament that we are told

are: the Environmental Protection Act 1990, part III; the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993; the Noise Act 1996; and the Control of Pollution Act 1974, part III. I am advised that a consultation is under way to seek views on whether, and in what way, the Noise Act should be reviewed. There is compelling evidence that something must be done.

An indication of how seriously noise is regarded as an issue by the Government is reflected in the statement in the DEFRA consultation paper that the Noise Forum—yes, there is such a body—

Twice a year? I hope the Minister will agree that meeting twice a year is hardly an acknowledgement that tackling noise is high on the agenda.

It is not just noisy neighbours, however, who are to blame. The design of buildings, particularly flats and homes in multiple occupation, needs to be addressed. In total, an estimated 2.5 million homes in this country have bad sound insulation. The UK Noise Association published an excellent brochure last Friday week entitled "A Sound Solution". I am advised copies have been posted to every MP. It sets out a strategy to minimise noise nuisance in housing by using better sound insulation. I invite the Minister to support the aim of making our nation's homes quieter by design and construction, and that applies to new-build as well as the existing housing stock.

The National Housing Federation, which represents around 1,400 not-for-profit housing organisations that own or manage about 1.7 million homes in England, tells me that there is a need for all agencies to work together on individual cases to agree enforcement action, to provide support for those at risk and to intervene to help people address their behaviour. It says:

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That is fine for housing associations and local authority tenants, but we need to consider all cases of noisy neighbours. It not just tenants who are bad neighbours. Indeed, the two specific constituency cases that I highlighted involved owner-occupiers.

The future does not sound good. Mr. Richard Mills, secretary general of the National Society for Clean Air, commenting on the Government's draft national ambient noise strategy, said:

It is clear that legislation is not deterring noisy neighbours. It must be improved so that immediate action can be taken. If we can have neighbourhood wardens issuing on-the-spot fines for owners of dogs that foul the pavement and for louts who drop litter, why cannot we have noise wardens with the power to take immediate action against those generating unacceptable levels of noise?

I invite the Minister to accept the recommendation of the UK Noise Association urging that more resources should be allocated by local authorities to provide a higher quality service with the employment of dedicated noise officers. Current experience throughout the country is that the level of service provided by local councils is variable.

The Government support the European convention on human rights, article 8 of which establishes the right of respect for

Article 1 of protocol 1 establishes a right

The human rights of the victims of noisy neighbours are being infringed. The Government have a legal obligation to ensure that legislation is adequate. The Government may not have been entirely silent on the question of noisy neighbours, but they need to do a lot more to tackle one of the great social miseries of modern times.

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