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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate and on the robust and not too noisy way in which he made his case.
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue and I assure him that the Government take it seriously. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who was unable to attend the debate, has been actively seeking ways to improve the quality of life for local people. We realise that noisy neighbours are a quality of life issue, and the Government acknowledge that quality of life is an indicator against which we measure our policiesand we do so. That relates to issues such as litter, graffiti, dog fouling and, of course, noisy neighbours.
I have considerable sympathy with people who endure intrusive noise as a consequence of the inconsiderate actions of their neighbours. The hon. Gentleman gave some examples from his constituentsI have nothing but sympathy for those people.
Noise is something that affects us all. We all make it in one way or another and many of us suffer because of our different perceptions about certain noisy situations. The hon. Gentleman fairly pointed out that what some people regard as a nuisance, others do not. That can cause difficulty. Despite that, there are clearly situations where noise is wholly unacceptable.
Our ambient noise strategy relates to an important commitment in the rural White Paper. There will be consultation about what should be included in the strategy and how it will be applied, and we shall take the responses into account. Ambient noise refers to background noise; that is not the same as neighbour noise where there can be great variability. As the hon. Gentleman noted, there is a difference.
The hon. Gentleman pointed out that there were several Acts relating to noise. They include the Environmental Protection Act 1990, amended by the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, which contain powers for the investigation of complaints about noise. Local councils have the duty to investigate complaints of noise from premisesland and buildingsvehicles, machinery or equipment in the street. Those duties are described in a popular departmental booklet, "Bothered by Noise? There's no need to suffer". I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that I can provide him with a copy at the end of the debate. He will then be fully up to date with the Government's position on noise.
Dealing with noise is the responsibility of local authority environmental health officers. They can serve abatement notices on the person responsible and, in certain cases, the owner of the property. The notice may require that the noise be stopped altogether, or limited in level or to certain times of the day. Specific works may also be stipulated. That should enable the noise nuisance to be abated, and failure to comply with the terms of the noise abatement notice can result in heavy fines.
In the circumstances, and in the light of recruitment problems, I consider that, overall, environmental health officers do an excellent job in both investigating and taking action against the instigators of noise.
As constituency MPs, we are all familiar with the problem. We know that in many cases people who are accused of making noise often hotly deny it. That is one of the reasons that evidence must be collected by the environmental health officer. However, that cannot be done overnightit takes some time. Often, people have to fill in log sheets, and devices that record noise are placed in properties. When a matter is disputed, evidence is necessary for a successful prosecution, so there may be delays in dealing with complaints. However, environmental health departments do a good job.
The noise complaint figures announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment last December show that, almost always, informal action, by directly confronting the person responsible or through the use of mediation, can resolve neighbour disputes without the need for the local authority to use enforcement measures, either through the use of abatement notices or
I understand that Colchester borough council's environmental health department provides a round- the-clock service to deal with noise complaints, which is good because not all councils do that. In addition, the council has been awarded beacon status for its work in maintaining a quality environment, and it is to be congratulated on that. In fact, Colchester was one of only five councils that applied for that status and were successful, which is a tribute to it.
I realise, of course, that going round to see one's neighbour does not always produce results. I saw a report concerning an incident in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in which someone was attacked by their neighbour in a noise dispute.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the consultation that is taking place. I accept that the Noise Act 1996, which introduced a night noise offence, has not been entirely successful. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment announced the outcome of a review of the Act in line with a parliamentary commitment to do so which was made on 20 December 2001. We aim to ensure that local authorities can use the Act fully by seeking changes, which will mean that they will have more control over the level of resources which they need to commit to dealing with noise complaints at night. We are currently looking at ways of making the existing powers less prescriptive and non-adoptive. That would make the night noise offence more widely available for use by local authorities when dealing with night noise complaints. Local authorities will welcome that development. I understand that Colchester borough council, among others, has not yet adopted the Act. That is one of the reasons for our consultation on potential changes.
We have acknowledged the need to raise awareness of noise by sponsoring the very successful noise action day, which has become an annual event and will be held on Wednesday 22 May this year. That is co-ordinated by the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection, which works with local authorities, schools, mediation groups and citizens advice bureaux to help to educate the public about the problems that can be encountered and the solutions that can be used. It does no harm to draw attention to these issues because people sometimes cause noise nuisance unintentionally, and a little thought and awareness can solve the problem.
We will soon be announcing the outcome of the three pieces of research that have been mentioned. The purpose of the noise attitudes survey is to ascertain the attitudes of the public to various types of noise as it affects them in their homes and the surrounding neighbourhood. The survey is a follow-up to a similar one carried out in 1991. It utilises two questionnaires and will enable a direct assessment to be made of changes in attitudes.
In addition, we have commissioned research to help us to understand how other EU states deal with noise complaints and what effective procedures are used to resolve any noise problems identified. We want to establish what good practice is used which may be applicable in this country.
The hon. Member for Colchester has raised a serious issue thoughtfully and comprehensively. I hope that my response shows that we as a Government take it seriously and that we are trying to deal with it through a range of actions. Local council environmental health officers, supported by the police, are on the front line. I pay tribute to their thorough work, which is often carried out in difficult circumstances, but is often highly successful. We intend to give them the tools and the powers they need to do that job, and we are consulting on the best means of doing so. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take into account the points he has made tonight in future considerations.