Noise Annoys

I have lived in Park Street, a residential road off Berkhamsted High Street, for over thirty years. It used to be a relatively quiet place, the main source of noise being from the railway nearby.

In 1994, Pizza Express received planning permission to turn the former Park Street Antiques shop, on the corner of Park Street and the High Street, into a restaurant. Even Dacorum Borough Council had turned this one down - though on the grounds of insufficient parking, not likely noise nuisance to residents late at night - but this decision was overturned on appeal to the Crown Court in St. Albans. Residents were not told that Dacorum had refused planning permission, or that the case was going to appeal, or that the appeal had been "Successful". We only found out about it when building work began at the premises. It was another victory for this country's biased planning system, which puts the interests of residents behind the interests of those whose chief aim is to separate residents from their money.

The late-night noise problems which residents had anticipated soon began to occur. We were disturbed by the raised voices of customers who had enjoyed a drink or three with their meal, the revving of car engines and the misuse of car horns. After the 11:30 p.m. closing time members of staff, who parked in Park Street, would often shout to one another across the road before leaving. Crate-loads of empty bottles were regularly tipped into the aluminium dustbin outside, sometimes well after midnight.

Worse was to follow. In March 1995, Pizza Express began to host evenings of live jazz from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Tuesdays. The amplification was so loud that it could be heard throughout my house, at the other end of the street. I went to see the manager in March 1995. He sounded apologetic and promised to help but the problems continued as before. He did not even turn down the volume of the jazz.

In April 1995 I complained to Dacorum Borough Council's Environmental Health Department. I received a reply from a Dianne White which gave no indication that the Borough Council would take any action, but asked me to complete a "Noise Diary" - basically a sheet of A4 paper on which I was to record instances of noise nuisance and the date and time at which they occurred. The instances of noise were frequent enough for me to fill both sides of such a form in about three weeks, at which point I sent it to the Environmental Health Department with a covering letter. I sent in three of these between April and June 1995, but received no reply. On 20th. June I received a letter claiming that the Department had not heard from me since my initial complaint in April, and said that the case was to be closed.

On receipt of a blunt reply from me, Ms. White finally wrote to the manager of the premises concerned. Eventually, on 3rd. August, she went to see him. She succeeded where I had failed in getting him to turn the jazz down and stop the staff shouting, but after an unnecessary four month delay: four months of disturbed nights for residents of Park Street.

She then claimed in a letter to me that it was a warm weather problem caused by doors and windows being left open. The complaints began in April, which was cold and wet that year.

Within a couple of months of Pizza Express opening, three of the four nearest residents had moved out. One told me that he was moving specifically to get away from Pizza Express, and was selling his house for 20,000 less than he had paid for it. Two of the three households which replaced them caused further problems for their neighbours. One was a drunk who played traditional Scottish music at high volume. The other consisted of a Dacorum Borough Council employee and his two teenage sons. I will protect his identity as he is a nice man, although feckless.

The boys began to hold parties late at night, which attracted large numbers of noisy louts. The Police had to attend repeatedly to stop the loud music and drunken shouting.

A complaint from me on 4th. April 1995 to Dacorum's Environmental Health Department resulted in a letter to the occupants of the house asking them to keep the noise down, and a request to me to keep noise diaries. Three further letters from me were lost or ignored. On 15th. June I received a mis-spelt letter claiming that I had not written since my initial complaint.

After a blunt reply from me, Dianne White wrote again to the occupants of the premises. She asked me to contact her when the noise occurred during office hours so she could come and witness the problem. It was obvious from my letters and noise diaries that the problem only occurred late at night. She would not attend outside office hours and refused to serve a noise abatement notice without having witnessed the noise.

When I sent in a further noise diary, Ms. White told me that nothing could be done because the incidents I had recorded had taken place in the street, not in the premises concerned. Offences in the street have to be dealt with by the Police, not by the Council. In fact only about half of the incidents I had recorded took place in the street - the other half did occur inside the house. I had only recorded noise nuisance which took place in the street because the Environmental Health Department had not told me what to record and what not to.

At the end of July I was given access to a pager facility which allowed me to contact the Environmental Health Department outside office hours. The duty officer insisted on monitoring the noise from inside my house, which necessitated admitting a stranger to the premises in the early hours of the morning. I felt that this was an unnecessary intrusion into privacy: the noise could be heard just as well from the street. It raised the suspicion that this might be a tactic to deter complainants. However, Chief Environmental Health Officer Peter Ablett assured me that monitoring the noise from within the complainant's home was a requirement of the legislation.

I went to see Mr. Ablett at Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre in August 1996. He refuted my suggestion that the Borough Council took no action as a result of noise diaries. He said that mine contained insufficient evidence on which to serve a Noise Abatement Notice. I found this difficult to believe.

Mr. Ablett agreed that my complaints had not been dealt with correctly. He agreed to raise the matter with Dianne White and look into the disappearance of the missing correspondence. This had not been supplied to him by his office when he asked for all the papers relating to the cases, adding to evidence that it had been lost or discarded.

Mr. Ablett promised improvements to the service. A new member of staff was taken on to monitor likely trouble spots, evenings and nights included. Equipment was also purchased to be installed in complainants' homes, so they could record the noise themselves.

Mr. Ablett said that noise complaints are increasing exponentially. As a nation we are becoming less considerate of others, less tolerant and more willing to complain. Hot weather invariably makes matters worse.

I have yet to see Mr. Ablett's promised improvements to his "Service". When another neighbour of mine began playing loud music late at night in the Summer of 1998, it took three letters from me to get Mr. Ablett to write to the offender.

Mr. Ablett sent me a leaflet on neighbourhood noise problems which advised victims to talk to the offenders. He is advising members of the public to do something which Environmental Health Officers will not do. Other councils, such as Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster, have noise patrols to call on offenders, but Mr. Ablett will not allow his officers to visit noisy premises at night as this might endanger their safety.

Once again, Dacorum Borough Council is putting the interests of its staff ahead of the interests of those who pay their wages.

Dacorum has since set up a new neighbourhood noise hotline, but this only operates between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m on weekdays - the hours when it is least needed.

Dacorum's preferred solution to neighbourhood noise complaints is mediation. The complainant and the offender sit round a table with an Environmental Health officer, discuss the problem and try to agree a solution. When the mediation service was launched, the Borough Council advertised it in the local newspaper, illustrated by what it called a "Typical noise complaint": an elderly lady left her radio on at high volume, even when she was out, as a deterrent to burglars, but this caused offence to the young family next door. In my experience, as a councillor, this is a very untypical noise complaint. I have not yet heard of a case of noise nuisance caused by an elderly person, but I know of plenty of cases where young families have disturbed elderly neighbours. I have never yet been involved in a noise dispute where the offender was over the age of 25.

Mediation has advantages for the Environmental Health officers, who can avoid facing drunken offenders or angry victims in the early hours of the morning, but can be harmful to victims. The procedure identifies the complainant to the offender, who may then take reprisals. I am aware of several cases nationally, including one in Hemel Hempstead, where residents have complained about noisy teenagers, had their gardens vandalised and then been unable to prove who caused the damage.

Mediation depends on both parties being reasonable enough to abide by that which has been agreed at the meeting. Reasonable people do not cause noise nuisance to their neighbours.

Mediation also implies that both parties need to make concessions. In the vast majority of noise complaints, it is only the offender who has behaved unreasonably.

On the evening of June 8th. 2002, I telephoned the Police about a noisy party at 53 South Park Gardens. The first officer I spoke to was on temporary secondment from Watford, and insisted that the local council had an out-of-hours telephone number for noise complaints. It does not. Unlike many councils, Dacorum does not allow the public to telephone Environmental Health Officers outside office hours.

I telephoned the Police again. A more knowledgeable officer told me that she would inform the duty Environmental Health officer, yet the noise went on until the partygoers decided to leave in the early hours of the morning. I complained subsequently to Peter Ablett about this; he told me that the Environmental Health officer had decided not to attend as the event was considered to be a "One-off". I wonder how he would feel if his employers took a similarly voluntary approach to the payment of his wages?

The same household re-offended on a Saturday night in May 2003. So much for a "One-off". The Police refused to visit the premises, and told me to, "Contact my local council's Environmental Health Department on Monday morning". They did not explain how neighbours were supposed to sleep on Saturday night. I found that sleep was possible with my ears plugged and all the windows closed. We should not have to put up with this.

I went to work on the Monday without contacting the Environmental Health Department. Much as I hate to give Dacorum Borough Council what its staff want - to deter complainants successfully - the alternative would have been another complete waste of my time.

In my experience, the victims of neighbourhood noise are not usually interested in punishment of the offenders. They do not want to be disturbed for months while they collect evidence to be used in serving a Noise Abatement Notice, which the offender will probably ignore. They just want the noise stopped so they can get some sleep.

In this respect, it would appear that Dacorum Borough Council is simply not prepared to help.

However, Mr. Ablett has now been retired by the council, so there is hope for the future.

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Copyright © 2003 - Ian Johnston
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E-mail ijjohnston@totalise.co.uk