When you can't love your neighbour: Hester Lacey on feuding over the garden fence

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Indy Lifestyle Online
EVERYONE hates and fears bad neighbours - the noisy, the rude, the untidy. Sympathetic tutting reverberated across the land last week when an exasperated woman spiked a Southampton biker gang's late- night party by hosing down their speakers; while in Derbyshire, keen gardener Sheila Jackson has been flooded with messages of support following her arrest for refusing to return the 30th ball that the five-year- old next door lobbed into her showpiece shrubbery.

Insomniacs with powerful hi-fis or inconsiderate local brats are obvious menaces. But other instances of un-neighbourliness are more insidious. Most would agree that decibels are fair cause for complaint: but what about gripes from neighbourhood nit-pickers whose idiosyncratic pet hates range from the bizarre to the totally unreasonable?

Last week a furious Wansbeck woman called out her local council's environmental health officer to deal with a small but (presumably) menacing frog from her neighbour's pond that was harrassing her by jumping up at her front door.

Other whinges are less weird, but even more maddening for those on the receiving end. 'In one flat I lived in, if I so much as walked across my living-room after nine o'clock, the woman underneath would bang furiously on the ceiling. What was I supposed to do? Levitate?' snapped one indignant subject of her neighbour's wrath.

James and Chloe Stannard have decided to move house to escape the relentless carping from over the garden fence. 'We've only lived here for two years, and we loved the house, but we can't wait to get out,' says James. 'On the very first day we moved in, we met our neighbours - an elderly couple - they made a point of coming out and introducing themselves, not to welcome us, but to say that this was a very select area and they hoped we were quiet and tidy. And that we would sort out the garden, which was rather neglected. Miserable old buzzards]

'The bloody garden has been a real bone of contention - when we sunbathe outside they come hot-footing it round here to say this isn't the kind of street where bikinis are acceptable on the front lawn. When we had a perfectly civilised barbecue, at half past eleven they rang the police to complain about the noise. And they accuse us of not putting out our rubbish on the right day. At first we tried to laugh off all this pettiness, but after a few weeks Chloe was constantly in tears and I was foaming at the mouth with rage.'

The Stannards tried being friendly and being frosty to their complaining neighbours, but to no avail. 'The final straw came when our baby was born last year,' says Chloe. 'She's not a howler by any means, but they instantly latched on to complaining about her crying - what am I to do, tape up her mouth? We are going. My one dread when I show buyers round is that they will pop up over the fence and start going on about not using the deep-fat fryer when the wind is blowing into their garden, and pulling up the dandelions because the seeds drift over on to their immaculate lawn.'

Moaning is not the exclusive territory of crusty old Alf Garnett and Victor Meldrew types. Young professionals can feud along with the best of them. 'We live in a mansion block of flats and we have had nothing but whinging from the people below,' says Anna, who shares her flat with four friends. 'It all hinges on the washing machine. They claim when it's on spin it makes their kitchen shake. It doesn't even make our kitchen shake. If this quaking is so monumental, how come we've had no complaints from upstairs? And anyway, what do they do all night, sit in their kitchen? We called in a washing machine man to check if anything's wrong with the machine, he said no. We have padded its edges, for God's sake, where it meets the work surface, so it won't bang or anything. We are trying to accommodate the petty little tapeworms. I hate them. And they do DIY on Sunday.'

In desperation, she rang her local council for advice. 'They agreed that we are legally allowed to wash our clothes at whatever hour we choose. What can we do to these bloody people to shut them up, short of changing our phone number, so they can't constantly ring up to complain?'

A number of local authorities operate arbitration schemes to help warring neighbours resolve their differences. The most common problems are noise and threats of violence. 'We are completely confidential, impartial and non- judgemental,' says Anne Smout of Bristol Mediation. She would never dismiss any bone of contention as trivial. 'When someone is complaining they can look very intolerant and mean, but you don't know the whole story.'

Rules for clients include no interrupting, no abusive language and no violence. The aim is to reach a mutually acceptable solution. 'If the dispute reaches court it's a win-lose situation - or even a lose-lose situation if a solution is imposed that doesn't suit anyone,' explains Anne Smout. 'We are aiming for a win-win situation that both sides are happy with.'

She says that in most cases, talking out the problem resolves it. But for some, things may have already gone too far. Constant criticism can make even the most good-natured turn nasty. 'I don't want to negotiate. I don't want to talk to them at all,' snarls James Stannard. 'I just want to kill them.'

(Photograph omitted)

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