Summertime: Now for patio rage

Rebecca Fowler on the ray of hope offered to the victims of noisy neighbours
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The Independent Online
It starts for some with just the bark of a petulant dog, for others there is the endless thud of a hi-fi locked onto heavy metal, then there are quarrelsome couples and the DIY enthusiasts.

The end result is modern torture, according to the growing army of victims of noisy neighbours, who this week won their first national victory in the quest for peace.

While the Civil Justice report has also highlighted the need for greater powers to evict abusive neighbours, a new law to quell the noise in Britain was given royal assent this week to shut up the suburban noise-bashers who bring misery to the front rooms and patios of Britain and create garden- fence wars on an unprecedented level.

In the last decade complaints to local authorities about noisy neighbours have tripled from 42,000 to 131,000.

However, according to a recent survey this is only the tip of the iceberg, as up to 70 per cent of the victims of noise do not complain to the authorities for fear of reprisals, while as many as one in five households live under varying degrees of noisy misery.

No street is safe from the "noisies", from the high-rise tower blocks of the city to the leafy suburbs and apparently serene country roads.

The results are sometimes tragic. Two men were jailed yesterday for killing their neighbour in Leicester, by dousing him in petrol and setting him ablaze, over an argument over his two noisy flatmates.

Even in Sevenoaks the neighbours of Gloria Hunniford, the BBC Radio 2 presenter, became noise victims last month when they complained about her "unbearably" noisy garden party and called the police.

In another incident Mary Carruthers, a 55-year-old grandmother, played Jim Reeves records for up to 18 hours a day. After two-and -a-half years the Dorset authorities eventually took away her stereo in order to restore peace.

For sufferers, noise, including stereos, voices, slamming doors, alarms, animals, lawn mowers and even deficient washing machines, has become the biggest single source of anxiety. Even dogs can generate 60 decibels through a wall.

Dr Gerard Neanon, a psychologist at Portsmouth University, said: "Continuous stress builds up, making people feel vulnerable, out of control, disturbing enjoyment of whatever it is you are doing, and ultimately causing serious damage psychologically."

The Noise Act, which was piloted by Harry Greenway, the Conservative MP, says that anyone holding noisy parties between 7pm and 11pm will face an on-the-spot fine.

Local authorities have also been given stronger powers to confiscate noisy equipment, including hi-fis. The night-time noise limit has been set at 35 decibels.

Among those who have been campaigning for a change in the law was Val Gibson, 45, who is setting up the Noise Network for sufferers.

Five years ago she was driven out of her own home, where she had lived for 15 years, in Thamesmead, London, by a noisy female neighbour who persistently played loud music. Sometimes it would stop for hours, or even days, but then the dreaded thud returned with a vengeance.

Ms Gibson said: "It became sheer torture. Her favourite was All Around the World by Lisa Stansfield, and it echoed all around my house word for word. It became sheer torture, it affected my work, and eventually we just sold up. The whole thing was horrendous, and once you have been affected there is no cure. I cannot tolerate loud noises of any kind now."

She added: "I just want to sit in the garden and hear the birds singing, but instead I'll start hearing someone else's noise. I'm a prisoner to it. I can't do anything without planning around noise, even going on holiday and sorting out hotels. I'm going to frame my copy of the Noise Act, because it's a real achievement we've got some change through at last."

Other sufferers include John Ritchings, who slept with the windows and shutters closed, wearing industrial ear protectors, in his home in Devon. The noise of his neighbour's cockerels at 3.30am every morning has almost cost him his job and his marriage.

Mr Ritchings approached his neighbour about the problem. "I tried talking to her," he said, "but she said crowing was a country noise and accused me of being a 'townie'."

The symptoms of sufferers can vary dramatically. However, according to campaigners, noise can be fatal. Over the past four years 19 people have been murdered, or have taken their own lives, at the worst end of "patio rage", in which confrontations become so furious that neighbours can no longer control their rage.

A British Telecom engineer fire-bombed a party and killed a 26-year-old woman, following prolonged noise, including loud reggae music, from neighbours above him.

Valerie Edwards, 47, a charity worker, complained about her neighbour's all-night reggae parties in Bristol, and often stayed out in a park in order to escape the noise. She died of pneumonia two years ago, after becoming ill that was the result of exposure, according to her husband.

For those who are considering moving house in order to escape their neighbours, research suggests that southerners are the least friendly people to live beside, compared to northerners and the Scots.

But Christmas drinks, party invitations and friendly chats over the garden fence aside, they are also the quietest.

The decibels that disturb the peace

The difference between sound and noise is subjective.

There are no such things as noise meters, only devices that calibrate sound pressure, so for nuisance-value, the human ear remains the best detector.

Local councils conduct aural tests on disturbances, such as those listed below.

Bedroom or library - 25 decibels

Conversation - 60 decibels

Disco - 100 decibels

Rock concert - 110 decibels