The art of noise control

Abusive neighbours can have a devastating effect on people's lives. But if they haven't actually done anything illegal, there's little you can do

It wasn't just the noise that Mike Stewart (not his real name) objected to, although that was bad enough. It was also the damage done to his car on three separate occasions, the bricks and eggs thrown at his windows and the verbal abuse that made him decide that enough was enough.

Along with four other families, he complained to his landlord - the Beth Johnson Housing Group in Stoke on Trent - about the intimidation of residents by a group of young teenagers. "I've only been on the estate for two and a half years, but it had been going on for a lot longer than that," he says. "Someone had to stand up to them, because otherwise it would just have got worse."

In the end, the ringleader and his family left before they could be evicted, but not before Mr Stewart had to attend court to give evidence against them after a fracas on the estate.

The good news for the rest of us is that, as neighbours go, Mr Stewart's tormentors are unusual. The bad news is that there are plenty of other examples of antisocial behaviour, which although not so extreme, still have a devastating effect on people's lives. According to research this year by Sheffield Hallam University, noise and verbal abuse top a list of social nuisances. But what can be done about it?

Local authorities have a number of powers to deal with noisy neighbours. For starters, under s79 of the Environmental Protection Act, they are under a statutory duty to deal with any noise coming from premises (including houses) that is prejudicial to health or that constitutes a nuisance. For instance, loud music. There is also the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act that deals with noisy vehicles or equipment in the street.

Council officers can serve noise abatement notices telling the perpetrators to turn the noise down - or stop it altogether - and can set conditions or limit the hours when, say, the music can be played. In extreme cases, council officers have the power to force their way into premises and seize equipment. They can also take out injunctions to stop the behaviour, or even evict the perpetrators.

The main drawback is that none of the legislation covers noise from people in the street - probably one of the biggest nuisances that neighbours have to put up with. In other words, councils can't do anything about kids congregating at your garden gate and making a racket, or playing football against your wall.

The police might be able to help, but only if those concerned are causing an obstruction, are drunk and disorderly, causing a breach of the peace or breaking a bye-law. Chief Inspector Paul Diehl, of West Midlands Police, explains: "Although a lot of people may find it personally intimidating if a group of youths are congregated somewhere, it is not an offence simply for them to be there. I have sympathy with people who don't like it, but the police have to protect everyone's rights".

In the unlikely event that the police can act, the chances are that it will be treated as a low priority unless some sort of criminal offence has been committed. Otherwise, the police say they do not have the resources to cope. Chief Inspector Gavin Collinson, of Humberside Police, says that the answer is not to give more powers to the police, "because you just need more officers to enforce them and we have no resources for that".

Instead, he argues that "the answer lies in society because that is where the problems originate". He says that we should find something better for kids to do than hanging about the streets: "We need to take them away from disruptive behaviour and give them something useful to do."

Although that approach may work most of the time, there are exceptions to every theory. Take the case of Dekland Madigan. At 14, he has just become the first person to be jailed for breaching an antisocial behaviour order, a type of injunction that can be applied to anyone over the age of 10.

Laurie Heighway, the antisocial behaviour team leader at Nottingham City Council, explains: "He was the only member of the family causing a nuisance, so it was unfair to go for possession. Anyway, that wasn't going to resolve the problem as he was going to other areas and causing a nuisance. He was under 18, so we couldn't go for an injunction. Things got more and more serious - he went from riding motorbikes on the pavement to committing burglary and racially motivated offences - and we couldn't see what else was available".

It is an approach that has the support of Jack Straw who wants other local authorities to take a similarly tough stance. At the launch of a report by the Home Office Social Exclusion Unit recently, the Home Secretary announced that in future all councils will have to tackle anti-social behaviour as a priority, and introduce neighbourhood agreements that set out the standards of behaviour expected of tenants.