Mediators in noise disputes refused extra cash

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The Independent Online
A PLEA for cash to see how noisy-neighbour mediation schemes could be extended has been rejected by the Government despite the spiralling cost of settling hundreds of cases in court each year.

Pioneering schemes to end rows over noise show that mediation can solve nearly two- thirds of disputes.

The Department of the Environment, responsible for controlling noise pollution - the biggest and fastest growing area of neighbourhood disputes - has also backtracked on a commitment to continue giving funding to one of the leading mediation schemes in the country - despite its professed enthusiasm for arbitration.

The need for cheap mediation schemes as an alternative to costly court battles was made plain last week with the taxpayer being left to pick up a pounds 100,000 bill as Leeds City Council lost a seven-day case against the owner of 45 budgerigars which neighbours said created an unbearable racket.

Although around 200 noise cases were settled in court last year, it is such a dominant issue in neighbour relations that local environmental health officers dealt with almost 90,000 complaints, and 34,000 were judged a statutory nuisance.

The number of complaints doubled during the Eighties as households became more atuned to their rights, partly a result of the Noise Abatement Society's ceaseless campaigning for the right of householders to lead a quiet life in the refuge of their homes.

More than one in three of complaints are over loud music, another third about barking dogs and other pets, while the rest are about car and home burglar alarms, the din from DIY enthusiasts and rows between feuding couples.

One of the most celebrated noise disputes which did end in court was that of Corky, a cockerel that crowed so loudly at 5am that a noise abatement order was slapped on his owner after a complaint from neighbours in the hamlet of Stoke, near Hartland in north Devon.

The case was later dealt with in the county court, where the judge ruled that the owner had a duty to keep Corky silent between midnight and 7am.

Equally entertaining, for those not involved, was the case over the woman who was jailed for playing Whitney Houston at full volume.

Although councils can now use tougher legislation, such as the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act allowing them to break into homes and cars to shut off burglar alarms, many local authorities are keen to set up mediation schemes.

In Bristol, a scheme deals with complaints by first sending two trained counsellors to visit the complainant to hear the grievance. Armed with their advice, the complainant may feel able to discuss the dispute with the neighbour. More often, the impartial counsellors will try to talk to both sides - settling the dispute with a version of of 'shuttle diplomacy'.

About a quarter of the cases come to a head in a face- to-face meeting of the warring parties on neutral territory. A solution is signed by both parties, but it is not legally binding.

One case settled through mediation involved a middle- aged white couple who complained they were disturbed by loud gospel music blaring through their ceiling, the noise of the two-year-old child living upstairs and the sound of furniture being dragged about by her young black mother. She in turn complained that racism was the cause of the dispute. At the mediation meeting the couple accepted the noise of the child was not deliberate, and the mother agreed to move her living room and try to limit noise.

Buoyed by a 60 per cent settlement rate, Paul Holder, who helped set up the Bristol scheme, and Graham Jukes, of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, sought a pounds 196,000 three- year research grant last autumn to explore how the schemes could be extended nationwide. It was turned down because of lack of funds.

The Environment Department said: 'We think mediation is an extremely good idea and we shall continue to look at it.'

The rejection came as the Bristol project was forced to close for lack of funds at the end of its three-year term, despite a previous Department pledge of funding.

However, Mr Holder has clear proof of how valuable his project is: 150 local authorities have asked for details of it.