Neighbourhood noise: 17 people have died from it

Disputes drive people to murder and suicide
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IT WAS the most genteel of disputes : well-heeled villagers rose in restrained protest about the noise from the opera festival at the Manor House. When the people of Garsington, Oxfordshire, took Leonard Ingrams to court about his bel canto last seek, the nation looked on amused.

But noise is not funny at all. In the past six years, at least 17 people have died through murder or suicide at the end of noise disputes between neighbours. As the Christmas party season reaches full swing this week, many will nurse thoughts of vengeance or suffer in despair as their neighbours celebrate into the early hours. Since 1978 the number of complaints about domestic noise has risen by 390 per cent to more than 88,000 a year.

The Government has promised a clampdown on neighbour noise. At present local authority environmental health officers (EHOs) can issue noise abatement notices and confiscate noisy hi-fi or televisions. The maximum fine under the Environmental Protection Act for failing to obey an abatement notice is £5,000.

But the procedure for bringing a prosecution is tortuous. EHOs have to obtain evidence that a noisy neighbour is causing a statutory nuisance, ie "noise emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance". Few local councils can affordto devote staff to the problem full time. Of 162,000 complaints about all types noise last year, only three per cent resulted in prosecution.

Robert Atkins, the environment minister, has set up a task force to look at possible legislation to make persistent noise nuisance a criminal offence. "We need to minimise the impact of noise pollution," he said. The noise working party, comprising officials from Whitehall and the London boroughs of Westminster, Wandsworth and Southwark, is due to report in the New Year on ways to streamline the prosecution process.

The Right to Peace and Quiet campaign has been pressing for legislation for the last three years. Valerie Gibson, who founded the group after persistent noise from a neighbour drove her out of her home in south London, feels authorities' approach to the problem has been futile and misguided.

"Noise, as well as anti-social behaviour, is on the increase and the quality of our lives is under threat," she said. "Peace and quiet are essential to our health and well being. We want the government to recognise this and do something to stop a selfishminority from ruining the lives of the law-abiding majority."

Dylan Jones, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cardiff, says: "Hearing is the sentinel of the senses. It keeps us on the alert, unlike sight which switches off for eight hours of the day. It is adapted to listen for danger in the primeval jungle and is intimately connected to the arousal system. Sound is very, very intrusive ; it has privileged access to our thoughts.

"Another thing is that intrusive noise from your neighbour has symbolic value. It disturbs things we cherish, like sleep. It tells you what they think of you in terms of how considerate they are of your feelings. When they are not it leads to anger, upset, dispute and attempts at manslaughter and so on."

This week magistrates are likely to settle the dispute over the Garsington opera festival. Although passions have run high - Monica Waud, the principal objector from the villagers, was accused in court of carrying on a "vendetta" against Mr Ingrams - thecase is almost certain to be settled in a civilised fashion.

But many similar disputes fester for years and are not resolved until either the "nuisance" or the "victim" moves home. The worst cases can degenerate into suicide, violence, or murder. We list below16 cases - involving 17 fatalities - that in the last six years have ended violently.

July 1994 Julie Harvey, 27, a mother of four from Manor Road, Denton, Tameside, Manchester, killed herself by swallowing painkillers after she moved to avoid noisy neighbours only to find herself living near friends of her previous tormentors.

July 1994 Steve Appleby, 40, from Silkstone Road, Sheffield, committed suicide after a feud over noise which led to a fight with a neighbour. Environmental health officers investigated the Applebys' complaints about noisy parties. A report on the disputewas collated by South Yorkshire police and submitted to the coroner.

February 1994 Valerie Edwards, 47, a charity worker from Romney Avenue, Lockleaze, Bristol, died of pneumonia after sitting in a park near her home for several nights in the cold and rain to avoid noise from her neighbour, Jayne Burston. Her husband called environmental health officers 20 times in 18 months. Ms Burston was charged with playing music too loudly in defiance of three noise-abatement notices and given a conditional discharge.

January 1994 Harry Stephenson, 51, a builder, from Heath, South Glamorgan, was stabbed 22 times by Colin Shankland, 34, who revved his car early in the morning, played his radio loudly, shouted in the street and allowed his dog to run wild. Cardiff CrownCourt heard that he "flipped" after the neighbourhood united against him and stabbed four people before killing Mr Stephenson. He was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter.

January 1994 John Purbrick, 35, from Channel View, Grangetown, Cardiff, murdered by his neighbour Michael Gilfilin, 31, after he complained about Gilfilin's music. Gilfilin was jailed for life.

December 1993 Pat Maloney, 30, a builder from Southend, Essex, was murdered outside his home by Darren Pilcher, 22, unemployed, after a row over Pilcher's noise and loud music. Pilcher was jailed for life at Chelmsford Crown Court.

September1993 Detective Constable James Bourke, 50, from Tenal Road, Quinton, Birmingham, was battered to death at his flat after neighbours became sick of his loud classical music. A neighbour has been charged over his death.

May 1993 Prince Owusu, three, was killed when Clive Bent, 60, of West Bank, Stoke Newington, north London, set fire to his family's home after being "driven mad by noise and drug dealing", the Old Bailey was told. The court heard Mr Bent had tried the police, his local MP and the Prime Minister before warning the child's mother and giving her half an hour to move out. He was put on probation after being found guilty of manslaughter.

March 1993 Jack Gott, 59, a retired builder from Wycliffe Gardens, Shipley, near Bradford, killed himself with whisky and painkillers after noise from a teenage neighbour and her male visitors drove him over the edge.

November 1992 Donna Wilson, 30, a Belfast mother-of-three, was bludgeoned to death with pickaxe handles by a gang called in by neighbour George Morrow after her noisy parties upset him and his wife, who had a serious heart condition. Belfast Crown Court gave him a two-year suspended sentence.

January 1992 Margaret Williams, 53, from Frome Park Road, Stroud, killed herself with painkillers after she became obsessed with noise from a nearby rugby ground and busy main road.

November 1991 Victor Teece-Millington, 69, was killed by Michael Laidlaw, 39 of Christleton Drive, Ellesmere Port, after making a noise, while fitting kitchen cupboards, which kept Laidlaw's children awake. Laidlaw was jailed for 12 months for manslaughter.

October 1991 John Roach, 37 of Farnborough, Hants, was killed by his neighbour Eric Seall, 32, who was "driven mad" by the sound of his televison set turned up "very loud" day and night.Roach fell down a flight of stairs during a fight and fractured his skull. Seall was freed on three year' probation.

July 1991 Norman Bamford, aged 51, from Kinson, Bournemouth, collapsed and died from a heart attack after a row with his 22-year-old neighbour over loud music. No charges were laid.

October 1990 Doreen Wright, 43, died when her neighbour Lillian Ramsay, 36, from Heathfield Estate, Nottingham, set fire to her house. Ramsay was convicted of manslaughter. She claimed in court that the Wrights' dog kept her and her children awake and that the family was persecuting her.

January 1989 Victor Johnson and his wife, Audrey, were killed at their home in Pinter House, Grantham Road, Stockwell, south-west London. The Old Bailey heard that Mark Allen, aged 23, allegedly paid Alwyn Stephenson and Paul Spencer, both aged 15, to spray petrol through their letterbox after the Johnsons complained about his noisy music.