The title sequence of the Australian soap opera Neighbours informs us that "with a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend." But for many neighbours that "perfect blend" feels as unattainable as a lottery win, and there seems to be so little understanding on some British streets that many people feel compelled to uproot and move house in the hope of finding a quieter life.
Some 360,000 families make swift exits from their properties each year because of disruptive neighbours; whether it's down to extensive and seemingly unnecessary redevelopment of high-value houses in classy parts of town, or aggression, violence and fear on sink estates, the effect of disputes can take a huge toll. Long-term mental scars can be caused by the constant stand-offs, but there are also financial costs related to trying to put things right – including the ultimate solution of moving house.
There are countless ways in which neighbours irritate us, and while they are finding new ways to do so, we're inventing new ways in which we can take offence. A quick survey undertaken on Twitter to unearth stories of readers' altercations with neighbours returned dozens of answers ranging from the distressing to the amusing – but they were mostly centred around the way people's otherwise-private behaviour suddenly becomes public.
This can encompass things like unwelcome displays of nudity or out-of-control pets, but the most obvious manifestation is noise; the past 20 years have seen a soaring number of complaints about domestic noise to environmental health officers, and while much of this may be down to our increased awareness of our right to complain, the problem of nuisance noise is endemic – despite the threat of £5,000 fines and prosecution for the worst offenders.
But while local authorities struggle to cope with the number of noise-related disputes they're requested to attend with decibel meters, there is little acknowledgement of the disruptive effects of noises that may not reach the required threshold for action to be taken – in other words, it's not all about volume.
Richard Moore, who lives in Dalston, east London, describes his experience of an upstairs neighbour with a Celine Dion fixation: "Night or day, she only plays two songs, "The Power Of Love" and "Think Twice". Again and again. Sometimes just one repeated, sometimes both repeated, sometimes one skipped to go to the other, and then impatiently back to the first."
Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University, wrote a paper in 2005 that examined public manifestation of people's domestic lives, and she acknowledges the potential for low-level irritations to grow into something far greater – particularly in the case of noise. "You can't disattend those things," she says. "It's similar to the way you start to hear your own clock ticking at night, and then you can't stop hearing it, and you need to take the battery out to sleep."
Many neighbour disputes centre around such things; others might deem them insignificant, they can't be easily complained about, and they're more difficult to mediate. "You come across people who, for example, want to appropriate public space," says Stokoe. "For example, people get upset about somebody parking outside their home but they don't own the street."
The recent case of a skip falling through a Chelsea street and becoming embedded following basement excavations in one property would be a more understandable reason for residents' fury but we can become just as distressed over something as inconsequential as a neighbour painting their fence an unpleasant shade. "You do get people putting things on their house or on their roof or in their garden," says Stokoe, "and if neighbours can see that when they look out of their homes, some will attempt to appropriate the view, as well. They want control over that. But it's very hard to work that up into a valid complaint and not come across as unreasonable."
A story emerged a couple of weeks ago concerning a dispute between Charles Saatchi and his wife Nigella Lawson and their Belgravia neighbours that provides a vivid example of this. Saatchi objected to some scaffolding that had long-obscured the view from the back of his home; he eventually snapped, took matters into his own hands and paid his own workmen to remove the scaffolding, but in doing so caused an alleged £50,000 worth of damage to tiles. While some neighbours supported Saatchi's actions, others were baffled; one, Paulo Marques, expressed his view to a reporter that "some people will complain about anything". But while the anger that can be provoked by seemingly innocuous situations can be labelled irrational, it's incredibly hard to pinpoint the stage where genuine grievance spills over into intolerance.
"Small things to some people are big things to others," says Stokoe, "but once people are entrenched in a position it's like any other dispute – it becomes incredibly hard for them to find their way back from that position." Anyone who, for example, observes their neighbours' inability to deal with refuse might sympathise with Saatchi's distress. But when neighbour disputes revolve around issues of aesthetics and personal preferences, arguments can become as disproportionate and intense as if everyone were living under the same roof.
The "menace" of leylandii is well documented; in many cases the fast-growing trees end up dwarfing houses, causing disputes that can sometimes turn violent. But while the law is clear on the permitted height of leylandii, and organisations campaign to keep them under control, a significant proportion of us would say: "What's the problem?" While inappropriately towering trees might provide an immediate indicator that all is not well in a neighbourhood, most neighbour disputes would go unnoticed by passers-by or prospective buyers of a property.
Homes are emotional purchases; we become invested in their suitability very quickly and the prospect of bad relationships with neighbours is rarely considered. According to Ed Mead, director of Douglas & Gordon estate agents, this is a big mistake.
"The single biggest thing that's going to affect your quality of life in a new home is the behaviour of your neighbours. But it's the one thing you're utterly powerless over – so you have to ameliorate that problem to the biggest extent you can, while acknowledging that you're not really going to have a proper idea of what they're like until after you move in." While it's a drawback of property that it's impossible to "test run" it, Mead stresses that there are things you can do. "As part of your strategy you should go and spend time there on a Saturday afternoon or a Friday evening, just walking around the area. But I know from experience that less that 5 per cent of people will actually bother doing that kind of thing."
Under the terms of the Estate Agents Act and the Misrepresentation Act, sellers are obliged to tell prospective buyers about anything that would materially affect their purchase – including unruly or unreasonable neighbours – but according to Mead, people tend not to give these details a second thought. "This is particularly the case in a rising property market," he says, "because people figure that that if it's a disaster they'll just sell up and make a bit of money anyway. But at times like this, where people are more likely to stay put for longer, the neighbour issue needs to be looked into more seriously."
There is a small crumb of comfort for anyone embroiled in the problem of difficult neighbours, and that's that neighbourhoods are transitory states that are constantly changing; it's entirely possible that the people currently causing you distress may be gone in the near future. But it's a warning to the rest of us that such people may be heading in our direction. And that we may require all our powers of diplomacy to achieve that "perfect blend" so beloved of Ramsay Street.
Neighbour complaints from Twitter: is this as bad as it gets?
@Cornettofairy My neighbours dug up my garden in the night, flattened it, and have put up a marquee which they use as a church.
@NadiaKamil I used to live beneath backpackers who at night threw themselves down the stairs & photographed it for fun.
@SoooooZee An ex-neighbour once stood outside & yelled "WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY LOUNGE?" Then stood there looking embarrassed until I closed the blinds.
@dodgrile An old neighbour used to superglue cigarette butts to my house and car in the middle of the night. That was fun.
@ clarehr A neighbour appeared at the window opposite with a sign: "HELP I'm hostage at gunpoint." We called the police; when they arrived she denied all knowledge.
@jamescator I have a crazy preacher neighbour who rings a handbell at 4am for an hour whilst chanting religiously.
@karlhodge My neighbour bangs on my door at 6.30 in the morning shouting for "Andy". No one in my house is called Andy.
@moonjam One neighbour tried to drunkenly open our front door with their key. And put an entire washing machine in the communal bin.
@stuartdredge I had a neighbour who took a boat-load of strange drugs and ended up being led away after shooting our milkman with a BB gun.