Spare me the unsympathetic noises: Do barking dogs have you barking mad? Do car alarms make you want to shriek? Peace is at hand, says David Lawson

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The Independent Online
HELLO] Can you hear me] Sorry to write so loudly, but I can't hear myself think over the sound of drills outside. The promise of cable television hardly seems worth the expense in aspirin. At least I know they will finish soon. The car alarm that brayed through most of Tuesday seemed destined to last until doomsday.

It is not just machines that disturb our peace. A group of building workers recently cost their company a pounds 13,000 fine after residents near their central London site went to court over endless performances of the 'Banana Boat Song' on a sleepy Bank Holiday. Meanwhile, a Dorset woman has been ordered to stay silent for two years after driving neighbours potty by playing Jim Reeves records 18 hours a day.

So is life that much noisier, and what can we do for some peace? The figures seem to back up feeling that noise is now a major source of pollution. Complaints are estimated to be running at 100,000 a year after more than doubling during the Eighties.

But that is partly a reflection of the breakdown of society, particularly in the inner cities, says one noise control officer. 'Neighbours are not prepared to talk to each other and sort things out. They often latch on to noise as part of much wider disputes. We end up acting almost like social workers.'

There is much we could do to mask the growing cacophony. Better homes is one; being able to sell them another. A major reason for rising complaints is that people can no longer easily sell up and move away. They might not have to if walls held back the irritations of loud music, screaming children and barking dogs. Building regulations are meant to keep the peace by stipulating minimum insulation standards, but it was revealed more than a decade ago that more than half of new homes are inadequately insulated.

'Houses are only as good as the workmanship that goes into them,' says Dr Les Fothergill, head of the acoustics section at the Building Research Establishment. A few little gaps in the mortar and noise pours in like water through a cracked dam. An even bigger gap left conversions free of any controls until the laws were amended earlier this year. The BRE admits that flats created from old houses will always leak sound like a sieve. That leaves thousands of home owners vulnerable, which can sometimes lead to tragedy. One man shot his rowdy neighbour and half a dozen people have been driven to suicide over the past decade.

So what can you do? 'Try talking to your neighbours,' says David Barber, who handles up to 8,000 complaints a year for Lewisham Council in south London. 'They might not realise they are causing problems.'

But people can be fickle. The Government launched a 'quiet neighbourhood' scheme on his patch as a pilot for proposed self-control zones. Residents were meant to agree curbs on antisocial noise such as DIY work in the early hours. It did not stop the worst offenders, however, and collapsed after a year.

Beefing up insulation is worth considering. The BRE produces a guide to simple and cheap solutions such as false plasterboard walls and ceilings. But tracking down noise leaks can be notoriously difficult. Dr Fothergill has a computer working full time just to work out how noise travels around homes. New laws could soon be in place to help stifle the worst offenders. Andrew Hunter, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke, is pushing through a Private Members' Bill that slaps controls on car and burglar alarms. Under the Bill if you bought an alarm - or moved into a new home - you would have to ensure the system stopped blaring after a certain time.

But government pressure has eliminated the original threats of stiff fines, making the rules toothless and unworkable, say some campaigners. 'What am I supposed to do,' asked one noise-control officer. 'Take a crowbar to some shiny BMW and rip out the innards, or just take the number and recommend the owner does not do it again?'

Jim Dowd, the Labour MP for Lewisham West, had less success with his Bill to make any noise nuisance between 9pm and 7am illegal. The Bill had its origins in the experience of his local council, which has been running 'noise patrols' every Friday and Saturday night for almost 20 years. More than 30 people are prosecuted each year over problems such as loud music and midnight raves.

The local council is the first line of defence for most households. Forget the police, as they have little power to intervene in disputes between neighbours. Taking the law into your own hands is also pointless, says the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. One harassed householder taped his noisy neighbour and played it back through the wall. He was prosecuted. So were an elderly couple who hit back at noisy students in an upstairs flat by banging pans and slamming doors at 5am.

I felt like taking up arms when the tearoom below my flat was converted into a noisy wine bar. Complaints about drinking on the pavement were ignored by the police, who said there was no serious disorder. Loud music inside the building was turned down when council officials arrived, then put back up after they left. Luckily, the licensing magistrates told them to belt up, otherwise I might have been doing a stretch by now.

But Mr Barber points out that there is a cheap and simple way anyone can use the law for protection. It costs nothing to apply to a magistrate for an order under Section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act to prevent someone causing a noise nuisance. But you must remember to go through the proper procedure. Write to the neighbour first and keep a record of the disturbances. Try to get witnesses to back your case. Builders and landlords can be summonsed under the same law if you feel the insulation is inadequate.

In other words, you do not have to spend a fortune. But be aware that this can backfire. One group of residents complained that a flat in the block had been let to noisy students. An order for extra insulation was made, but the costs had to be paid by the residents themselves because this was written in the lease.

'Never go into court without exploring all the possibilities,' says Mr Barber. 'In fact, try your best to sort things out by talking to neighbours first. But if you have a strong case you can win a little peace and quiet.'

'Improving Sound Insulation in Your Home', available free from the Building Research Establishment, Garston, Watford WD2 7JR. Advice also available from the Institution of Environmental Health Officers (071-928 6006).