There goes the neighbourhood: the escalating war next door

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The Independent Online
Noisy neighbours are the curse of suburbia. Ask anyone who lives next door to a yapping dog or a semi-detached disco. It is not hard to see why over the past few years they have become one of Britain's chief bugbears. Feuds over the garden fence are going to court, several degenerating into violence and some ending in tragedy. Domestic noise is the most frequent complaint received by local authorities in England and Wales who record more than 100,000 calls each year, compared to 33,000 in 1982.

Neighbourhood disputes over noise have lead to at least 17 killings and suicides during the last three years. People are being driven mad by the thumping beat from stereos or the drilling and hammering of midnight DIY enthusiasts. Among the worst cases was an incident last July when a British Telecom engineer snapped after suffering prolonged, excessive noise from his neighbours' rowdy parties. He fire-bombed their flat, causing the death of a 26-year-old mother who fell from the 13th floor in the ensuing panic.

In 1993, a man caused the death of a three-year-old boy by setting fire to his upstairs neighbour's flat in north London. During his trial at the Old Bailey, the court heard that he had previously sought help from the police and local MP to silence the noise; he had raised a petition and even written to the Prime Minister, all to no avail.

One morning, he lost control and told his neighbour to get her children out. because he was going to set her flat on fire. Then he doused the stairs in petrol and set them alight. The boy was trapped in a bedroom and died.

On-the-spot fines of pounds 40 for people who ignore council or police warnings about noise are to be introduced under new Government legislation. It is one of several antidotes which have been considered, many of which involve environmental health officers in a more direct, and subsequently more dangerous, role.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health says more of its members are being assaulted when trying to carry out their jobs. In Ealing, west London, an officer was beaten up trying to turn down a stereo after complaints from those living nearby. Many officers are reluctant to deal with a rowdy party unless the police are in attendance.

Not all noise disputes are violent, although an increasing number end up in court. The singer Whitney Houston's hit song "I Will Always Love You" brought two people to the dock when a woman in south London and another in Middlesbrough were both jailed for playing it at excessive volume.

In 1993, Poole County Court in Dorset banned a 55-year-old grandmother from playing her Jim Reeves records after complaints from neighbours. To make sure she complied, environmental health officers commandeered her gramophone.

One of the most celebrated noise cases was that of Corky, a cockerel in Devon that crowed so loudly at dawn that its owner received a noise abatement order from the council to silence it between midnight and 7am.

In many instances, a diplomatic chat over the garden fence has proved enough to cool a dispute, but people are still eager to take the law into their own hands. Perhaps the bravest example is that of a 52-year-old Southampton woman who aimed her garden hose at a stereo pounding out heavy metal music at a biker party next door. It was a last-ditch attempt to silence the din after requests to turn it down were ignored and repeated calls to the police went unheeded. It worked - the speakers faltered and died as the water hit them.

For some, no amount of warnings and threats seem to work. An 18-year- old Leicester woman who played her stereo in the early hours of the morning at a disturbingly high volume was visited 10 times by a council team investigating complaints, but continued to blast her neighbours through the night. Magistrates found her guilty of 10 charges of causing noise nuisance and fined her pounds 12,500. She admits it will take a lifetime to pay, during which there will doubtless be many more violent and tragic cases brought to court.