Our countryside is polluted by noise

A weekend spent in central London can often seem quieter than one in the Yorkshire Dales
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The Independent Online

Why do so many people equate a trip to the countryside with a chance to make as much noise as possible? Last weekend, in a tiny village in North Yorkshire, the birdsong was punctuated by the throbbing of engines as packs of middle-aged men straddling powerful motorbikes sought to reinforce their masculinity by thundering past my front door re-enacting the TT races. I've noticed that as a man's libido decreases, he turns to a full throttle as a replacement for a lacklustre sex life.

Why do so many people equate a trip to the countryside with a chance to make as much noise as possible? Last weekend, in a tiny village in North Yorkshire, the birdsong was punctuated by the throbbing of engines as packs of middle-aged men straddling powerful motorbikes sought to reinforce their masculinity by thundering past my front door re-enacting the TT races. I've noticed that as a man's libido decreases, he turns to a full throttle as a replacement for a lacklustre sex life.

Had I laced up my boots and strode out on the moors, I would have encountered more of these macho types on trail bikes, thrashing through the mud and revving up as they destroy ancient green lanes in the name of freedom and "fun". In search of some solitude I paid a visit to my local branch of Tesco - at least people drive at under 10 mph in the car park, and park in serried ranks.

Now researchers from two universities in the North are carrying out interviews with local people as they try to define modern notions of tranquillity. This replicates a project started by the Campaign to Protect Rural England 10 years ago, which came to the conclusion that there were only three true areas of peace and quiet left in England - one of which was the north Pennines. These days, the National Park in Northumberland is defined as one of the most unspoilt and remote places left, but that will not continue for long.

One of the most horrible forms of noise pollution is that of the powerful speedboat or jet ski - another gadget which conforms to my theory about men and testosterone. Can you please tell me what is so completely fulfilling about thundering up and down on a peaceful lake or piece of coastal water with the equivalent of a motorbike clamped firmly between your thighs? Is there no other form of fulfilment which delivers the same thrill for these thugs? Now that Windermere, the largest lake in England, has belatedly decided to impose a 10mph speed limit, Kielder Water in Northumberland can expect an increase in the number of people who will use it to make a lot of noise in a completely selfish manner.

A speed limit was first mooted for Windermere in 2000, and it is the last lake in the National Park to impose one after a long and bitter campaign fought by opponents of any restrictions on the use of the water. Have you noticed that people who use antisocial machinery always claim that somehow they "benefit" the local community? They may frighten the birds, scare away the fish, create havoc for rowers and swimmers and chuck out fumes, but they always maintain that somehow they bring economic benefit to locals.

Well, most people go to the Lake District to enjoy the scenery which inspired some of our greatest writers and artists, to walk through it, picnic in it, sketch and photograph it, and I don't think the roar of a speedboat is what drew Wordsworth, Keats or Coleridge to the district. Objecting to noise is seen as objecting to progress - and I'm quite aware that many boat owners, water-skiers and so on think that my notion of a National Park as somewhere tranquil is an out-of-date concept not in tune with 21st-century concepts of leisure.

But as the Government plans to introduce new legislation to deal with noise pollution at work, by approving an EU directive which lowers the level of decibels we can be exposed to from 85 to 80, should they not be introducing the notion of "quiet zones" throughout the countryside? When a weekend spent in central London can often seem quieter than one in the Yorkshire Dales, it's time to start thinking about the value of silence.

To a large degree, people expect noise at work, and there's a danger that too fastidious an application of the new EU directive could lead to all sorts of ludicrous problems for orchestras, building sites, and workers in pubs and bars. But this government has never truly understood the concept of keeping the countryside a place where certain activities are carried out in restricted areas. Recently Alun Michael passed on an opportunity to ban four-wheel-drive vehicles and bikes from green lanes and unclassified roads, in spite of massive evidence that these ancient routes are being destroyed. He could have listed them as if they were historic buildings, but chose not to.

Labour is too feeble and too frightened of adopting countryside policies that are not seen as "inclusive". What rubbish - if Mr Prescott had his way, most of it would be buried under the projected 478,000 new homes he would like to see built by 2021. This week it emerged that another 29,000 dwellings are to be added to that horrific target. So the countryside will become one huge building site, throbbing from 8am six days a week to the churning of concrete mixers, the siren calls of cheery scaffolders and the ear-piercing screaming of chainsaws and power drills, all enabling Mr Prescott's master plan to become a reality.

And with these new homes will come car-ports and garages, for they are to be built in areas with scant provision for local transport, miles from shops, stations and schools. Soon more of the countryside will be concreted over, wildlife will vanish and pollution will increase. Marshland will be drained, fields dug up and lanes widened, all to create a series of mini-boxes for imaginary families (a disappearing breed, like stoats, starlings and sparrows) to inhabit.

When the organisers of the Glastonbury Festival announced that this year they are planning a silent disco (in which 2,000 fans will enjoy themselves wearing headphones), you know that there are new and imaginative ways to deal with noise. If the Government perseveres with its huge house-building programme, even though many influential architects and planners have disputed the need for it, then they will also have to reinforce the status of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty as quiet zones.

Local councils already have varying standards of success in implementing fines against people who harass others with noise. Environmental health officers are rarely around when the nuisance occurs, and bringing offenders to court can be a lengthy process with no guarantee of success. I can't understand why the same councils, which have been so efficient with parking wardens issuing tickets, can't start the same draconian regime of fines issued throughout the night and weekends.

And in rural areas, let's create zones in disused quarries, gravel pits and old tips where boy racers can whoosh about on their boats, thrash up and down on their motorbikes, drive up and down with their sound systems blaring and inwardly celebrate their masculinity without coming anywhere near the 90 per cent of the population who prefer the sound of a thrush or a cuckoo this spring.

Mr Blair thinks it is important that schoolchildren are taught citizenship - it could be a simple matter to include some thoughts about how noise can be a destructive and antisocial weapon. Of course it's hard to get the idea across to teenagers, but if we don't start to educate the citizens of tomorrow about the value of silence, we might as well all leave the British Isles. The Prime Minister is also very keen on on-the-spot fines for litter and chewing gum - is he man enough to add noise to his list of pet hates?

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