Let’s Unpack That

How noise complaints became a very British obsession

Noise complaints are booming in Britain, threatening night-time businesses and burdening councils and environmental protection specialists, writes Katie Rosseinsky. Is our relationship to noise a searing indictment of the British psyche in 2023?

Sunday 04 June 2023 16:15 BST
‘There’s less of the live-and-let-live attitude’: Our tolerance for noise is hanging by a thread
‘There’s less of the live-and-let-live attitude’: Our tolerance for noise is hanging by a thread (iStock)

The slow, rhythmic thud of the flat upstairs’ washing machine. A dog barking over and over again. The bassline of someone else’s speakers. Are you feeling stressed yet? Noise can be subjective – it is broadly defined as an unwanted form of sound, and that inevitably differs from person to person. To use the aforementioned dog as an example: one person’s endearingly vocal pet is another’s intolerably howling hound. Collectively, though, it seems our tolerance for noise is hanging by a thread.

According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, noise is the single biggest cause for complaints made to local authorities in the UK; in a survey released in 2022, they found that noise complaints increased by 54 per cent in England between 2019-20 and 2020-21. Objections were particularly prominent in Greater London, where 508 complaints were recorded for every 10,000 people, more than three times the national average. Separate data compiled in 2022 by Churchill Home Insurance found that almost 450,000 noise complaints had been made to councils over the previous financial year, marking an increase of nearly 70,000 over two years.

Noise is an issue that can’t be dismissed as rows between curtain-twitchers – it’s a matter of public health. “It has been shown very clearly and unequivocally that noise has a terrible effect on human health and wellbeing,” says Dr Finnur Pind, acoustics engineer and co-founder of Treble, an Icelandic company that develops sound-simulation technology. “The World Health Organisation says that noise is the second most harmful environmental factor affecting human health, after bad air quality”. A spate of studies has linked exposure to excessive noise to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Could our present preoccupation with noise be rooted in the changes wrought by the pandemic? “All of a sudden, the noise of the world is almost switched off,” Pind says.

“Soundscapes did change dramatically towards the beginning of the first lockdown,” agrees Dr Neil Bruce, senior lecturer in sound design at Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts. “Planes and transportation noise dropped off” significantly, he notes. One study found that environmental noise in London dropped by an average of 5.4 decibels in spring 2020 versus the previous year.

For some of us, that meant getting used to the eerie quiet. We were “suddenly… able to listen a bit more,” Bruce says. “Because we’re so busy usually, sound is something we don’t often pay much heed to… Lockdown did seem to then bring that a bit more to the fore”. For others, it meant more time at home to fixate on new noises that punctuated this quiet, often occasioned by pandemic-imposed lifestyle shifts.

“I think the thing that made us perhaps more sensitive to noise, that changed our attitude, was that our homes were really required for studious work,” says Louise Beamish, vice chair of the Association of Noise Consultants and director of acoustics at WSP. This repurposing of our home spaces came at the same point that young kids started to be homeschooled, your DIY-loving neighbour was placed on furlough and everyone seemed to get a dog. Sounds that might have previously seemed innocuous, or part of the fabric of life, became irritants; stuck inside, we couldn’t flee them.

“Having to stay indoors [and] changing the way we work did have an impact, because there was no escape,” adds Somayya Yaqub, a member of the CIEH’s environmental protection advisory panel and head of corporate health and safety for the London Borough of Ealing. “There were complaints about matters that we [as environmental health officers] can’t actually do anything about… That’s living noise – whereas before, you’ve not ever had your neighbour at home, and you’re not there either, so it didn’t matter.”

We have an expectation of how certain places should sound, and when things do not sound as expected, that is when we become annoyed

Dr Neil Bruce

This leap in complaints, she suggests, might be tied into the slow erosion of community – many of us don’t know our neighbours, so perhaps it felt easier to passive-aggressively fill out a noise complaints form than to pop round and have a chat. Many streets will be filled with residents on short-term rental contracts, so “they’re not interested in building that relationship with a neighbour”. Environmental health manager Paul McCullough, Yaqub’s fellow advisory panel member, agrees. “There’s less of the ‘live and let live’ attitude between neighbours,” he says. “People tend not to know their neighbours as much now, whereas things would have been resolved with a quick word in years gone by.”

As life slowly started to return to normal, so did the noise levels, but our attitudes haven’t necessarily bounced back to pre-pandemic levels of give-and-take. Bruce says that the idea of expectation is a significant one when it comes to how we relate to sounds. “We have an expectation of how certain places should sound, and when things do not sound as expected, that is when we become annoyed,” he explains. “I think that’s one of the issues with some of the things we’re seeing around noise complaints in city centres.”

Our fixation on noise is indeed reaching beyond the home. If people moved to a usually bustling area during a period of intense quiet, they will have a different (perhaps even unrealistic) expectation of what constitutes normal noise levels. Pubs, clubs and music venues, which went dark for extended periods during the pandemic, are now feeling the brunt of this. Earlier this year, Night Time Industries Association chief executive Michael Kill told hospitality trade title The Morning Advertiser that noise complaints have been recently exacerbated by residents who experienced lower levels of noise during the pandemic, due to the closure of night-time businesses.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of venues coming to us with issues to do with noise complaints,” says Clara Cullen, venue support manager for the Music Venue Trust. She runs the charity’s emergency response service, which helps support grassroots music venues when they are threatened by noise complaints or other legal action. “In June 2022, we had five cases… to do with noise. Coming [up] to June 2023, we’ll have 12 cases.” Not huge numbers, perhaps (the MVT, Cullen notes, relies on venues getting in touch with them; other businesses might be facing these cases on their own), but certainly a significant increase. Anecdotally, she says, “in most cases we see, the venues do predate the newer residential accommodation being built in the area”.

‘There’s a little bit of a vicious cycle – you move to these areas, that creates more residential buildings… which circles back around to noise’ (iStock)

One headline-grabbing example is Manchester’s Night & Day Cafe. The venue, which has hosted performances by the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Marr and Ed Sheeran was served a noise abatement order back in November 2021; the complainant had moved into an adjacent flat during lockdown. It appealed the order, and in March the hearing was adjourned until later this year.

The “agent of change” principle was introduced to the UK in 2018, and places the responsibility for mitigating noise from pre-existing activities or businesses on a proposed new development. Apart from in Scotland, though, this is “part of planning policy – it’s not legislation, it’s not law”, Cullen explains. And it “doesn’t just fit neatly within the entire legislative picture,” adds McCullough. “Unfortunately, that conflicts with the statutory noise-nuisance legislation. So the two things don’t work together… You can’t turn around and say, ‘your property was built after the club was already here, therefore you can’t complain.’”

The job of an environmental health officer, he says, “is to work between the two parties… you’ve got responsibilities both to the business operator but also to the resident”. Often they hope to reach agreement informally; if not, legal action can be costly for night-time businesses that are already operating in financially straitened times. Councils are feeling the pinch too, with less budget available for specialist environmental staff, whose workload has shot up (the CIEH’s noise survey found that the workload for environmental health officers across England more than doubled between 2019-20 and 2020-21).

‘There were complaints about matters that we [as environmental health officers] can’t actually do anything about – that’s living noise' (iStock)

The pandemic may have intensified the situation, but our complex relationship with noise is rooted in deeper, structural issues too, like where and how we’re building houses. “There is a tension – how do we do town planning well, that accommodates the need for residential accommodation but also culture?” Cullen asks. “Obviously there [are] lots of places in the UK that people want to move to because of the cultural vibrancy. There’s a little bit of a vicious cycle – you move to these areas, that creates more residential buildings… which circles back around to noise.” Many of us live in accommodation that is built to meet certain noise specifications, but “that is the minimum specification”, as Bruce notes. Mitigating noise, he adds, is expensive in terms of building costs, and can also “encroach into internal spaces” (it’s a toss up – would you rather a noisier flat or a smaller one?)

Can we ever reach a balance, where we don’t have to live in a “bland soundscape”, as Bruce puts it, but we can switch off in our homes too? Pind says that, increasingly, sound is no longer “just an afterthought”, and is being considered in “the early design stages” of developments; his company has developed VR software that allows us to hear how a new building will sound before it has been built, thus eliminating some of the guesswork. At the planning stage, “there is quite a movement in our industry to better the standards… for transfer of sound between dwellings”, Beamish says, “because that [regulation is currently] seen by a lot of people… as being quite inadequate and not protecting the residents as well as it could.”

So perhaps the big question we have to grapple with is how we want our neighbourhoods to feel, and the compromises we’re willing to collectively make. Cities and bigger towns, Cullen notes, “aren’t quiet places… And obviously people’s lives and priorities have changed as well. Life,” she adds, “isn’t silent.”

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