Can closer communities cure noise problems?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANoise in communities comes from many sources affecting all types of housing across all locations. Whether it’s poorly managed summer celebrations broadcast across the counties, urban venues and residents that shouldn’t be neighbours, or ill considered pastimes and parties – we can be disturbed and annoyed by noise where ever we are. This is why Noise Action Week, which aims to raise awareness of the issues and promote solutions, continues to be well supported by the front line staff who work to manage noise in councils, neighbourhood policing, housing providers and mediation services – even if national bodies are slack in backing such a prosaic cause.

Causing a disturbance to others by thoughtless noise making demonstrates a lack of consideration for context of a noisy activity – a lack of awareness of the impact on others – or indeed of the existence of others. The noise our lifestyles perpetuate – much of which can be reduced or managed – continues to be an everyday assault on the domestic environment of many as well as on the wider natural environment.

In 2000 the government sponsored Noise Attitude Survey found 37% of us are bothered by neighbour noise at home. Surveys repeatedly find anti-social behaviour – frequently manifested through noise – is a major concern in communities.  Published this week, Pride of Place, from the Fabian Society assesses how fostering a sense of place and pride in local communities could be used to encourage engagement in addressing environmental challenges. It establishes that people need to feel they can change their own place before they can change the world and finds a sense of place is as much about relationships with people as it is about the locality. The report is informed by a YouGov poll which finds 53% of those questioned say anti-social behaviour (ASB) is a major source of concern in their local environment, with 14% concerned about noise.

Noise is frequently an element of ASB and noise regulation can be used as a lever to address it.  A lack of respect for community and neighbours is often at the root of anti social behaviour and noise problems, alongside a lack of respect for the wider environment – and it follows that fostering more coherent communities who care about people and place should also reduce problem noise.

For a long time tagged the ‘Cinderella’ pollutant – compared to  global causes like forest destruction and Arctic meltdown, the continuous din of dub addicted neighbours or incessant drone of perpetual human traffic can’t compete with fluffy threatened wildlife or imminent global doom. When it comes to conjuring up campaign support or pointing the political finger these far reaching yet intangible causes make local environmental concerns, like the creep of noise into all areas of our lives or smoggy city air, seem slightly trivial. The link between public health, the health of local communities and our wider environment is frequently forgotten.

Occasionally noise hits mainstream news and this week the Daily Mail reported that noise makes us fat, harms our hearts, raises blood pressure, can impact on children’s learning and even affects us as we sleep. While this summary of findings presented at the 11th International Congress on Noise and Health makes noise sound pretty dangerous, it highlights in one hit facts acoustics experts and noise campaigners have been aware of for years. There is also an increasing body of evidence on the impact of noise on natural sounds govern. It is not just us that need sound for information, communication and warnings. Sound recordist and pioneer in soundscape ecology Bernie Krause has discovered the richness of natural sounds in an area is a reflection of the health of an ecosystem.

The more insidious health impacts of noise sit alongside overt effects like irritation, annoyance and disrupted sleep, which are well documented causes of dissatisfaction in communities and action by individuals and authorities. Noise is also linked to unhappiness in homes. Our current government is promoting a happiness agenda – another reason why policy makers should listen more to concerns about noise?  In fact, government’s own research on happiness has found noise can disrupt well being –  while Richmond residents were found averagely happy, it has been suggested higher levels of anxiety are down to aircraft din  (they are overflown by planes from Heathrow).

Unlike, for example, air pollution, where monitoring shows levels, the extent of our exposure to unhealthy noise is a challenge to quantify. For transport noise we now have strategic noise maps – allowing those in mapped areas an idea of levels of exposure. For the neighbourhood noises that bother us, complaints to local councils are the gauge that now informs public health policy. According to the last published Noise Attitude Survey 2000 (NAS) only a small proportion of those bothered by noise lodge an official complaint so the problem is under reported. (A repeat of this work was commissioned by Defra in 2008 – it has yet to be published but overall findings are, apparently, similar). Meanwhile a small study published this week by appliance manufacturer Servis bears the headline ‘Brits don’t suffer in silence’. While 90% of those asked said they would confront the issue only 25% said they would report a problem to the council, reinforcing the case for under reporting.

Noise Action Week aims to raise awareness of routes to remedies to noise problems – and many organisations used the week in May to do this.  They provided advice sessions, visited estates and promoted their services online. We live in a crowded country and have to accept that we will hear our neighbours – in Leicestershire local authorities and police co-ordinated a campaign to promote respect and tolerance in respect of noise – alongside responsible attitudes and services to address iproblems unsolable by common sense. In the context of Pride of Place, Ipswich Borough Council’s noise themed family fun day held for Noise Action Week demonstrates this authority already understands that bringing the community together is a way forward.

So, while for politicians and campaign groups addressing attitudes to noise is possibly the least appealing environmental issue on the planet, it can be contested that the sound of our communities is a reflection of their health, and our attitude to noise reflects our attitude to people,  the places we inhabit and the wider environment.

Mary Stevens

Noise Action Week Co-ordinator

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