The following was submitted as an article to Village Voice but publication was declined.
Last month, Chris Stephens reflected on the disadvantages of living at the back ends of two council wards, Beverley and Norbiton - a ‘no-man’s land centred on the boundary’. This month’s article starts with the boundary between two boroughs, namely Kingston and Merton. The boundary follows the Beverley Brook, but in this instance it was more like a brick wall (of bureaucracy) - a pity that brick wall wasn’t sound-proofed. The article illustrates legal bureaucracy, but also an important public health issue, namely noise. Noise can have circulatory effects through stress, but also the movements of air (which after all is what sound is) can damage the ear itself.
From about 11am to 9pm on 4th August, like many residents near Beverley Park we were subjected to greatly over-amplified music which was so loud that the bass line could be felt within our house with the windows closed. It came from the direction of Beverley Park, but we suspected may have been from further away, either Emanuel or Raynes Park sports ground, so over the border in Merton. It seems to be an annual event and two years ago was as noisy- at that time I left a voicemail for Merton Council environmental health since it was a public nuisance, but no-one got back to me. So this time I emailed them to investigate, since presumably it must have required a licence. I asked what conditions were set in the licence, and what monitoring was done of the sound levels. If the noise levels were uncomfortable half a mile away, people attending the event must have been risking permanent damage to their inner ear, such as permanent tinnitus. Here’s the response.
EHO: I am sorry that you were disturbed by noise from a property in the borough of Merton. We will be contacting the persons in control of the indicated premises and liaising with our own Licensing Section. However because you are a resident in the Borough of Kingston, you should contact their Environmental Health Department for further information.
EM: I am not a resident of Merton, but was affected by an event for which Merton was the regulating authority. If, as you suggest, I should contact Kingston’s EHD, that means that you will first have to brief an officer there for me to get meaningful feedback. Please can you give me the name and contact details of the officer you intend to brief. It does not seem a good use of an RBK officer’s time to brief them in this circular way when you can simply send me the information I requested.
EHO: I am sorry that you found my response unsatisfactory, but if you examine the legislation under which we operate, namely the Environmental Protection Act 1990 you will discover the reason for what you refer to as a “circular way” of briefing Kingston’s EHD. I have set out the relevant sections of the Act for you. I am sure an Environmental Health Officer at Kingston’s EHD will be familiar with these provisions.
The Merton EHO conceded that noise was a statutory nuisance under the Act, and that (in the words of the Act) it shall be the duty of every local authority where a complaint of a statutory nuisance is made to it by a person living within its area, to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to investigate the complaint. But because I didn’t live in Merton he wasn’t obliged to tell me anything and RBK could investigate if they chose (although I still don’t see how RBK would investigate, other than by asking Merton). So don’t live near a borough boundary!
A posting on Nextdoor from a woman living in Raynes Park, enquiring where the noise from the same event was coming from, produced a rejoinder from someone who hadn’t experienced it, along the lines of ‘why don’t you just let people enjoy themselves? If you want peace and quiet live in the country’. And a month or so later, a Nextdoor posting about the effects of loud fireworks on pets produced a similar response, causing me to wonder why some peoples’ enjoyment is so noisy. Noise is also a frequent flashpoint in neighbours’ disputes, and often features in minor news items on court cases for antisocial behaviour, such as residents who play power ballads full blast and ad nauseam. This problem is likely to get worse, as more people live in flatted accommodation and are in close proximity to the noise. Spare a thought for the elderly gentleman in court this summer who lived over a restaurant, and whose only windows opened on to the street. Having to choose between stifling heat with the windows closed or the noise from a diner on the pavement underneath, he eventually tipped a bucket of water over him.
A European Commission publication Noise Impacts on Health (January 2015) comments that ‘Annoyance, which could be thought of as trivial, can in fact lead to anger, stress and exhaustion’ and so is an important health problem. Whilst occupational exposure to noise has decreased, social exposure has soared, and this is mainly through over-amplified music. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10% of the global population is exposed to noise levels sufficient to damage hearing, and considers that noise is the second largest environmental cause of health problems, after air pollution. The EC publication quoted above states that our ‘perfectly evolved hearing system is under threat’; it evolved to detect threats, but its constant overload produces changes in the autonomic nervous system and also stress responses from not being able to control our environment. These responses can elevate blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia.
The WHO night-time noise guidelines for Europe state that average night exposure should not exceed 40 decibels. Night-time noise can disturb sleep even when the person doesn’t actually wake, and an experiment with healthy volunteers subjected to recorded plane noise during sleep found that in the morning their arteries were noticeably stiffer, which if it persisted could cause arterial disease. Such research is highly relevant to another potential source of noise in parts of New Malden, namely low-flying planes. The consultation on the third runway at Heathrow has just closed. There is currently a curfew period at night, but it is only about six hours, not long enough for a full night’s sleep for most adults, let alone children. And how many of us realised that Heathrow proposes to introduce 25,000 more flights a year even before a third runway opens? MP’s were not given that information when they voted in favour of expansion. New Malden is likely to be under a flight path, but there is no clear information yet.
So our hearing is under assault from many sources in modern life, but the EC (2015) considers that ‘Exposure-aware citizens can play a crucial role in noise policy-making’. At present local councils are rightly engaged with the important issue of air pollution, but perhaps in future they will also address noise, the second largest environmental cause of health issues, as well.
New Malden Residents’ Association