New night-time noise controls get few councils' support

Powers for local authorities to deal with night-time noise from domestic premises were brought into force on 23 July. But a survey has revealed that few councils are likely to use the new powers, partly because of the costs involved.

The Government chose National Noise Awareness Day as the occasion to bring into force the night-time noise provisions of the Noise Act 1996. The Act's other main provisions, which enable local authorities to seize noise-making equipment judged to be causing a statutory nuisance, came into force last September (ENDS Report 260, pp 36-37 ).

The Act introduced a new criminal offence of night-time noise from domestic premises. And, in contrast to existing powers for dealing with noise under statutory nuisance legislation, it created an objective standard against which night-time noise can be judged. A direction by the Secretary of State has established a permitted noise level of 35dB - judged to be adequate to allow undisturbed sleep - or 10dB above the "underlying" noise level where this is in excess of 25dB.

It will be for individual local authorities to decide whether to adopt the new powers. Surveys by the National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) point to waning enthusiasm for the powers.

Last year, as the Act was passing through Parliament, 49 (20%) out of a sample of 240 local authorities told the NSCA that they were likely to adopt the powers, while 85 (35%) were unlikely to do so. However, a new survey has shown that only 25 (8%) have considered adopting the powers or are likely to do so, while 237 (79%) are unlikely to adopt them.

Of those unlikely to adopt, 43% felt that their existing arrangements for dealing with night-time noise complaints were adequate. But 48% cited lack of staff or resources.

The cost of an out-of-hours noise service can be substantial. Last year, a survey of 24 London boroughs with such services revealed annual costs of less than £50,000 in 11 councils, £50-100,000 in another four, £100-200,000 in a further seven, with the other two paying even more.

The cost of adopting the new night-time noise provisions would involve only some additional expense for authorities such as these. However, the Government's estimate that the new regime will cost councils only about £1 million in the first year, rising to £3 million in the third, appears less than generous when set alongside the London study's conclusion that a night-time noise service costs about £150,000 per year for an urban authority.

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has promised to review uptake of the new provisions after two years. Research into noise complaints services in existence last October and their subsequent development will inform the review.

The DETR has issued a circular explaining how local authorities should investigate complaints about night-time noise and enforce the new offence.1 Offenders will be liable to a fixed penalty of £100 or, if the matter is taken to court, to a fine of up to £1,000.

A second circular has been issued by the DETR on the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, which introduced powers for local authorities to abate nuisances caused by certain types of street noise (ENDS Report 226, p 30 ).2 Provisions enabling them to adopt powers to control noise from intruder alarms have still not been brought into force.

The circular explains the procedures which councils should follow in investigating and abating noise from vehicles, machinery, equipment, road works and other noise sources in streets. The Labour Government has found itself in the mildly embarrassing position of explaining that noise caused by pickets is subject to the controls because picketing is not a demonstration, which is exempted from control.

The DETR's latest annual digest of environmental statistics provides the first figures on how the 1993 Act is being used by local authorities. In 1994/5, 8,958 complaints were received by councils in England and Wales about noise from vehicles, machinery and equipment in streets. A total of 3,697 were confirmed as statutory nuisances, and 3,412 were remedied informally. However, abatement notices were served in 331 cases, and four convictions secured for breaches of notices.

Effective liaison between local authorities and the police is important in dealing with noise sources in streets, since council officers will often need police co-operation in tracing vehicle owners or removing vehicles. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has recently published a guide to good practice on such liaison arrangements,3 along with a further guide on effective noise management policies and services.4

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