§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]5.46 pm
§ The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier)
I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome the opportunity to talk about a form of environmental pollution which, although it cannot be seen, has the capacity, if not controlled, to be an insidious, all-pervading cause of enormous stress.
I am sure that there is not one hon. Member who has not received heart-rending stories from constituents about the invasion of their lives by noise. Indeed, today's debate is most timely as there is no doubt that the profile of noise as a source of major nuisance has been raised over the past few months as a result of the culmination of several major Government initiatives.
First, the Environmental Protection Bill contains a number of improvements in environmental noise control. Secondly, the Government's recently published White Paper on the environment devotes a whole chapter to noise and explains what action is under way and what we plan for the future. Thirdly, the findings and recommendations of the independent noise review working party—set up by the Government at the beginning of this year to look at the adequacy of noise controls—have recently been published.
Let me explain in greater detail. The main aim of part III of the Environmental Protection Bill is to align the regime for dealing with statutory nuisances such as smells and dust with that of the more streamlined system that already exists for dealing with noise nuisance. We did not intend the Bill to be used as a tool to introduce fundamental changes to noise legislation, as we wanted to have the opportunity to consider fully what the noise review working party had to say on the many facets of noise in the environment. However, the opportunity has been taken to make a few worthwhile changes.
Firstly, the maximum penalty that can be incurred by industries, trades or businesses for breaching a nuisance abatement notice will rise from £2,000 to £20,000. Secondly, the definition of statutory nuisance has been widened to include noise that is prejudicial to health and not just a nuisance. Thirdly, the duty of a local authority to investigate complaints has been clarified. Existing legislation already gives local authorities a duty to cause their area to be inspected from time to time to detect any noise nuisance.
Of course, one would expect local authorities to take reasonable steps to investigate complaints made to them about noise and most authorities interpret the existing duty in that way. It has been suggested, however, that the wording of the existing duty is unduly obscure, and the noise review working party has recommended that action should be taken to clarify the duty on local authorities. The Bill therefore makes it clear that local authorities are not only under a duty to inspect their area from time to time to detect statutory nuisances but must take such steps as are reasonably practicable to investigate complaints.
I should now like to refer to the White Paper on the environment and the report of the noise review working party, both of which have just been published.
§ Sir Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)
Will the provisions apply to small airfields—a subject on which I 1024 have written to the Minister—which give rise to real difficulties? In my constituency, for instance, the flight path to and from an airfield goes right over people's houses.
§ Mr. Trippier
If my hon. Friend will be patient, I will devote quite a substantial chunk of my speech to that problem.
The two factors to which I had referred before my hon. Friend's intervention are closely related and it may be useful if I explain first the background to the setting up of the noise review working party. The Government announced last December that the review was to take place and last February we announced that it would be taken forward by an independent working party chaired by Mr. James Batho, one-time secretary of the Noise Advisory Council.
The chairman was asked to complete the review in sufficient time so that the recommendations could, as far as practicable, be taken into account by the Government when drafting the White Paper. The working party included representatives of local authorities, research establishments and people with special knowledge of the problems of environmental noise. The Government are most grateful for all the time and hard work that the chairman and the working party members put into that report. At this point, I want to echo the chairman's appreciation of the late Charlie Bayne, who was the secretary to the working party. He tragically died a few days after the group's final meeting. He was held in high regard for his tenacity and application by members of the working party and his colleagues in the Department. I am sure that all hon. Members would want to join me in expressing sympathy to Mr. Bayne's family.
The breadth of expertise and experience represented has resulted in a report that will play a most important part in influencing future development in noise policy. Indeed the noise section of the White Paper owes much to the emerging deliberation of the working party as its work progressed.
Having set the scene, I should now like to talk about existing and proposed new measures for dealing with noise. These comprise the reduction of noise at source; reducing exposure to noise; and the controlling of noise.
Much is being done to reduce noise at source. For example, the Government are constantly seeking ways of reducing noise from road vehicles. Tighter standards have reduced noise levels considerably over the past 10 years and it should be technically possible to reduce noise levels further for both cars and lorries. The Government are pressing for such significant reductions to be introduced across the EEC. The United Kingdom also took a leading role in new tighter EC standards for motor cycles and will follow that with new regulations to control the quality of silencers on the market.
It is important to make sure that vehicles continue to meet noise standards throughout their lifetime. It is already an offence to alter a silencer to make it louder, or to use a vehicle in a way that creates excessive noise. The Government are now examining the practicalities of introducing metered noise testing as part of the annual test and when inspecting vehicles at the road side.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
In the coming Session it is expected that at least two Bills will deal with 1025 traffic and road legislation. Is it possible that those Bills will contain clauses that will tighten controls, particularly on noisy motor cycles?
§ Mr. Trippier
It may not be necessary to introduce the regime to which I referred in primary legislation. It may simply be necessary to introduce it by regulation. It may also come about as a result of a European directive. The concern that I expressed, which is clearly shared by my hon. Friend, will be addressed one way or the other.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
As the author of the Motorcycle Noise Act 1987, I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister did not give full credit to that splendid piece of private Member's legislation.
My hon. Friend will remember, painfully perhaps, as will the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) that I bored the Standing Committee on the Environmental Protection Bill with endless attempts to get aircraft and vehicle noise and pollution into that Bill, but I failed. I did not detect much enthusiasm for my amendments among the Opposition Members any more than there was enthusiasm on the Government's part.
With regard to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart), is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that the Government will not contemplate legislating unless and until there is some Community agreement? Some of us believe that that might take a long time.
§ Mr. Trippier
I am not saying anything of the sort. My hon. Friend would be wrong to give the House the impression that he was in any way boring in Standing Committee. I clearly remember his superb speeches on this subject. Indeed, I could never forget them. It would be impossible to do that because the principal point that my hon. Friend was seeking to make was repeated on so many occasions. However, we hugely enjoyed the experience.
I do not believe that we have to wait for European legislation. I am simply saying that we may not require primary legislation. The problem could be tackled by regulation. However, we are determined to address the problem.
With regard to aircraft noise, modern jets are much quieter than their earlier counterparts and replacement of older jets by the latest models will continue to bring benefits. Older aircraft that fail to meet current noise requirements are now banned. Moreover, as from 1 November, the Government, together with other European countries, will ban our national airlines from acquiring aircraft that fail the latest requirements.
While not in the same noise league as a jumbo jet, the use of microlight aircraft was generating complaints, but the introduction of controls by the Government since 1984 has resulted in a substantial drop in the number of complaints and those controls seem likely to form the basis of forthcoming international regulations.
With regard to the specific points made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn), we have given a clear commitment in the White Paper to review the powers with respect to small airfields.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
Helicopters are extremely noisy. Surely this is the wrong time to consider building a new heliport in the City of London, which would disturb many people throughout 1026 London, particularly west of the City, if helicopters, which are particularly noisy and annoying, were to fly to Heathrow hundreds of times a day.
§ Mr. Trippier
I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the recommendation in the Batho report about helicopters, which the Government have said formally we shall seriously consider. I should obviously welcome any detailed advice or recommendations from my hon. Friend before we decide how to respond to the report.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
The comments made by the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) were interesting. He must realise that with talk of further extensions at Heathrow airport, even if aircraft noise levels are lower—something we all welcome—more aircraft will fly over residential areas such as my constituency. If that is not the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, it should he considered seriously by the Minister who is responsible for it.
§ Mr. Trippier
That would come under the responsibility of the Department of the Environment only in terms of the planning of any proposed extensions. The direct responsibility would belong to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
With regard to microlight aircraft, there seems to have been a spate of applications in the midlands, particularly in my constituency, for landing strips, which I suppose could be called airfields, to allow microlights to take off and land. Those applications have been made in country areas and areas of great natural beauty. From the remarks made earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister, do I understand it that detailed guidance from the Department of the Environment on the attitudes that should be taken by planning authorities when deciding whether to grant those applications must wait upon international regulations, or does the DOE intend to give earlier guidance to local authorities—which are at sixes and sevens about the matter—so that there can be greater certainty for applicants and objectors?
§ Mr. Trippier
Two issues are involved. First, the Department of the Environment was responsible for a code of practice that can be used as guidance, but not in terms of planning applications, which would have to be considered initially by the planning authorities. However, those could certainly come to Ministers on appeal and particularly to the Secretary of State. On the latter point, I should have to reserve comment because of the semi-judicial role in those matters of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The code of practice, which I am told has been received and respected internationally, is an enormous guide and a dramatic step forward. I undertake to send a copy of it to my hon. Friend tomorrow.
I now refer to more down-to-earth noises, as it were. There has been quite a bit of concern expressed about noise from alarms. I wish to make it quite clear that the Government believe that burglar alarms and car alarms should perform better. Although there is a code of practice relating to burglar alarms, it is only advisory.
The Government propose to introduce mandatory controls to require a 20-minute cut-off. Car alarms a re permitted to sound for five minutes, but often continue for longer and are prone to go off automatically. We are examining what can be done to improve matters.
1027 It is clearly desirable that, as far as possible, noise and people should be kept apart, and clearly the planning system has an important role to play. Planners need to consider the potential noise problems of locating factories, roads, airports and so on near existing houses and of locating new houses near existing noise sources. Government advice to planners on traffic, aircraft and industrial noise already exists but it is to be updated and extended to take account of a wider range of noise sources.
Of course, in a densely populated country such as ours it is not always possible to build, say, a new road without increasing noise levels to those already living in the area. However, the Government are especially concerned to see that all reasonable measures are taken when designing a new road to mitigate the impact on those living nearby.
In addition, noise insulation is available where noise levels remain high, as is compensation for depreciation in the value of houses caused by the use of the new road. The Government also recognise that the proposed widening of existing motorway routes could cause difficulties from increasing noise for those living nearby. As well as seeking design solutions where practical, it has been decided to assess eligibility for insulation as though a new road were being provided. That reflects the sentiment of the noise review working party.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
I trust that, when the legislation is introduced, it will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, when a new road is being built through a residential area, an assessment of noise levels should be made before work is undertaken so that there is no difficulty on the part of owner-occupiers in establishing their entitlement to compensation or a grant for insulation?
§ Mr. Trippier
I think that I am right in saying that in the abbreviated version of the White Paper, which has only recently been published, there is a photograph of such an investigation taking place and the monitoring of noise levels in an area that is to be considered—I choose my words very carefully—as a new road development. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I should have thought—again I choose my words carefully—that any forthcoming legislation would apply throughout the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
It is the constituency experience of many hon. Members that in modern schools, rather than older schools, the noise level is so absurd that it is impossible for a teacher to hear himself or herself teach in some of the new classrooms, even if a relatively small amount of noise is being made next door. Do the Government consider that to be a problem? If so, are they prepared to issue any regulations to try to improve the situation?
§ Mr. Trippier
I am pleased to say that the provisions to which I referred would be necessary and should be extended not only to schools but to hospitals.
Similarly, much can be done to reduce the impact of aircraft noise. One can provide noise insulation for those worst affected. There is a statutory requirement for the principal London airports to provide sound insulation to 1028 surrounding homes within a specified boundary—equivalent to the provision for roads. Elsewhere, insulation is discretionary, but all the major airports run similar insulation schemes.
Other measures include establishing noise preferential routes so that aircraft fly over the minimum number of people on take-off, and encouraging quiet landing procedures.
Before leaving aircraft noise, I should like to say a few words about military flying, as it has been the subject of considerable debate during the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill. Military flying, one has to accept, is intrinsically noisy. Pilots have to be trained to fly at low levels because that is what they need to do in operations. We can never be sure when our pilots will be called on to exercise those demanding skills—as the current situation in the middle east has shown—so constant practice is necessary. Simulators are used as much as possible, but, at present, no simulator provides a complete substitute for real flying.
Ways of reducing noise emissions are kept under review, but military aircraft are exceptional and there is no early prospect of transferring quiet engine technology into the military sphere. Nevertheless, the Government are very conscious of the need to do all that they can to reduce the environmental impact of military flying. The amount of flying is kept to a minimum and will continue to be reviewed as the options for change in the light of developments in eastern Europe are worked out. The heights and speeds flown in in training are controlled, and inhabited areas are avoided as far as possible so as to reduce the impact on people on the ground.
Similarly, noise around military airfields is kept as low as possible by prescribing flying circuits to avoid local centres of population and by ensuring that the ground running of engines is carried out under cover, in daylight hours and in the centre of airfields whenever possible. Not all disturbance can be avoided. For example, flightpaths are largely dictated by the fixed alignment of runways, but sound insulation grants are available for the occupants of homes near airfields that meet certain qualifying criteria. Also, offers to purchase are made to those worst affected.
§ Mr. Adley
I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is always the most courteous and helpful of Ministers. I apologise for interrupting him again.
Has it occurred to him—I am sure that it has—that most of the problems that he has discussed so far emanate from transport, the solution to which and the handling of which are the responsibility of the Department of Transport? Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the reasons why many of us have felt over the years that we have never successfully tackled the problems is that there is a dichotomy between the Department of Transport's responsibility as sponsoring the noisy transport and its apparent responsibility for coping with the problems that it raises? Will my hon. Friend consider designated areas in particular? At the moment, only the main London airports are designated airports. When one has problems anywhere else in the country, one writes to the airport concerned. If it replies, one will be lucky, but it will not do anything. It refers one to the local authority, which refers one to the Civil Aviation Authority, which refers one back to the operating airport. It is most unsatisfactory. Will my hon. 1029 Friend look at the legislation and try to liaise better with the Department of Transport to see whether we could have action on the problem? Nothing ever happens.
§ Mr. Trippier
I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I shall look at the matter. I must assure him that liaison between my Department and the Department of Transport has never been better. It would be difficult to get a razor blade between the two Departments. There is clear evidence of that in the White Paper.
As a result of the many appeals that my hon. Friend made to me in Committee when we considered the Environmental Protection Bill, he will have been the first to welcome the fact that the Batho committee examined aircraft noise. If I may pay my hon. Friend a personal tribute, he was consistent, assiduous and tenacious in asking for that review committee to study the matter.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I am not a Fife Member, but in the area of RAF Leuchars there are complaints that, if only the RAF would let the people round about know when terrain-following-equipment flying was likely to take place, life would be that much easier. My next point is blunt and anecdotal. There are complaints from civil pilots that they are not as well informed as they might be about military flying. For regular routes, that is a serious matter. I do not want to be alarmist, but there is a real problem.
§ Mr. Trippier
All that I can do is give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I shall draw what he has said to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.
Let me return from air to surface transport. I know that much concern has been expressed about the potential noise nuisance from possible new railway lines. In response, the Government announced last March the setting up of a committee to recommend a national noise insulation standard for new railway lines. Its remit is to recommend to the Government a standard that relates equitably to the standards set by regulations for new highways.
Sound insulation can and should play a vital role in the tackling of noise within buildings, and in tackling neighbourhood noise in general. Without adequate sound insulation in walls and floors, the transmission of noise between dwellings can lead to serious nuisance, and, in some extreme cases, can affect the health of the occupants. Where sound insulation is especially inadequate, nuisance can be caused even if the activities of the people causing the noise are not unreasonable.
In recognition of that potential problem, the building regulations for England and Wales impose sound insulation requirements on the design and construction of new homes. The Government are currently reviewing those requirements in the light of the responses to a consultation document that was issued in June.
The most significant likely change is the extension of the sound insulation requirements to cover flat conversions. That reflects the concern expressed by the noise review working party. In addition to that major change, the Government propose to improve the technical guidance issued in support of the regulations.
The Control of Pollution Act 1974 gives local authorities powers to set up noise abatement zones. They provide for local authorities to control noise levels in mixed residential and industrial or commercial areas. Their main aim is to control the creeping increase in noise 1030 levels resulting from many noise sources that individually do not amount to a nuisance. The Government will be looking into possible ways to simplify the procedures to encourage authorities to use them more.
Where there are local problems—such as neighbourhood noise—the Government believe that a co-operative approach is needed. So we are sponsoring a pilot "quiet neighbourhood" scheme. The key to success will be encouraging residents of an area to co-operate in drawing up a code of conduct and agreeing on reasonable behaviour, perhaps with time restrictions on noisy activities.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Let us imagine that, at some time in the near future, my hon. Friend the Minister extends royal Lancastrian hospitality to me and invites me up to his constituency. Let us further suppose that he gets a little excited during the evening, the music becomes rather loud and eventually—and unusually—his neighbours complain.
§ Mr. Squire
He may not have any after I have been there.
Let us suppose that, despite several entreaties, my hon. Friend does not turn the noise down. As he knows, there is nothing that the police can do, and little—beyond monitoring—that the environmental health officer can do. If, by contrast, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—who is even more charming—were to invite me to his stately pad and—unusually—we created an excessive din, the Scottish police would have direct responsibility and could take immediate action. In his discussions with the relevant Minister at the Home Office, will my hon. Friend please consider carefully before introducing legislation? Will he find out whether England and Wales can enjoy the protection and the guarantee of urgent action that has already been granted in Scotland?
§ Mr. Trippier
I give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, I go further and say that there is a recommendation about that in the Batho report. The Government have already undertaken to examine the matter carefully, and I think that we shall. I am aware of the problem, because constituents have drawn it to my attention in my surgeries.
§ Mr. Beggs
In my constituency, most of the complaints about noise concern people who operate ghetto blasters until all hours of the morning. As we are spending so much time and thought on the need to reduce the noise from vehicles, aircraft and so on, is not it time that we put some control on the amount of noise that can be emitted from wirelesses, record players and the like?
§ Mr. Trippier
I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point; it is an extension of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). If we are to respond positively to the Batho report, we need to concentrate on that.
We all need to be reminded from time to time to consider the amount of noise that we make. The Government give financial support to a number of bodies concerned with noise prevention. For example, the National Society for Clean Air produces teaching packs on noise for use in schools, thus encouraging an awareness of 1031 noise from an early age. Making a new generation conscious of the effects of noise could have a directly beneficial effect in years to come.
Of course, noise policy needs to be underpinned by research, and the Government carry out, or sponsor, a great deal. Trends in noise levels, the development of quieter road surface materials and investigation of low-frequency noise are just a few of the aspects being examined.
We all recognise that a great deal of the noise around us is the result of what most people would regard as legitimate activities.
§ Mr. Dalyell
We need to say more in the House about the trends of noise. When I first came here, we could normally hear a pin drop during Prime Minister's Question Time. However, we now get a bawling match every Tuesday and Thursday. Before we become too self-satisfied, perhaps we should register—without being priggish about it—that we do not set a great example.
§ Mr. Trippier
The hon. Gentleman has absolutely ruined the punch line of my speech, and I shall never forgive him for that as long as I draw breath. Someone had to say that we do not exactly set a superb example to the rest of the nation; I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman got in first.
The examples that I was—
§ Mr. Jessel
This is a serious matter. My hon. Friend, in reply to an intervention, has referred extensively to neighbourhood noise and amplified music. However, the Batho report shows that there are almost as many complaints about noise from dogs, which he has not mentioned at all. Dogs should receive far more attention in the House.
§ Mr. Trippier
I hoped that I should not even have to mention dogs today. I thought that I had been relieved of that enormous responsibility, but once again I have been proved wrong.
I am sympathetic, but it will be extremely difficult to frame the legislation whereby we clamp or clam up dogs in some way. We shall attempt to undertake the exercise; that is as much as I can say at this stage.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
This is my first and last intervention, because I know that my hon. Friend wants to finish, but it should go on the record that the problem in Luton is not dogs but cockerels. A practice is creeping into my constituency: cockerels are kept in urban areas, causing the utmost nuisance to residents when they start singing—as they do—between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning. If my hon. Friend is framing legislation, will he please include cockerels?
§ Mr. Trippier
The way of tackling the problem suggested by my hon. Friend stretches my credulity to the utmost. If he comes up with a suggestion that he would like to develop into a crusade, however, I have no doubt that the nation will be eternally grateful to him. It could play a significant part in his seeking re-election.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
I wonder whether I can briefly be of technical assistance to the Minister. The matter was debated on Radio 4 many months ago. If its perch is moved a little higher, the cockerel cannot throw its head in the air and make that alarming noise that wakes everyone up.
§ Mr. Trippier
From the strength and fervour of the earlier intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), it seems that there is probably not a perch high enough to conquer the problem with which he seeks to deal.
I insist on getting through another page before allowing another intervention. The examples that I was giving are lorries delivering goods to the local supermarket; the aeroplane taking us on holidays or taking a business man to an important meeting; and the quarry that provides raw materials to construct the very buildings in which we live and work.
While we must make every effort to ensure that such activities are carried out as quietly as possible, I suspect that the majority of people will have a greater readiness to tolerate a degree of noise if at least something positive results. For example, it may be impossible to carry out a manufacturing process without making some noise, but to a small town a factory may well represent many jobs and be an important factor in the local economy. On the other hand, it is surely the case that people will be far less tolerant of what they perceive as wholly unnecessary and inconsiderate noise. It is the very fact that much noise is considered as unnecessary that makes it more stressful to others.
Examples of that easily spring to mind, some of which have been mentioned. They include the unnecessary volume issuing from hi-fi equipment; the inconsiderate viewing of television late at night with the volume too high; the do-it-yourself enthusiast who carries out noisy work during unsocial hours, thus depriving his neighbour of much-needed sleep for the heavy day ahead; and the inconsiderate motorist who wakes up his neighbours in the morning. We all accept that some people have to get into work very early—but is it necessary to rev the engine as if one were in the pits at Brands Hatch?
While the Government's commitment to tackle all forms of noise remains undiminished—I have given that undertaking several times in response to interventions—Government action can do only so much. Action by individuals and community groups—particularly on neighbourhood noise—is also needed to help to cure many of the current problems through greater consideration for neighbours. I hope that as the matter is debated in the House, which does not set a superb example to the rest of the nation, all hon. Members will recognise that every individual in the land has a responsibility to ensure that unnecessary noise is avoided.
§ Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I am sorry that the Minister will not be here for the final paragraph of my speech. I should tell the House that he has already warned me that he will not be here for the end of my speech, for reasons that I fully accept. If he had stayed, he would have heard me, too, refer to the problems of noise from dogs and noise in this very House.
In a week in which environmental issues have dominated the business of the House, it is right that the 1033 final debate of the Session should be yet another environmental debate, this time on noise. Noise can be a problem, whether it be neighbourhood noise, noisy neighbours, loud music, parties, barking dogs, burglar alarms, car radios—the list is endless. It may be noise from traffic. Noise from unloaded heavy goods vehicles and lorries clattering over badly maintained roads is particularly had. It may be aircraft noise, unacceptably high levels of noise at work, or noise tolerated by those of us who live near to factories with machinery that constantly drones on through the night without respite. Often there is no adequate legislation to control such noise. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about voice pollution—perhaps the latest version of noise to make the headlines. It includes persistent background noise in open-plan offices where the next person may talk so loudly on the telephone, or type so loudly—they cannot help that—that one cannot concentrate or hear oneself think.
The standards of sound insulation in schools and hospitals have been referred to. Sometimes everyone can hear what everyone else is doing. Background noise, particularly at television and radio stations, can also be a problem. I have had representations from the staff who operate the BBC local radio service in Stoke-on-Trent.
All those different types of noise need abating, and abating quickly. People desperately need more peace and quiet. The anti-social actions of those whose noise causes health hazards—for health hazards they are—to others cannot be tolerated. The Government must deal with noise no differently from the way in which they deal with other forms of nuisance and environmental pollution. That is why the Government's failure to integrate fully noise abatement of all types into the Environmental Protection Bill is inexcusable. As we heard from the Minister, the Bill brings some welcome improvements. Local authorities' basic duty to investigate noise complaints has been clarified and we welcome that. We also welcome the increase in fines from £2,000 to £20,000, to which the Minister referred. Of course, that is welcome. But a Government who really cared about environmental protection would not have stood for a half-hearted measure on noise. They would have had the foresight to get their working party on noise off the ground soon enough to make sure that the recently published findings of the Batho noise review working party were available in good time to be integrated fully into the only piece of environmental legislation that we are likely to have this side of a general election.
None the less, we welcome the proposals in the Batho report. Despite what we heard from the Minister about the White Paper, the report is much firmer in tone and more detailed in its proposals for improving noise control than the White Paper on the environment. Will the Minister or the Under-Secretary who replies say precisely what resources will be available to local authorities to enable them to implement in full the Batho recommendations?
We warmly welcome the proposal that local authorities should take all reasonable steps to investigate complaints about neighbourhood noise. Such noise is intolerable. Certainly councils should keep offices open to deal with noise complaints at weekends and in the evenings. This afternoon the Secretary of State made an announcement about the new formula for the standard spending assessment. We heard how little he has taken into account basic environmental services. Therefore, I wonder how 1034 local councils will find the money to employ the environmental health officers to provide a service at weekends and in the evenings.
There is the prospect of further capping, whether we know the rules in advance or not and whether, as the Secretary of State suggested, councils could in effect volunteer for capping. None of what we heard explained where the money would come from to pay for the improvements. It seems that the extra duties will not be self-financing, so where does that leave noise in the priority rating for the formula used to arrive at the SSA for a local authority and consequently the amount of expenditure that it can afford?
§ Mr. John Carlisle
Perhaps the hon. Lady is a little pessimistic about the new legislation outlined by the Minister. She will be aware that, like her, I represent an urban constituency with exactly the same problems. Hopefully, when fines and penalties are imposed on offenders the terrible problems will begin to be corrected. Therefore, the number of officers required—I agree that at present it is considerable—by definition will fall as noise is dealt with. It is up to everyone to ensure that the legislation works and that fines discourage people from having noisy parties.
§ Ms. Walley
That was a useful intervention. It showed that we must take into account long term as well as short term considerations. However, it is no good having plans to deal with the problem in the long term when some money has been generated if there is no way of dealing with the problem in the short term. Does the Under-Secretary have any idea of the costs and the work involved in dealing with noise from weekend parties, which is the main source of complaints? In case he does not know, I shall tell him what is involved. A proper service must take full account of the findings of the detailed report of the London strategic policy unit on the operation of weekend noise services. That report found that there were wide variations between local authorities. The hon. Gentleman's intervention suggests that that must be taken into account. We do not want differing noise standards; we want standard implementation. It is important that the Under-Secretary is aware of the code of practice that environmental health officers helped to draw up in 1988.
If a weekend service is to be provided, it is necessary to train people to do the job, which costs money. Officers must often work in pairs for safety reasons. The complainant must be interviewed and the procedure must be followed up by issuing a warning letter. If there is a second incident, that must be followed up by a statutory notice, again involving costs. If there is a third incident, a prosecution notice must be issued. If a proper weekend service were provided, it could cost as much as £60,000 to £65,000 a year on top of all the other environmental health costs of local authorities.
§ Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)
Does the hon. Lady agree that if a party is taking place, no matter how many environmental health officers there are, they do not have the power to end it? Does she agree that it is not just a question of the number of officers but that the matter goes well beyond that?
§ Ms. Walley
The hon. Lady is right and she should make those representations to the Under-Secretary of State. If there is a noisy party, it does not matter how many 1035 officers there are if none is on the end of an emergency telephone line at 5 am or midnight on a Friday or a Saturday night to deal with the complaint then and to follow it up subsequently. My point is that after dealing with the initial complaint there is a tremendous amount of follow-up work. As hon. Members will be aware, it is not part of the normal contract of an environmental health officer to work extra hours at the weekend or to work night shifts on Friday and Saturday nights. Immediately we are talking about contractual overtime commitments and overtime pay for staff.
Many late-night parties occur in inner-city estates which have a distinct shortage of amenity and community facilities. Does the Under-Secretary of State agree that there should be sound-proofed facilities to provide suitable venues for late-night parties? I see him smiling, but if more community facilities were provided it would meet the needs of people to find a place to go for social entertainment.
Earlier in the debate there was a useful intervention about the different practices in Scotland. Under Scottish legislation equipment causing the noise offence can be confiscated. I should welcome it if the Government took on board the proposals in our alternative White Paper which make provision for that.
How will the Government implement the working party's recommendations on noise abatement zones so that they can be used far more effectively? If the proposed neighbourhood watch scheme pilot project is a success—I noted that the Minister said that there would be only one—are there proposals for a comprehensive system throughout the country or are we to see a wide variation in standards? Which areas has the Under-Secretary of State chosen for the pilot project?
Clearly, the proposals to revise the planning and noise circular 10/73 and to amend the related legislation are given a high priority in the Batho report and could make a big difference. Precisely when will the Minister introduce them? When he considers the changes, will he take into account not only the paper prepared by the Building Research Establishment, but the commendable report produced by Labour-controlled Norwich city council's environmental health department which is entitled "Guidance Notes on the Sound Insulation of Party Walls and Party Floors in Converted Dwellings"? It is one of many examples of good practice from Labour-controlled councils.
Norwich is concerned about the growing problems of noise disturbance to neighbouring property which frequently arise when terraced or semi-detached dwellings are subdivided. I am well aware of the council's anxiety because it mentioned that to me in great detail when I visited the city earlier this year. Sound sound insulation should be fully incorporated in planning conditions. Does the Minister agree that he should now take urgent steps to introduce better standards of home insulation sooner rather than later?
Despite what the Minister has said about steps to deal with noise pollution caused by transportation, the Government's credibility is exhausted. There is a complete lack of a comprehensive transport policy, which is typical of the Government's ad hoc approach to policy making. Energy saving automatically includes noise reduction 1036 implications. All the threads need to be pulled together before noise pollution can be satisfactorily tackled. It is all very well for the Minister to say that one could not get a razor blade between him and the Secretary of State for Transport, but how far have the Government gone to put across these tighter standards on noise to the Department of Transport? Does the Minister intend to redefine "premises" under section 105(1) of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 to include the highway? Noise from traffic is estimated to be the most widespread source of noise nuisance. It must be tackled by developing quieter vehicles, road and traffic management, comprehensive planning and measures to compensate those who are adversely affected. Obviously that has staffing implications.
There should be measures and compensation available to deal with excess noise. At present there is no coherent system covering the various modes of transport. There must be a common measure—a standard form of assessment. Compensation across the board should be made a fundamental right. There must be an extension of rights to cover problems caused by the increase in traffic creating noise nuisance. Existing regulations detail no grants or compensation if a road is changed into a major thoroughfare. When the Channel tunnel opens up the railways to increased freight traffic, especially at night, those who live near existing lines will not be entitled to help.
I understand that the Department of Transport has a working party looking at the implications of rail traffic on new lines, but existing lines are not included. Perhaps the Minister could liaise with his counterpart in the Department of Transport to ensure that full consideration is given to that problem.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
The hon. Lady has talked at some length about grants, compensation and so on. Has she costed them and, if so, what figure has she come up with?
§ Ms. Walley
The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to those issues which need to be addressed. At this stage it is important to consider the proposals and how far the "polluter pays" principle can be taken on board.
We welcome the Government's decision, albeit a delayed one, to include aircraft in the terms of reference of the noise working party. The Minister referred to his announcement halfway through proceedings on the Environmental Protection Bill to extend the working party's terms of reference. Nevertheless, not enough has been done to bring together the issues for which the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport have overlapping responsibility.
Aircraft noise, particularly for those who live near airfields, is an extreme nuisance. The Government still do not seem to have accepted the detail of aircraft noise pollution recommendations and I await with interest the provisions of the planning Bill which is expected to be announced in the Queen's Speech.
I could not agree more about the problems associated with undesignated airfields. Small airfields must be covered by proposals acting against nuisance. There is a particular problem with existing legislation in that ground activities are excluded from existing controls. Although 1037 large airfields cope with the noise generated by ground testing and engine maintenance, the same is not true of small airfields.
As we have already heard, even in built-up areas there is an increasing problem with helicopters. Planning permission is not needed for some landing sites.
§ Mr. Jessel
The hon. Lady questioned the credibility of the Government regarding aircraft noise. I should remind her that the Government have done far more than any other Government to control aircraft noise, particularly at Heathrow. They stopped the fifth terminal at Heathrow, as well as the Heathrow to Gatwick helicopter link, and sharply curtailed the number of night flights at Heathrow. The previous Labour Government did practically nothing to control aircraft noise. I bet that the hon. Lady cannot think of anything positive that they did.
§ Ms. Walley
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I have no intention of making this debate on noise a slanging match between hon. Members on either side of the Chamber.
It is most important for the Government to find ways to deal with the many issues related to helicopter noise as there is no doubt that greater controls are necessary. Reference was made to that in the Batho report, and the Government must tell us how they intend to introduce such controls.
I share the Minister's concern about the problems created by military aircraft, which I am sure we are all aware are increasing in many constituencies. We agree with the Government that the noise generated by military aircraft must be kept under review and that something should be done to abate at least some of it.
It is also important to consider the problem of noise in the workplace. I am aware that that topic was conveniently excluded from the review on the ground that separate controls exist. Why do not the Government recognise that they cannot deal with noise abatement effectively unless they act across the board? The Government have already extended the terms of reference of the working party to include aircraft noise and they should similarly extend them to include noise in the workplace. The Government should ensure that minimum criteria and standards are applied to the Departments of Employment and Trade and Industry. Those criteria should also have some bearing on the work of the Health and Safety Executive.
The plain truth is that noise regulations to protect the hearing of industrial workers are being ignored, despite the fact that 1.7 million people are exposed to noise levels that put them at risk of suffering permanent deafness. Why is it that only 0.5 per cent. of the notices served under health and safety at work regulations in 1988–89 concerned noise even though 1,515 sufferers won occupational disease awards because of deafness? The resources of the Health and Safety Executive are inadequate to deal with the problem. Does the Minister agree with the head of the noise at work unit at Sandy Brown Associates that the improved regulations which came into force in January have not had much effect? That was not the intention behind the European directive.
This is deaf awareness week, and, in this week of all weeks, does the Under-Secretary agree with trade unions, including the General Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union and the Transport and General Workers Union, that there should be a requirement on employers to 1038 offer hearing tests to employees working in noisy surroundings? What advice is the Minister willing to give to ministerial colleagues on noise at source? Does he accept that there are no common procedures in the national health service for carrying out hearing tests? Has he any idea of the length of the waiting lists of those seeking treatment from an ear, nose and throat specialist?
The statistics show that, in 1975, there were 6,325 complaints about noise. In 1987, the figure had increased sharply to 59,132. No number of statistics can reveal the amount of suffering and irritation caused to those who must put up with unacceptable noise levels. The Government could have done far more to give wider powers and greater resources to enable local authorities and industry to reduce noise at source and to take enforcement action when needed. The Government should consider re-establishing the now disbanded Noise Advisory Council. In that context I pay tribute to the Batho working party for its report. That working party was set up in the wake of the Noise Advisory Council.
We need a national strategy capable of addressing all forms of noise, a strategy which will, by example, encourage people to be considerate about the noise they make.
We heard something earlier about barking dogs and I do not know whether the Government acknowledge that they still have a problem on their hands concerning dog registration—certainly some of us were expecting a vote about that tonight. The Government had better be warned because a survey conducted by the Building Research Establishment found that amplified music was the cause of 34 per cent. of complaints, but 33 per cent. of complaints related to dogs.
The Government should take note that we and the long-suffering public are every bit as determined to press for overdue action on noise abatement as we are to take necessary action against irresponsible dog owners.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
I welcome the fact that the Government have allocated a full day to this debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) that the Government have taken far more care and have followed a far more coherent and effective policy on noise than any of their predecessors.
I want to discuss railway noise in the light of the fact that the opening of the channel tunnel is less than three years away. I am not seeking to be hostile about the channel tunnel project, and I recognise the imperitive need for sensible rail use of that important national infrastructure. I am concerned, however, because the present legislation on compensation for noise and on noise insulation will, without doubt, be glaringly anomalous and unfair from the moment that the channel tunnel opens in 1993.
I can best illustrate my argument by referring to how the present legislation affects my constituency. Two existing railway lines in my constituency and one other proposed line will serve the channel tunnel. The southernmost line, the Tonbridge and Paddock Wood line, is one of the two designated rail routes that will lead to the channel tunnel. Once the tunnel is open and until the new line is built, that line will carry the major proportion of through international passenger and freight traffic. Once the tunnel opens, the tranquillity enjoyed by those people 1039 who, unfortunately, live in close proximity to that track will be severely curtailed. Rail traffic noise will especially increase during sleeping hours.
On the freight traffic alone it is forecast that one international through freight train will pass Tonbridge station every 20 minutes between 10 pm and 6 am, seven days a week. Those trains will travel at 75 mph, will be approximately half a mile in length and will take half a minute to pass a given point. Those who live in the houses that back on to Tonbridge station face precious few night rail movements at present, but such is the forecast increase in noise levels.
Because legislation does not permit compensation or noise insulation to be obtained as a result of the intensification of an existing use without new work being carried out, as defined under the Land Compensation Act 1961, the people involved will have no compensation, even though the value of their homes will certainly depreciate hugely. The value of their homes will probably have depreciated already, but those people will have no statutory entitlement to noise insulation either.
A few miles to the north is the second designated route to the channel tunnel, the Maidstone East line. British Rail has already introduced a Bill—the British Railways (No. 3) Bill—into another place to give itself powers to construct a number of new passing loops along the line to accommodate channel tunnel traffic. One of the loops is in Borough Green in my constituency. It is a good illustration of the absurdity and unfairness of the present statutory position, because those houses immediately adjacent to the new loops that are to be constructed will be eligible for compensation and statutory noise insulation under the Land Compensation Act. However, a few yards further on, where the loop converges with the existing line, similarly placed houses suffering identical noise pollution will have no statutory entitlement either to compensation or noise insulation.
It will be appreciated that my constituency is totally criss-crossed by rail routes to the channel tunnel, between which there is also a major road. A few miles to the north of the second route is the path of the new rail link as designated under present proposals. For the purposes of the Land Compensation Act, that is new work, so any house along that section will be entitled to compensation and noise insulation as a result of noise pollution.
Therefore, within a section of very few miles, there is one proposed line along which everybody will get compensation for, and noise insulation against, noise disturbance if they are eligible, another line where only those living on a loop will be entitled to compensation and a third line where no one will receive anything. That is clearly absurd and, more importantly, it is seriously unfair and inequitable for a number of individuals.
No doubt the issue of precedents has already been raised with Ministers, both in the Department of the Environment and, more directly, in the Department of Transport, which is closely considering the issue. No doubt it will be said by those given responsibility for advising Ministers that if they concede the precedent of giving compensation and noise insulation for noise disturbance because of the intensification of existing use, they will have to grant them for every intensification of an existing use. I do not accept that argument and I earnestly 1040 hope that Ministers will not either. Setting such a precedent would not lead to the granting of that concession in all circumstances, because this is a totally unique position.
There is only one channel tunnel and only two designated rail routes to it. To the best of my knowledge, a completely new huge source of rail traffic, with all its noise implications, has never been discharged on to existing rail routes that have been lightly used, particularly at night, in this country. Therefore, it is right to look at the circumstances and not be mesmerised by a specious argument about precedent.
§ Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich)
I correct my right hon. Friend on one point. The circumstances are not unique. Exactly the same sort of thing happened in Ipswich when the Ipswich-Felixstowe railway line, originally just a passenger line to a seaside town, became the conduit for massive freight trains from Felixstowe to Ipswich. Those trains caused considerable upset, disturbance and unhappiness to a significant number of people living nearby. Therefore, I correct my right hon. Friend on that point but I sympathise with and support his argument.
§ Sir John Stanley
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me his local background. We cannot change the past but if, in future, there should be a similar scale of sudden noise disturbance from a new source of railway traffic onto an existing route, it would be entirely justified and equitable to adopt a similar policy to that which I hope will be used in relation to the existing lines which, it is proposed, channel tunnel traffic should use.
Ministers are exercised about the issue of precedent—I know of one direct precedent for giving both compensation and noise insulation for the intensification of an existing use. I know about it because I was the Minister responsible for putting it into effect. I was well assisted by my hon. Friend, then Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, now happily strategically placed as the Minister of State, Department of Transport. Exactly the same issue was raised when Tornado aircraft were deployed to RAF Leeming, which was an ongoing operational RAF air station being used for flying. There was no doubt that the deployment of Tornado aircraft would dramatically damage the environment and cause intrusive noise pollution in the immediate flight path of RAF Leeming. We decided that the right course was to pay compensation for the depreciation in value of, and buy out at their full market value, the houses that had effectively become valueless and, where necessary, give noise pollution protection.
I stress that a precedent has been created in the Ministry of Defence for dealing with precisely the same circumstances. My constituents face the railway equivalent of a Tornado deployment. It will create a reasonable parallel in railway terms when the channel tunnel opens to through passenger and freight traffic in 1993.
The merits of the case are that, for many years, certainly since the Land Compensation Act was passed, we have accepted that it is only fair and reasonable that when the value of someone's main asset, invariably the home, is seriously diminished because of a major piece of national infrastructure, the individual should not suffer a crippling loss because something needed by the nation as a whole has to be built. That is the position with the channel tunnel and of those people with homes alongside existing 1041 designated rail routes. It cannot be right, in equity or morality, for the value of homes to be slashed by half or two thirds or possibly even made valueless because the nation wants the channel tunnel and wants it to be used for through rail traffic, as it should be.
A real moral obligation is involved and I am glad that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department of Transport have recognised that, to the extent that they are considering whether compensation and noise insulation can be granted for the intensification of railway use created by the channel tunnel project. I hope that the Minister will draw my remarks to their attention and that, when the Government announce their conclusion at the end of the year, it will be a positive one, because that is the only conclusion that would be fair and reasonable in the circumstances for the relatively small number of people who are affected.
§ 7.1 pm
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
We have been treated to two speeches by Front-Bench spokesmen which were reasonable and constructive and which will lead to major improvements in legislation in the next Session. It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) was interrupted by a contribution that seemed a repetition of the sort of meaningless mantras of accusation and counteraccusation which so often fill this place and are themselves an example of noise pollution.
§ Mr. Jessel
If the hon. Gentleman happens to be referring to my intervention, I must point out that I was picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), who questioned the credibility of the Government in dealing with noise, including aircraft noise. I merely pointed out the excellent record of the Government, which had not been an echo of what went before under the Labour Government. That was a legitimate point to make.
§ Mr. Flynn
I thank the hon. Gentleman for illustrating my point so well again.
My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to the Dalek-like braying at Question Time. It has its positive aspects, however. I know that one of my colleagues who represents a Welsh constituency was grateful for the habit. He purchased a sound tape of an Adjournment debate that he had had at 4 am one day and took it home to his mother, who listened to it admiringly, not realising that he was addressing yards of empty leather. She called in the neighbours and told them to listen to it "When the Prime Minister and the others speak, there is a lot of talking and laughing going on; but when my son speaks you can hear a pin drop."
We have long underestimated the damage that noise inflicts when it bombards our ear drums. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned industrial noise. Many years ago I worked in a nail factory on the docks in Cardiff, where we were bombarded by deafening noise from dozens of nail-making machines. That was a terrible experience. The noise was so intense that the only way to communicate was to shout at the top of one's voice within a few inches of someone's eardrum. Thousands of people who worked in that factory are now permanently disabled as a result.
1042 We now have the answers. There is no excuse left, but, sad to say, there are still irresponsible employers who allow bad conditions to persist. Some people, too, have little respect for or knowledge about their health and continue to work in damaging conditions.
We have an extraordinary threshold of tolerance of noise. When wartime evacuees went from places such as Liverpool or London to Welsh villages they could not sleep because they were disturbed by the intensity of the silence. It very much depends on the level of background noise to which we are used. It puzzles many of my generation that we have bred a generation of young people who seem to need an endless drip-feed of pop music—who cannot function unless their heads are continually enveloped in a cloud of noise.
But it is sporadic, unforeseen and uncontrolled noise that perturbs us. I refer to formidable and all-pervading intrusive noise nuisance which, when it enters our homes and gardens, trespasses on our peace and violates the private space that we all need around us. I refer to traffic noise, noise from neighbours, noise from night clubs which pour out their megadecibels just when children are going to sleep. Then there is the endless, repetitive barking of dogs and heavy metal music coming from the gardens of neighbours, fracturing our peace and obliterating the sound of bird song. A particularly irritating source of noise is quite new. It comes from the yuppy in the train thundering fatuous messages in a megaphone voice to his secretary on his mobile phone.
Motor bikes are a problem in my constituency, which is ringed by beautiful hills. They are a great nuisance on the roads, but they are excruciating in the countryside, especially when they cavort on the tops of hills, where the macho status of the rider seems to be measured by the number of excess decibels that he can blast out. I remember when transistor radios first arrived to assault our ears. Some poor tormented soul was driven to invent a retaliatory device that he could carry in his pocket and which, when pressed, would turn off the sound of any transistor in earshot.
I know that we are likely to hear many practical suggestions as a result of the Batho report and the coming legislation, but I should have thought it within our wonderful technical power to devise a battery of anti-noise weapons—for example one that could cross the lines of a mobile phone. I have given up hope of breeding a species of dog with an off-switch or volume control, but dogs have been bred in all sorts of mutated forms, some of them damaging to the dogs themselves. The irritant factor consists in the fact that the smaller the dog, the more piercing and worrying its bark. Perhaps we could look to the dog breeders to breed dogs that make less irritating noise.
I should like a zapping device for burglar alarms to silence them, or a device to change the bedlam of heavy metal to the sounds of Pavarotti. Unfortunately, however, one person's Pavarotti is another person's pain in the ear.
I doubt whether burglar alarms are of any use a t all. I have twice experienced burglar alarms going out of control. One erupted into deafening life because there was a break of a few seconds in the electricity supply. That sent out a pulse that caused the thing to ring. I tried everything to silence it—first switching off the electric switch at the mains, which did no good; then dismantling the box inside the house and taking out the battery in it, which did no good either. Then I dismantled the wiring inside the box: 1043 still no peace. One of the dogs joined in the cacophony because it could stand the noise no longer. In the end the only way to silence the alarm was to get a ladder and go up to the box outside, dismantle it and take out the battery.
I had a similar experience a few weeks ago before returning from the recess. Again, a cut in the electricity supply where I live set off a flashing light on top of the building. We could not turn it off for two whole days. The cacophony on the previous occasion lasted for hours and we live in Newport within 200 yards of the main police station, but not a soul took any notice of the noise, least of all the police. It is doubtful whether burglar alarms have any beneficial—
§ Mr. Summerson
May I recommend a good way of dealing with burglar alarms? All the hon. Gentleman needs to do is to obtain a spade, and a good job can be made of slicing the alarm off the wall with one upward sweep of the spade.
§ Mr. Flynn
I am grateful for that advice, but I should need a spade with a rather long handle as my flat is about 60 ft off the ground—but I shall remember that and keep one handy.
The message sent out by burglar alarms that are out of control is one of invitation to the burglar. As no one takes any notice of them they act as an invitation to theft, not as a deterrent.
Car alarms seem to have a life of there own. They screech into life for no apparent reason and seem to be out of control. The Minister suggested a five-minute burst but 20 seconds should be the maximum.
It is disappointing that the Government are not acceding to the advice offered by the Select Committee on Defence. I say that in a typical non-party spirit. Low-flying aircraft greatly disturb people in many parts of Wales that are otherwise tranquil. They are a terrible nuisance and the tearing, screeching noise comes on suddenly and is greatly upsetting. I am sure that the Select Committee on Defence had taken all the defence implications into account when it advised that the RAF should abandon low flying down to 100 ft. I understand from reports in this morning's press that the Government do not intend to accept that recommendation.
I hope that the debate and the recommendations will give rise to reforms and new regulations that we shall all be able to welcome. We look forward to the time when there will be peace. Fiat pax. Bydded tawelwch. Let there be peace.
§ Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)
We are not often afforded the luxury of a whole evening's debate on an issue that is dear to the hearts of my constituents. I intend to take full advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to a problem that we have had to live with for many years. It is the problem of serious noise pollution and it was referred to by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) who spoke about noisy parties and blues parties. I am worried about the level of expectation that the debate will arouse among my constituents and among those who live in inner-city areas. 1044 They will be delighted at our opportunity to debate noise but if nothing comes from it there will be tremendous disappointment.
In the past 12 months we have had many debates on the environment. We have debated the Environmental Protection Bill and before us is the working party review on noise. We have had a White Paper and no doubt there is another environment Bill in the pipeline. Such high priority by the Government is welcome. In the past 12 months there has been ample scope to legislate in areas that are most crucial to improving the quality of life of our constituents. Such issues are also a Government priority, as we have proved.
In order to make progress on problems resulting from noise pollution, Departments will have to work more closely together. Earlier we heard about the need for Environment Ministers to work more closely with Transport Ministers. I am keen to see the Home Office working closely with the Department of the Environment. Although many of the issues that I shall raise do not directly affect the Department of the Environment, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board and deliver them carefully and in a committed way to his colleagues in the Home Office.
The absence of a recommendation in the working party report to make deliberate, sustained and excessive noise a criminal offence worries me. In spite of all the debate over past months, we are in danger of failing yet again to tackle one of the most serious issues undermining the quality of life in inner cities and causing untold anguish to residents who have to live with our failure to legislate effectively.
Noise pollution caused by blues parties and noisy parties, often held in semi-detached houses in residential areas, has proved dreadful. More often than not such parties are held in council properties. The problem is far from new. Blues parties have been with us for about 30 years, especially in urban areas such as London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Manchester. I could add to that list. Successive Governments have merely tampered with the issue and have consistently failed to bring forward specific legislation giving the police or another body the authority to take immediate action to stop noisy parties.
The latest figures at my disposal for the west midlands relate to 1988. They record 4,412 incidents with a noisy party classification. I regret to say that 773 of those incidents took place in Wolverhampton. The local authority at that time issued 40 noise notices. Already between January and September this year 36 notices have been served under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. As I have said, the problem is not peculiar to Wolverhampton and the west midlands. I would resist any attempt, such as that made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, to set up a recognised formal location in which such parties could be held. I know that my constituents who live with this problem would resist such a proposal at all costs.
Why did the Government act so swiftly to legislate to deal with the relatively new problem of acid parties? The parties are held in rural areas and more often than not they are not held in residential homes but out in the wilds in warehouses or similar places. We strengthened the law in that respect but disappointed my constituents by not acting more rigorously to improve the quality of life of our inner-city residents by acting on noisy parties.
In January 1990, the Department of the Environment wrote to my local council. Hon. Members who know me 1045 well will know that I do not often agree with that Labour-controlled council. However, we are at one on the problem of noisy parties. The DOE letter stated:Although the Environmental Protection Bill does present an opportunity to consolidate into a single code the various definitions of statutory nuisance—including noise—it was never the intention that the Bill be used at all to introduce major changes to noise legislation. Whilst I appreciate that you will be disappointed that there will be no more new noise provisions in the Bill the Government believes that a thorough review to identify what further measures are necessary is, on balance, preferable to suggesting clauses that would not have been subjected to a reasonably wide consultation.My retort to that is, "And so say all of us."
With bated breath, and after many years of waiting for action, we awaited the conclusions of the working party which are now before us. I turned to the chapters on noise, especially neighbourhood and entertainment noise, because problems about those matters fill my mail bag. When I read those chapters my heart sank. It was a little bit like reading the guide to the noise complaints procedure. I was given that guide and told to show it to my constituents. I have no doubt that it contains much good information, but if I gave it to my constituents as an answer to the problem of noise they would laugh at me and say, "That is the theory but please deal with the practice." Time and again, a great deal of theory has been proved not to work in practice. With the greatest of respect, while I believe that the working party did its best to be constructive, I must point out to it that we have been there, we have seen it and we have done it. Its proposals give little hope of a solution to our problems.
We have looked at neighbourhood noise watch. The environmental health officers have looked at night time patrols and weekend patrols. We have set up working parties involving the police and environmental health officers, and they have all worked to ensure that they know the guidelines and the law. However, the problem is how to produce a solution from what is available. I could fill the Chamber with Wolverhampton constituents who could testify from first-hand experience that even if the law were amended by the proposals of the working party, that would not increase the powers of those responsible for putting an end to the blues and noisy parties when they are in full flight.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
Does Wolverhampton have the same problem that we have in Luton, with blues parties in which large numbers of people participate? In many cases, when the police are called, there are either insufficient numbers of police to cope with the problem or the police are frightened to go in to break up the parties because of the ensuing mayhem. In some cases, the police will be accused of stopping people enjoying themselves. We have now reached the dangerous situation where police almost back off in fear of life and limb from these parties, let alone of the backlash that results.
§ Mrs. Hicks
Police cannot gain access in many cases, and if they choose a sensitive moment to go in, they have to have a reason for doing so.
It is time that the House listened to the people who suffer. Working parties are good. They provide the theory, but we need constructive action based on that foundation. I have the example of Mr. John White, an 81-year-old heart attack and stroke victim who lives in a Wolverhampton block of flats where a blues party took 1046 place this year. Most of the residents in the block are elderly, so perhaps the housing manager is wrong for allowing a mix of young and old in a block of high-rise flats, but that is another point.
Mr. White lives below the flat where the party went on for three days and nights solidly. He said:I felt like committing suicide, the noise was so loud—I wanted to go up there but I was too scared.At the age of 81, he was quite right not to tackle 200 or 300 people, but he needs someone to do it for him.
I know how I feel about noise in flats. I have a humble little abode in London, to which I return late at night. The only good thing about this place sitting until the early hours is that if I get home at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, I have only to endure a couple of hours of the noisy record player below me, which goes off at about 3 o'clock. As 1 lie there, willing it to end, I think of that man and others like him who have to endure not one hour or one record but 200 or 300 people, amplified music and so on, for 71 hours. It is hard for us to imagine such a situation.
People living in a semi-detached house can watch 200 or 300 people pouring into the next-door house for days on end. They can watch the hot dog stall arrive outside to set up business. Meanwhile, the neighbours try to get children to sleep. They endure the associated problems of prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse and so on. When the party finally ends, they are left with the debris and the glass.
§ Mrs. Hicks
I agree with my hon. Friend. The people who have to deal with the parties have to watch the fights in the street, people urinating, car loads coming and going. They wonder why someone is not doing something about this.
I have to report the frustration of the residents, the police, the local authority enforcement officers and the local Member of Parliament—me—who is asked why something is not being done about the problem. The problem is that when these people phone the police, they are told that the police have no right of entry. Often, they are in a disturbed and angry state, and they believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) hinted, that the police are looking for excuses not to intervene. That is dangerous because, more often than not, that is not the case. I have a lot of dealings with police in my town and they point out to me that they are not permitted to go into a house.
When there are complaints about noisy parties, the only solution is to go through all the rigmarole of getting an environmental health officer to serve an abatement notice, but that does not mean that the party will stop immediately. The notice says that the noise should slop within 30 minutes, and if it does not, the prosecution can proceed and the case will go to the courts two or three months later. Meanwhile, the party goes on for two or three days and the enforcement officer and the police cannot go in.
There is often a problem in indentifying the person holding the party. In many incidents, people have borrowed keys claiming that they want to rent a property, taken a copy of the keys and then held a party in that property. Unfortunately, my local council has so many empty properties that it is easy for parties to be held in this 1047 way. It does not seem to matter that there is no electricity because people install generators in the steet. They have an answer to everything.
A leading policeman in Wolverhampton said something about this in October 1987—that far back—and I quote him because it is often said that the police do not want more powers and this shows that they do. He said:Blues parties are the greatest potential source of serious disorder that we have got in this borough. We are defeated in terms of noisy parties—the law doesn't provide any answer. It is the worst problem we've got.Wolverhampton council and the police have worked closely to overcome the problem and to look for solutions, but they do not have the power to stop the noise immediately. How can the Government say, hand on heart, that controls on neighbourhood noise are already sufficiently tough?
Earlier in the year I received a letter from a member of my party who wrote to me complaining of this problem and asking me to check whether the police were simply looking for excuses. I received a reply from the Home Office which said:I understand that one of Mrs. Hicks' constituents had written to say that they had complained to the police about noise from a neighbour's house, only to be told that the police had no powers to put a stop to it.We can confirm that this is correct. The police have no statutory powers of entry where the problem is simply one of noise.The use of "simply" is surely an understatement. The letter continues:Sometimes, provided the person making the complaint has already asked his neighbour to desist and has been ignored, the police will ask a householder to keep the noise down.They have no power to enforce that request. The police say, "Please turn the music down," but the party continues. The letter adds:in practice the majority of people will comply.We have heard something about cloud cuckoo land recently, and I suggest that the letter is another example of that. It continues:The only recourse open to your constituent under statute is through the Control of Pollution Act 1974.It seems that at that stage there is an invitation to go round in circles yet again. The letter adds:If the noise does not stop"—obviously, we are not talking of one isolated party—the complainant can, with the support of two other people, approach the local authority for a noise abatement notice. If subsequent to this the noise still continues then the person responsible for it can be prosecuted.We are back to square one.
After a thorough study of the practicalities of the problem, I am convinced that the police need the authority to enter premises. I shall be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister if he takes up that message. The police should be able to enter premises and effectively stop the party. If necessary, they should be able to arrest the organisers and remove the offending audio equipment, drink, generators and other items. The police should have the power to request party organisers to abate the noise. If the request is ignored, the police should have the power to enter the premises by force, if necessary, and stop the party there and then.
These powers may appear to many to be draconian. Two or three years ago, even the police in my constituency would have argued that they were not needed. It is for 1048 legislators, however, to include conditions with police powers and to provide safeguards. It may be considered that local authority representatives and environmental health officers are present when the police go to premises where parties of the sort that I have described are taking place. As they all work closely together to curb the problem, there is no reason why local authority representatives and EHOs should not be present when a request is made to a party organiser to stop the activity. I am sure that after one or two closures the message would begin to reach home. The organisers might then adopt a more co-operative approach than at present.
At the moment, party organisers are laughing at us. They are getting away with murder, as it were, and they know it. Those who organise blues parties—often on a semi-commercial basis—are often awkward and uncooperative. They have no regard for the welfare and well-being of those living around the premises which are being used for the party. Often they are strangers to the area.
Are we on the side of the offenders or on the side of the general public? I say to those who argue that we should not give powers to the police that they are on the side of offenders.
Another letter from the Department of the Environment to the local council of January 1990 stated:The Government need to be satisfied that existing powers are inadequate before contemplating giving the police the power of entry to seize equipment they request.I believe that I have the evidence—this is true of many other hon. Members who represent urban areas—to fill a book. I shall endeavour to satisfy the Government of my case. If we continue to ignore the views of all those who are confronted by the problem, including EHOs, the police and residents, we could be accused of turning a blind eye to a real problem.
We have fulfilled many commitments to improve the quality of life in our cities. I was so proud when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that improvement a priority in June 1987. Unfortunately, we still have to solve the problem of noise, but I live in hope. I feel that we have not fully understood the problem. I am sure that it is not a matter of our wishing to do nothing about it. Some of the letters that I have received confirm that that is so. As I have said, I live in hope, and I am sure that the same can be said of many of my constituents, who have asked me to raise this issue in the House for many years. I am sure that the Government will listen.
We have time to make amends in a future environment Bill and also in a future criminal justice Bill. If we do not legislate, what realistic remedy would the Government suggest, if it is accepted that the present mechanism does not work? We have already lost far too many opportunities. I remind the Department of the Environment of a promise that was made in December 1989 when the announcement was made that the Government were to review noise laws. It said:Together with other Government Departments we shall take whatever action is necessary to strengthen the law in relation to noise nuisance generally.I implore my hon. Friend the Minister not to waste the opportunity that is still open to him and the Department to do something to reduce the problem and to improve the quality of life of inner-city residents.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
It is a great pleasure to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks). I am sure that her comments will be echoed. Indeed, I intend to speak about the very problem to which she referred. Whatever part of the country we represent, I am sure that the nuisance that she has outlined has been suffered by many of our constituents. The hon. Lady obviously lives in her constituency, as I live in mine, and we know at first hand the suffering of many of our constituents.
There are many obvious and important aspects of noise pollution, but I wish to direct my remarks to that of loud music. Blues parties take place in my constituency in south London, but I have more in mind the problem of loud music that is played in residential areas and not necessarily at a party. I am sure that such music is often played by those who enjoy it. It is questionable, however, whether it is enjoyable when it starts to be played early in the evening and continues for hour after hour, night after night. I am talking about extremely loud music. The problem has existed in my constituency for many years.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East outlined her involvement with various organisations that come within the ambit of the police or the local authority. Over the years, I have had the same involvement. I wonder whether the Minister, and previous Ministers, fully understand the suffering of ordinary families throughout the country.
In a residential area in my constituency, a man tried politely and peacefully to reduce the level at which extremely loud music was being played night after night. I understand that he said, "Could you please turn the music down?" or, "Could you play your music until 11 or 12 at night and then stop doing so?" My constituent was told in no certain terms to get lost. We all know the sort of language that is associated with such statements. He was told also that if he did not get lost there would be means by which he would soon be parked along with his complaint. He told me about this, and I took up the matter with the then junior Minister at the Department of the Environment, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottoinley), who is now the Minister for Health. The hon. Lady was extremely courteous. She wrote to me saying that she could well understand the problem which faced my constituent in this instance, and which was shared by many others throughout the country. Sadly, what she wrote brought no help to my constituent.
When the noise recommenced, my constituent did what think all of us in this place would consider to be the proper procedure. Sometimes, we parliamentarians feel that we have a better understanding of the law than many of those whom we represent, but my constituent did the right thing and went to the police. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East said, there are many who feel that police powers are inadequate, and I agree with her to some extent. There are grounds for saying that the police should be given more powers.
When my constituent told the police what was happening, they said that they would respond. After a while they went to the house where the music was playing so loudly. They knocked on the door and asked for the volume to be turned down, and it was. About half an hour later the volume of the music was increased, and again my constituent contacted the police. Again, the police 1050 attended, the same request was made and the same action was taken. The music was turned down, but half an hour later it was turned up again. My constituent went to the police again, who said "We understand what you are going through, but we do not have the manpower to keep sending one or two officers to the person whom you and we have identified as making the noise."
I have discussed this problem repeatedly with chief superintendents in my borough. They say, "We are fully aware of this. We are inundated with complaints in the spring and summer, but such are the pressures of work that we no longer are available or willing to become involved in this problem."
My constituent explained his problem to the environmental health officer of Wandsworth borough council. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) spoke of her experience and said that local authorities, irrespective of whether they are Conservative or Labour-controlled, are genuinely concerned about noise problems in their areas. However, as she said, resources are a problem and authorities either do not have sufficient environmental health officers or they are not available at the time of night when they need to hear what the noise levels are. People are told by authorities, "We are sorry, but we do not employ officers after a certain time at night."
Having been to the police and the local authority, my constituent found that he was getting nowhere. He came to see me, and I took up his case with the then junior environment Minister. My constituent—I am sure that we can all understand this—had reached the stage of feeling utter despair. He followed what he assumed were the correct procedures, but he got nowhere.
My constituent was told by the environmental health officer in Wandsworth—and he meant this in good faith—to take a tape recording of the noise, which he did. He then took it to the council, only to be told by another officer, "You were given the wrong information because such evidence is not acceptable in court." The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East mentioned problems lasting weeks and weeks in her constituency. We can all speak of the noise problems that our constituents face week after week, but my constituent's problem lasted about three months.
My constituent then took out a civil action and won. He came to see me and told me of the suffering that his family had experienced. His wife, sadly, became so depressed because of this ongoing problem that her doctor sent her to St. George's hospital, Tooting, for treatment. As my constituent saw it, that was caused by the lack of action by the police and the local authority.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East made a splendid speech on this important issue. She asked when we will get action, which is what we are seeking. I am sure that Ministers will say, "It is perhaps a small problem in some areas, but do not let us go overboard." Hon. Members know that it is a major problem in many parts of the country.
Sadly, for many years, my constituency has been notorious for prostitution and kerb crawling. Over the years, I have made speeches in the House, asked questions, met my local police, held public meetings and brought delegations of constituents to the House to meet Home Office Ministers. I can go back to when the noble Lord Whitelaw was Home Secretary and when Sir Leon Brittan was a Home Office Minister. They replied, "We 1051 understand the problems that your constituents face; we shall do something," but they would never tell me when that would happen. It was about 15 years before the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) introduced a private Member's Bill giving greater power to the police to prevent kerb crawling. That took years and years of action, not only by me but by other hon. Members, of whom I think the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) was one, because I know that Luton has suffered from this problem, as have many other towns. When will we get action?
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East spoke of giving the police greater authority. I would not be hostile to that, but every hon. Member would want to know exactly what those powers would be. We need much greater control over noise. I do not think that any of our constituents can be in any doubt when music is being played loudly, and, by golly, they cannot be in any doubt when it is being played excessively loudly.
We all know about the Prime Minister's view of Wandsworth annd its wonderful poll tax.
§ Mr. Cox
My hon. Friend says, "Deception," and, by golly, there has been deception. We in Wandsworth are facing massive cuts in all the essential services. Many of the voluntary services are being faced either with total or substantial cuts. What hope is there of getting more environmental officers or that they will be on duty when they should be?
This has been an interesting, good debate. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East said, people outside, who will read reports of this debate or will perhaps hear excerpts on the radio, will say "Thank goodness someone in Parliament has been talking about the problem", but they will then expect action. I mentioned the problems that other hon. Members and I faced in trying to curb prostitution in our areas. That may have been a difficult problem, but it was never as difficult as we were led to believe. However, our constituents are right to expect some urgent action by the Government on the problem of loud music. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) intervened to make that very point.
The question is, when will the Government listen to what hon. Members have said, irrespective of their party? As Harry Truman said, the buck stops here. The buck on this vital issue stops with the Minister. I hope that he will give hope not only to hon. Members but especially to the people we represent.
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). He may recall that some 11 years ago he followed my maiden speech and made nice noises about it. His excellent contribution followed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks). The problems about which they spoke echo those that we face in my constituency of Luton, so I shall be able to be more brief than I should otherwise have been.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to two noise matters, the first of which concerns car noise and motor traffic. This country's major motorway goes 1052 through the middle of my constituency. The White Paper on roads states that that road is to be upgraded to four lanes within a short time. We welcome that and, as one who represents a car manufacturing town, I should welcome an improvement in Britain's road infrastructure.
I should like to make a point to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State because of the cosy relationship that he now enjoys with his colleagues in the Department of Transport. The owners of the houses that will be affected by the road widening in my constituency and nearby look to the Government for assistance to alleviate the terrible nuisance from which they now suffer and which will be increased when the new highway is built. In the past, compensation was given on the rates. Local authorities cannot now make rate reductions because there is a personal tax.
It is interesting that the Department of Transport is talking about additional compensation for those who will suffer increased nuisance and noise because of the new motorway. I hope that it will continue to put money and research into building new banks and fences. What has been done with some new motorways is creditable. I hope that the Department will take note of the enormous nuisance that the new road will cause to many constituents.
My next point, which has been brought well to the fore by my fellow urban Members, concerns noisy parties. The hon. Member for Tooting and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East spoke about the frustration that they cause. There is a lack of adequate safeguards to deal with the terrible nuisance that they cause to old people and those who work night shifts and sleep while others play, as happens in our great manufacturing areas.
I should like to highlight one point which, although somewhat sensitive, must be paraded. A large number of people in Luton originated from the Caribbean. The young men and women have a habit of playing their music more loudly than normal and of playing music which, because of the thumping of the bass from drums or guitars, is much more of a noise nuisance than other music. The police are unable, and sometimes unwilling, to censure those causing that nuisance because of the delicate, and understandable, issue of race relations in the town. Race relations in the town are excellent.
The culture of some of the people who originated in the Caribbean islands is alien to many people who live in urban areas. What may be acceptable in a Caribbean town, with the long nights and the lapping seas, is not acceptable in the middle of Luton when people are trying to get to sleep because they have to get up the next morning and work in the local factories.
I offer a suggestion to the House and the police. Most of the people from those ethnic origins are members of various organisations and their ties are strong. I pay tribute to the leaders of those communities who try where they can to be good neighbours and to control the nuisances that some of their youngsters cause. Rather than throw more resources at the problem—which the hon. Member for Tooting half hinted at—we should try to strengthen community relationships and persuade the leaders of those communities that it is unneighbourly for young men and women to behave as they do.
Inevitably, some racial disharmony exists when 200 to 300 of those youths and girls converge not just on a semi-detached house—as described by my hon. Friend the 1053 Member for Wolverhampton, North-East—but on the 10th storey of a tower block. There are several such blocks in my constituency and those gatherings cause even more nuisance to the hundreds of people who live in them. It is up to local communities to try to control their own people and to be a little more co-operative with the police.
This is a problem and a scourge. There is no doubt that, to some extent, we have almost been frightened to tackle it. After two long, hot summers, the problem has developed to such an extent that people are talking about having to leave districts where they have lived for years. Three-day parties are not unusual in my constituency, especially over bank holiday weekends. These people hold these parties without any regard for their near neighbours or their neighours for many miles around.
Hon. Members who respresent urban constituencies are pleading with the Government to deal with that problem, which will not go away. Much as I admire the idea of a pilot quiet neighbourhood scheme, I fear that it will be yet another fudge in some areas where the worst problems occur. The issue is extremely serious and it is distressing for my constituents to have their lives disrupted in that way. I hope that the optimism that may have been generated by the fact that we are discussing this subject will spill out to the Department of the Environment and particularly the Home Office and that some corrective punishment and corrective legislation is proposed so that nuisance goes away for ever.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
I welcome the debate and the choice of the environment as the subject for the last debate of this Session. Only in a place like this could we hear, as we did in the more sensible contribution of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), about the singing cockerels in Luton; about the blues parties in Wolverhampton; and about mutated dogs in Newport. Perhaps later—I am afraid that I shall not be able to stay for the end of the debate—we will hear about hysterical iguanas from Ipswich. Had our proceedings not been televised, I would expect Miss Esther Rantzen to walk in and put us all on her show on Sunday.
I have a story about noisy pigeons. Shortly after I was elected, a local lady, Mrs. Murray, came to visit me at my surgery. She lived not in my constituency but in the county and therefore, according to parliamentary etiquette, I was not able to take up her case. She complained because her next-door neighbour had 100 pigeons in his pigeon loft. They would coo and make noises that prevented her and her husband from sleeping at night. I sent her to her own Member of Parliament, a Conservative Member whose name I shall not give as he is retiring at the next election. His solution was that Mr. and Mrs. Murray should get a licence, go to the local shops and purchase a gun and shoot the pigeons. I thought that that was rather a dramatic way of dealing with the problem. Although we all have amusing tales, these are major problems for those who have to put up with nuisance from noise.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), whom I have known for many years—he was already a Member of Parliament when I went to school in Twickenham 20 or so years ago—referred to the Labour Government's record on aircraft noise. He said that it was the present Government's policy to prevent the expansion of Heathrow airport and that they had stopped the 1054 development of terminal 5. He will recall—as I do, because I was the prospective parliamentary candidate for neighbouring Richmond and my sister was the prospective candidate for Twickenham—the terminal was stopped because of the efforts of a residents' campaign involving all the political parties. The hon. Gentleman led the campaign in his constituency, but the other parties joined in the protest. That is why the Government turned down terminal 5.
The hon. Gentleman was wong to say that no major expansion of Heathrow has occurred under this Government. I have a note from the Library saying that the inspectors' report on terminal 4, published in December 1979, was accepted by John Nott, a Conservative Minister, on 17 December 1979. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it was this Government who stopped the expansion of Heathrow airport is not borne out by the facts.
§ Mr. Jessel
What I actually said will appear in Hansard tomorrow. I betted that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) could not name anything that the Labour Government had done to restrict aircraft noise at Heathrow, and I named three of this Government's actions—in respect of terminal 5, the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter link and the curtailment of night flights.
§ Mr. Vaz
Hansard will also show that the hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. It was under a Conservative Government that terminal 4 was agreed to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) was right to say that this debate is important. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) was wrong to praise the Prime Minister's action. She said that, in 1987, the Prime Minister appeared on the scene like a green goddess and adopted the environment as the subject of a major policy shift for the 1990s. The green goddess has turned to green gunge and the Prime Minister and the Government have done little, if anything, to protect and preserve our local environment.
My constituency falls within the Leicester district council area. We are proud of Leicester city council's record and we claim to have a better record than any other city in the country.
§ Mrs. Hicks
I was not talking about the Prime Minister's achievements on green issues, the environment and inner cities. I was referring to her important achievements in housing, education and law and order and about what has been done to improve the quality of life of those who live in tower blocks, some of whom hold the blues parties to which I referred.
§ Mr. Vaz
I thank the hon. Lady for correcting me. She is right in thinking that there are no results that she could have praised in terms of the Government's policies on environmental issues.
As I said, we like to think of Leicester as the green capital of Europe. The city council, under its chief environmental health officer, Michael Cooke, and its director of planning, John Dean, has put together an environmental strategy, which was published in 1983, long before it was fashionable to be involved with environmental issues.
1055 The issues that I want to raise are concerned not with parties but with the development of industrial policy in our inner-city areas and our outer estates. My three examples all involve residential areas where the development of local industries has resulted in a great deal of noise. I should like planning departments and environmental health departments to act in closer concert in their work on this matter. I know that some local authorities have a policy whereby planning forms part of the environmental health brief. That is a constructive and proper way to deal with these matters. The environmental health departments of local councils ought to have a veto in planning matters as they affect the environment.
All the cases to which I shall refer involve the outer areas of my constituency. The first involves the activities of a firm called Neal Brothers, which has operated in the Charnwood area of my constituency for many years. Without planning consent, that firm constructed a vehicular access which not only caused a great deal of noise but affected the entertainment of almost every person who lived in the Prestwold road area. A local constituency campaign was launched by Mrs. Naylor, of 95 Prestwold road, who complained about the activities of the firm. Because of the way in which planning legislation operates at present, the planning and environmental health departments could not take effective action, even though they seemed to respond quickly to the complaints of local residents and the three local councillors. I hope that the planning Bill that is to be published next week will enable local authorities to take much more effective action on the breach of planning controls.
My second example concerns the Coleman road area of my constituency. Mr. and Mrs. Rossington, of Crown Hills avenue, launched a campaign against a local development by a small manufacturing firm in the Temple road complex. I turned up at the complex at midnight with officers from the planning department to hear for myself the effects of that development. Unfortunately, because we had publicised our visit, the firm closed down early. Those involved must have known that we should be bringing with us representatives of the local press and various items of equipment to monitor the firm's activities. Since then the activities have been resumed and the noise nuisance and the nuisance from the lights surrounding the car park have been described by local residents as intolerable.
My third example of inner-city industrial chaos comes from the Oak street area of my constituency, where Mr. and Mrs. B. Jenney—local people—launched a campaign to prevent a local construction firm, Paul John Construction, from seeking to vary the conditions of planning control and work for 24 hours. In her letter to the local authority Mrs. Jenney wrote:our home is only 10 feet from the property for the whole length of our house, so we get vibration and noise in every room, with no quiet area. The houses are very old and the vibration is very bad when heavy equipment is being brought in and out of the property in question. This is causing a lot of concern re the foundations of our home.The Jenneys went on to explain that they could not possibly live in the house because of the noise generated by the firm.
Similar problems afflict the semi-residential, semi-industrial, West Humberstone area of my constituency. 1056 People really are fed up with the fact that the local planning department does not have the necessary powers to curtail the activities of developers.
We know that a planning Bill is coming and we know that the Government have said broadly tonight that they will introduce measures to abate noise nuisance at a local level. However, words are cheap. The Opposition expect action to be taken now, not just because of the examples that we have raised, but because of the example referred to by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East of the 81-year-old gentleman in her constituency who has a noise problem. People of that age may not live long enough to see the results if we do not act soon. I hope that urgent action will be taken to enable people to live peacefully in their homes.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
I hope that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) will forgive me if I defer for a few minutes my reply to some of his points. I want first to mention the fact that the secretary of the working party which produced the Batho report entitled "Report of the Noise Review Working Party 1990" was a constituent of mine, Charlie Bayne, who died in July. Some years ago he suffered a serious accident which left him paralysed. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside has already paid tribute to Mr. Bayne and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House did so last Thursday. In his foreword to the report, Mr. Batho states:The Working Party wishes to place on record their appreciation or the work done by our Secretary Charlie Bayne who died a few days after our final meeting. He earned the respect of us all for his great tenacity and application.Although Mr. Batho and others made major contributions to that report, the report can be seen partly as an achievement of Charlie Bayne.
The Batho report is excellent. It is the first major report on noise since the Control of Pollution Act 1974. It contains a large number of proposals, some of which are being implemented already, as my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier. Many of the proposals deserve the concentrated attention of the Government and of Parliament.
Noise affects many of our constituents. At the outset, the report states:Noise has the capacity to irritate, annoy, interrupt sleep, increase stress, disrupt concentration and even to damage one's health.That last point about health was borne out in a study carried out in the mid-1970s by a consultant psychiatrist at the West Middlesex hospital close to my constituency who found a correlation between aircraft noise and mental illness.
Complaints about noise have doubled in the past 10 years and it is a serious matter. The word "noise" is derived from the Latin word "nausea" which is generally used to refer to a loud or disturbing sound. The policy consortium on airports stated:In reality, noise has the capability to do much more than irritate or annoy. It can seriously disturb concentration, interrupt sleep and cause stress.Noise is a danger to health. Of course there are pleasurable noises like the cooing of pigeons to which the hon. Member for Leicester, East referred a few moments ago. 1057 Pleasurable noises also include classical music and Army bands, which make one of the finest noises which is a great tradition and one of the glories of the British nation.
Many of the noises that disturb people have already been referred to by hon. Members and they are listed in the documents before us. They include the noise of aircraft, helicopters, trains, lorries, industry, including the construction industry, sport, entertainment, and recreation, noisy parties, amplified music, dogs, burglar alarms and car alarms.
As living standards rise, people tend to worry less about where the next meal is coming from and—[Interruption.] There is a little noise going on at the Table. [Interruption.] On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is rather a lot of noise going on at the Table. As we are debating noise, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) will desist from making so much noise in the vicinity of the Table, thus diverting your attention, and the attention of the Clerk and the Whip from what I am saying.
§ Mr. Jessel
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The improvement in living standards over the past 10 years taken as a whole, although the trend has not been completely even, has meant that as people worry less about where the next meal is coming from, they are more concerned about the quality of their surroundings, including the amount of noise. That is to be expected and the problem must be dealt with.
The greatest source of noise which annoys our constituents is neighbourhood noise. That fact emerged from the working party report. Paragraph I of chapter 3 in the report refers to the Building Research Establishment's inquiry which, in a sample of 14,000 responses, suggests that 14 per cent. of the adult population were bothered by neighbourhood noise, compared with 11 per cent. who are bothered by road traffic noise and 7 per cent. by aircraft noise. That would be a stratified random sample covering the whole country. That fact that aircraft noise is third on that list in no way implies that it is not very serious in the communities that are affected by it. A much higher proportion than 7 per cent. of the people would be bothered by aircraft noise in areas where such noise is concentrated.
In England and Wales, neighbourhood noise is the most annoying source of the nuisance. The 14 per cent. of people bothered by such noise is broken down further in the report which shows that amplified music is responsible for 34 per cent. of complaints and dogs for 33 per cent. Those two categories are far and away ahead of any other form of neighbourhood noise. After those two come domestic activities—whatever that may mean—at 9 per cent., voices at 6 per cent., DIY activities at 5 per cent., car repairs at 3 per cent. and other sources of neighbourhood noise, constituting 10 per cent. taken together.
The difference between the 34 per cent. for amplified music and the 33 per cent. for dogs is not statistically significant. However, we have discussed amplified music this evening much more than we have discussed dogs. I do not know why that has happened, because there is no significant statistical difference between the figure for 1058 amplified music and that for dogs in the sample of 14,000. Indeed, the two can be taken as level pegging with regard to the number of complaints that they have generated.
Undoubtedly, the sound of dogs barking is very annoying to some people. It is a disjointed, tiresome noise—sometimes high-pitched. It must be regarded as a serious form of pollution. It would not be much helped by dog registration.
The Minister of State suggested the introduction of a pilot scheme for the abatement of neighbourhood noise in which he would seek the co-operation of the whole local community. I hope that, when that is suggested to the first neighbourhood to take it on, it will be invited to place not only amplified music but the sound of dogs barking high on its list of priorities for co-operation in the local communities because of the high rating given to both nuisances in the sample in the report.
I happen to enjoy Sunday morning gardening. I potter around as quietly as I can in my garden, pruning or whatever. My next door neighbour has six dogs, one of which is a Jack Russell, which has sharp ears. However quietly I carry out my pruning, it triggers a spate of barking by that Jack Russell, which I happen to find annoying. Conversely, I have to burn my wood because the local rubbish collection service will not collect garden prunings and clippings. One cannot use wood and prunings for compost, and I cannot get rid of it. If I burn the wood I can be prosecuted for pollution, although it is a perfectly healthy country smell which no one minds very much, yet if my neighbour disturbs me with dogs barking, there is nothing at the moment that can be done about it. That seems to be nonsense, and I hope that the Government will direct their attention to it.
I share the view of hon. Members on both sides of the House that amplified music is an appalling din. Whether it comes from late-night parties, acid house parties, blue parties or just young people who like their amplifiers tuned up as loudly as possible, it is grossly inconsiderate behaviour to blare out hyped-up music often late at night with a total lack of regard for the effect upon neighbours. I hope that that matter will feature largely in any action that the Government decide to take. I hope that the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) that the Government look at Scottish law on this matter, including the confiscation of equipment, will be acted upon.
Our constituents want something to be done. They know that the report has been published. They do not expect an immediate decision on it next week, but they want something done within the next six to 12 months. I hope that the Government will introduce legislation and/or take some action to see what can be done about that terrible form of nuisance which afflicts large numbers of people.
Piped music, whether in restaurants or shops, is very annoying and degrading. In restaurants, it is unflattering to clients because it presupposes that they are incapable of making conversation with each other during the meal and that they have to have piped music to occupy their ears. It is an evil thing and I hope that something can be done to suppress it. Likewise, with transistor radios and car radios. Last week I was stuck in a traffic jam and there was a yuppy with an open car stuck next to me. He had his car radio turned on very loudly. I leaned out of my window 1059 across to him, and said, "Would you please turn down that noise?" and he automatically did. Then he realised that he did not have to do it, and he turned it up again.
The Government should consider within their purview the suppression of noises from loud car radios as well as domestic radios, transistors, and other audio equipment in the street or in areas in which people live.
I now refer to transport noise. No one who has not lived under the flight path close to one of our major airports should take a cavalier attitude to the many thousands of people who do. This matter affects the constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground), my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), for Esher (Mr. Taylor), for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn), for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) and others around Heathrow, not to mention those around Gatwick, have been active in the matter, as has the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox).
Aircraft noise is a major social evil in communities that are affected by it. It is not just a cause for cranks and nuts. It affects ordinary, sensible people. It spoils their enjoyment of their homes and gardens and interferes with the work of offices, schools, hospitals and churches. As I have said, it makes some people ill. We have to do more about it.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) implied that the Government had no credibility in dealing with the problem of aircraft noise. She was kind enough to allow me to intervene, and I pointed out that the Conservative Government had stopped the fifth terminal, stopped the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter link when the M25 motorway was completed, and sharply curtailed the number of night flights at Heathrow. That was done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) some years ago. His decision was endorsed and repeated by successive Secretaries of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the present Secretary of State.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East pointed out—it was perfectly true—that the incoming Conservative Government in 1979 approved the construction of the fourth terminal at Heathrow. But that was already well included in the governmental pipeline by the time the change of power in June 1979 took place. On 22 February 1978 Lord Balfour of Inchyre asked Her Majesty's Governmentwhen it is expected that the public inquiry into the proposed construction of a fourth terminal building at Heathrow Airport will commence".Lord Oram, a Minister in the then Labour Government in February 1978 replied:the public inquiry is expected to begin at the end of May,"—back in 1978—but it is not possible to say how long it will last. Assuming approval of the fourth terminal project, it would be for the British Airports Authority to decide when building should commence."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 February 1978; Vol. 389, c. 157.]1060 Following that, on 19 July 1978 the Earl of Cork asked Her Majesty's Governmentby what date, if a fourth terminal should be constructed at Heathrow, all four terminals at that airport may be expected to be fully … operational.Lord Winterbottom, on behalf of the Labour Government replied:Subject to the outcome of the public inquiry, the British Airports Authority expect that the fourth terminal might be opened in 1983".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 July 1978; Vol. 395, c. 315.]In other words, there was a clear intention in the governmental pipeline for that approval and for the opening of the fourth terminal to take place as far back as 1978. I was merely making the point that I had challenged the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North to name one thing that the Labour Government had done to contain the problem of aircraft noise at Heathrow. So far she has not done so; perhaps she will be able to say something about it when she winds up the debate for the Opposition.
We in the House must maintain a constant lobby to protect our constituents from aircraft noise. Only through Parliament and Government can people be protected. It is not the lobbies, the residents' associations or the petitioners who make the decisions on such matters; it is the Government who do so, and who respond to pressure and representations from hon. Members.
Without the Government, and the steps that they have already taken—and may intend to take in the future—to protect people from aircraft noise, the citizen cannot receive such protection. Under the Civil Aviation Act 1949, which was consolidated in the Civil Aviation Act 1982, the citizen cannot sue for nuisance in respect of aircraft noise. That is made clear in chapter 4 of the report by the noise review working party. Paragraph 4.25 states:Any consideration of the problems caused by aircraft noise has to begin with a look at the present statutory position. Unlike other forms of traffic noise, that which is caused by an aircraft is, so long as the Rules of the Air and Air Traffic Control Regulations and normal aviation practice have been observed, protected from action in respect of trespass or nuisance by ss. 76 and 77 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982".The citizen living on the flight path cannot do other than rely on the democratic processes of Parliament and Government.
Let me point out to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply to the debate, that that places on Governments a special duty to listen to hon. Members whose constituencies are close to airports. They have done so in the past, and I hope that they will make a point of continuing to do so.
I well remember the time when six hon. Members, including me, called on my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury in his room. That was in 1984, when he was Secretary of State for Transport. He was largely responsible for the planning decision on the fifth terminal, because the Secretary of State for the Environment—Lord Jenkin of Roding—was precluded from making the decision: he had an interest in it, because he happened to live near Stansted. The key part of the decision, therefore, emanated from the Secretary of State for Transport.
When we went to see my right hon. Friend, we urged him strongly not to grant planning permission for the fifth terminal. He decided to refuse planning permission, contrary to the advice of his planning inspector at the 1061 public inquiry. Accordingly, he refused permission on planning grounds—because he gave weight to the planning aspects of the facts as they were put before him, which related to the peace and quiet and the health of people living around Heathrow airport.
I would very much like a complete ban on all night flights. As I have said, they have been dramatically curtailed by the Government; but I believe that, unless there is an emergency—I make an exception for those—there should be no night flights at all from airports in populated areas between 11 pm and 7 am. I consider that the present night hours of 11.30 pm to 6.30 am for a limited number of flights are too short.
I am glad that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has decided to attend the debate, because he once lived in Twickenham, and is therefore familiar with the problems of aircraft noise. Let me say to him—if I can have his attention for a moment—that all concerned should be warmly congratulated on the expansion of Manchester airport, which comes within the Duchy of Lancaster. The airport has doubled its traffic in the past six or seven years. That has proved enormously useful to people living within reach of it. It also constitutes a boost for employment in the north-west, and the increasing number of scheduled flights helps to some extent—albeit rather a limited extent—to offload traffic from the several London airports.
Helicopters, however, make a most unpleasant whirring, high-pitched noise which is completely uncivilised. I hope that planning permission is refused for a heliport in the City of London—by Cannon Street station, on a platform over the Thames. I refer my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to my Adjournment debate on the subject on 24 May. It is entirely unreasonable to disturb thousands upon thousands of people on the ground just so that a few people can make money, and a few others can save half an hour each. We would be disturbed in the Palace of Westminster, and our Standing and Select Committees, whose rooms overlook the river—which would comprise part of the track of the flight path—would all be disrupted by the noise of helicopters flying between the City and Heathrow. Our work in the Library would also be disturbed.
There is no comparable city-centre helicopter airport anywhere in Europe. The only remotely comparable one is at Issy, a suburb of Paris which is as far from the centre of Paris as Battersea heliport is from the centre of London.
Those who want to travel in helicopters to save themselves half an hour are not always those whose time is so valuable that it is essential to save half an hour: in fact, I do not believe that anyone's time is as valuable as that. Most of those people are business men. I happen to know quite a lot of business men—a number of tycoons and millionaires. They are not people who need to dash about like scalded rabbits saving every second; most are rather quiet and ponderous people who consider matters quite carefully. Those who agitate for a heliport are not the important, top-flight business men whose time is enormously valuable, but the mark 2 business men who want to brag to their wives, or possibly to their children, that they have been up in a helicopter. There is very little more to it than that. I hope that the proposal for a heliport near the City will be shot down, and shot down hard.
So far, we have not had much discussion about motor cycle noise. There was a reference to silencers for cars; I 1062 hope that the Government will consider improving silencers for motor cycles, which make a most annoying noise, disturbing large numbers of people.
Burglar alarms on houses go on and on, causing annoyance out of all proportion to their use. It ought to be compulsory to fit them with time switches so that they go off after 15 or 20 minutes: that is quite sufficient time for neighbours, the police or even dogs to be alerted.
I believe that noise is a terrible nuisance for large numbers of people. I welcome this debate, the report of the working party and the extensive references to noise in the environment White Paper published by the Secretary of State a few weeks ago. I hope that all this heralds action by the Government in the near future, and I hope to hear more about it later tonight.
§ Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside in his absence that I was not here for his opening remarks. I was detained in my office.
I welcome the Government's proposals. They go some way at least to meeting people's legitimate concerns, particularly on noise. I hope that we shall all be able to build on them. The idea of a pilot quiet neighbourhood scheme is excellent, although I have reservations about how it is to be enforced, especially as those who continually cause a nuisance are normally rather unpleasant and selfish people.
We heard from the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) how a constituent of his was almost driven mad and to despair by a noisy neighbour. We all have examples of such people in our constituencies. I have several examples from my constituency.
Last summer—that long, hot summer—many people in Pearl road were almost driven mad by the activities of one family. It is extraordinary that just one family can upset the residents of an entire street. Pearl road is normally a quiet, residential street. A family came in from outside to a house which, I believe, was taken by a neighbouring local authority. I suspect that it was a problem family to begin with and that the neighbouring authority thought that it had found a good way of getting rid of the problem. We had endless trouble all through last summer because of the selfish activities of that family. I am happy to say that they have gone now, and good riddance.
Unfortunately, my constituents in that road are now suffering again through the activities of a firm that works on motor cycles. It operates late into the night, sometimes until 1 am or 2 am. Motor cycles are delivered at night and people work on them, start them and rev them in the small hours of the morning with complete disregard for the fact that they are working right in the middle of a residential area. They simply do not seem to care about the other people who live there, who have their own jobs to go to and need a decent night's sleep.
Another incident took place in Morgan avenue in my constituency where, again, the activities of just one family caused a nuisance. There were young children, but they are now grown up and are young men. One of them has a motor car, which he has converted into virtually a mobile ghetto blaster. He has installed speakers all round his car. He is in the habit of arriving at his house, sometimes at 3 o'clock in the morning with music belting out all over the 1063 street. People have come to see me about it, but there is little that I can do at present. We simply do not have the powers to deal with such problems.
I am sorry to reel off a list of complaints, but I do it deliberately to bring home to us all how much people in our constituencies are suffering. Another road in my constituency, Leucha road, is inhabited almost entirely by elderly people. In one or two cases a person had died or moved out and the council has moved in young people who have young people's habits. Young and old people's habits often do not work well together. Those young people get up to what young people get up to. No one complains about that except in the context of an elderly neighbourhood. The elderly people object strongly to being woken up perhaps at midnight by noise, racket and laughing. A simple event such as a car turning up, the doors banging and people shouting at midnight is objectionable to people who probably have been in bed for a couple of hours already.
Still on the subject of noise, members of Central parade residents association in Hoe street have been much disturbed by building work in the bank underneath. Much of the work seems to have been carried out without proper consultation of the residents and consideration of their interests.
Burglar alarms and car alarms have already been mentioned. I introduced a ten-minute Bill on such alarms. I had a good response from the British Security Industry Association, which does not like to see the industry brought into disrepute by burglar alarms ringing all weekend, disturbing an entire neighbourhood. Again, I am delighted that the Government have made proposals on the problem.
I should like to reinforce what has been said about limiting—possibly physically—the amount of noise that a radio, television or music centre can make. We all know instances of thoroughly selfish people who simply do not care about the effect that playing their music has on other people at perhaps 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning with the volume turned up as loud as possible.
I should not object in the slightest if the music were, say a wonderful Bruckner symphony. I should object strongly to rap music being played at 110 decibels. But that is not the point. As has already been said, the point is that one man's like is another man's dislike. We must all learn to live together and we tend to live cheek by jowl. We should all have regard to the effect that our activities may have on our neighbours.
Flat conversions have been mentioned. I am a chartered surveyor and before I was elected I practised as a surveyor. Various authorities used to make it a condition of planning permission to convert a house into flats that suitable sound insulation be placed between the floors. But often that sound insulation consisted merely of a layer of rock wool, or something similar, which was wholly inadequate. Part of the problem is that the structure of many such houses was not originally designed with the possibility in mind that the house might be converted into separate living units. That is a great problem. It might be solved by making the building regulations far more stringent and enforcing planning conditions on conversions.
1064 From the town I want to turn briefly to the countryside. I have a country background, although I represent an urban constituency. I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to horrible things now opening up in the countryside called byways open to all traffic, or BOATs for short. The trouble with BOATs is that anyone using any form of wheeled motorised transport can use them. Once quiet country paths are now used by people on motor bikes or those four-wheel drive machines. As long as at some time the path was used by wheeled traffic—it may have been used by ox carts in medieval times or by Boadicea and her chariot—it can be used by wheeled traffic today. Many country people strongly resent the intrusion into the countryside of those motor bikes and four-wheel drive vehicles. The matter needs to be examined. The vehicles shatter the peace and quiet of the countryside and upset the people who live there. People feel that an unpleasant manifestation of urban habits has come into their midst.
Police powers have been mentioned. That is the way forward. It is absolutely essential that police be given the powers to deal with noise, particularly at night when people are disturbed by noisy parties or whatever. Most people are reasonable and if a party goes on until 11 pm or midnight they will not object, but say, "Fair enough." The problem is when that happens night after night and weekend after weekend. Sometimes a party goes on throughout an entire weekend. The police need to have the power to go to the place where the noise is coming from and to say, "Stop it now or arrests will be made." Noise nuisance should be made a criminal offence.
Guy Fawkes night will shortly be upon us. Already we have heard the first whizzes and bangs, and already I have had the first letters of complaint from my constituents. My plea is that people be considerate in their use of fireworks and think of others in the area, especially old people, cats and dogs that are terrified by the noises. I ask people to enjoy their Guy Fawkes night, but to think of the effects of fireworks on people and animals.
§ Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich)
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) referred to the suffering that noise nuisance causes ordinary people. He was right to put it so strongly. Suffering is indeed caused. For ordinary families with anti-social neighbours noise nuisance is frequently not just a matter of disturbance, upset and inconvenience. It goes well beyond that. In all too many cases it is a matter of real suffering.
There are two main categories of neighbourhood noise nuisance. The first is late-night parties, which can destroy the night's rest for an entire street. A wild, unrestrained party with amplified music with a heavy beat blasting out into the night constitutes social hooliganism on a massive scale. It is essential that the law provides an effective and speedy means of dealing with such parties. It is not just a matter of dealing with them in the courts several months later. It is a matter of dealing with them speedily and effectively then and there, putting an end to the nuisance that very night.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) identified with precision the weakness in the law. If the noise is great, if one can get hold of an environmental health officer and bring him to the scene of the party and if that officer is prepared to serve an 1065 abatement notice, fine. It may be that the nuisance will stop and the party will come to an end. The weakness in the law lies in what happens when the abatement notice is not complied with and the party continues. Although a summons may be issued and two months later a fine—I am afraid all too often a derisory fine—may be levied in the magistrates court, the residents' entitlement to peace, sleep and quiet enjoyment of their properties is lost for that night. That weakness in the law could and should be remedied at an early stage.
The second type of neighbourhood noise is on a rather lower scale and is inflicted by anti-social neighbours on individual families. It is not nearly so obvious as the late-night party variety. The banging of doors, shouting, fighting, dogs being allowed to bark late into the night without any attempt to restrain them, the playing of loud music and banging on walls—general loutish and anti-social behaviour—does not affect the whole street, but makes life a misery for the individual families who are affected. That nuisance is much more difficult to deal with precisely because it affects only one or perhaps two familes, whereas late-night parties affect and affront the whole street.
The nuisance from late-night parties is obvious, and usually there are plenty of witnesses. It is a different matter with lower-level noise nuisance, but such noise nuisance is just as intensely stressful to those directly affected. How is it best dealt with? The key is a responsive and sympathetic attitude to complainants by local authorities—housing departments and environmental health departments alike—the police and the courts.
Earlier this year in Ipswich the chairmen of two local residents' associations took an initiative for which they deserve great credit. Mrs. Patricia Young-Al Salih of the Triangle Residents Association and Lewis Brown of the Whitton Residents Association called a meeting to which they invited representatives of the police, the housing department and the environmental health department, the leader of the council and the Member of Parliament. It achieved two objects. It was useful in bringing home to the local authority and the police both the strength of feeling that action should be taken to deal with late-night parties and lower-level neighbourhood noise nuisance, and also in stressing how important it was to receive complaints sympathetically.
One must realise that it is harder for an individual family to make a complaint against a neighbour than it is if there is a big group of complainants. It is much more invidious. People naturally do not like to make a complaint against their neighbours, as they fear that it could make matters worse. They may be afraid of intimidation and verbal and even physical violence.
If people complain and their complaint is reasonable and sensible, it is essential that local authorities and the police respond sympathetically. Once it gets around that local authorities and the police are prepared to respond sympathetically and to take a firm line against anti-social neighbours, there is much less likelihood of such anti-social behaviour. The main cause of such behaviour is the fact that it is often allowed to go unpunished and unrestrained. If local authorities, the police and local residents' associations make it clear through publicity on local radio, television and the newspapers that they are prepared to take a firm line and to press matters to a 1066 conclusion in the courts, that in itself is a substantial and effective deterrent to anti-social behaviour and noise nuisance.
It is not just a matter of a more sympathetic approach by local authorities or of filling the gaps in legislation where they exist, important though that is. What is also essential is the more effective and efficient use by local authorities and housing associations of the existing powers available to them. There should be a much greater readiness to use injunctions as a means of restraining neighbourhood noise. Judges are often reluctant to grant possession orders and it often takes a long time to obtain them. The great merit of an injunction is that one can apply for and obtain it speedily. One can go to the courts on the day after the anti-social behaviour in question and obtain an injunction simply by establishing a reasonable prima facie case.
Because injunctions do not themselves carry the terrible punishment contained in a possession order, judges are, by and large, much more willing to grant them. Should an injunction that has been granted by a judge he breached, it becomes not just a matter between neighbours or a local authority or housing association and tenant; it is a contempt of court and the court has an array of powers to deal with such a breach.
§ Mr. Summerson
I am not a lawyer, but I am extremely interested in what my hon. Friend said about injunctions. Can my hon. Friend tell me what sort of evidence a court would require before an injunction was granted? Once it has been granted, how long can an injunction run?
§ Mr. Irvine
On the assumption that there is a clause in the tenancy agreement between the anti-social tenant and the local authority or housing association that forbids excessive noise, anti-social behaviour and disruption of one kind or another, the court has the power to grant an injunction if prima facie that clause has been breached. Even when there is no contractual relationship—for example, if a family's enjoyment of its property is adversely affected by a neighbour's noise—there is a remedy at common law in nuisance. An individual can get an injunction in support of the common law remedy of nuisance.
§ Mr. Irvine
My hon. Friend asks, "At what cost?" That is a fair point. By and large, when problems occur on housing association estates and council estates, it is better for the association or the council to take action to keep the tenant who is indulging in anti-social behaviour to the strict conditions of his or her lease. The problem is that some councils and housing associations are unwilling to act. There should be a much greater readiness to grant legal aid, if necessary on an emergency basis, to a tenant who is unable to finance the necessary action to restrain a neighbour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) touched on another matter of which local authorities and housing associations should take much more account. A great deal of nuisance, upset and distress could be prevented by the sensitive and sensible allocation of tenancies. It is asking for trouble to put young people into a block of flats where the tenants are, in the main, elderly or infirm. That is asking for trouble, but all too often it is done. My remarks have mainly addressed the 1067 problem of neighbourhood noise, which affects a substantial number of people and causes much distress and suffering.
I shall now take up some of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley), who represents a constituency that stands to be adversely affected by the regular movement at night of high-speed freight trains coming through from the channel tunnel. I have a similar constituency problem. Just down river from Ipswich is the great port of Felixstowe, which 25 years ago was a very small port and mainly a seaside town. It was connected to Ipswich and the main railway line by a single-track, old-fashioned railway, originally built to take seaside holidaymakers down to the beaches.
During the past 25 years, Felixstowe has expanded as a port to a phenomenal extent and is now the largest container port in the United Kingdom, with a 24-hour operation. During the night, massive freight trains, usually drawn by two diesel engines and often a mile or a mile and a half in length, make their way along that line which is, for the greater part, still only single track. The vibration from these trains has caused damage to property and the noise has caused considerable upset and disturbed the night's sleep of numerous residents in Ipswich who live close to the line.
To British Rail's credit, under pressure it agreed to make improvements. It imposed specially low speed limits because it was found that, when a 20 mph speed limit was effectively enforced, it reduced not only the noise but the vibration.
Earlier this year, along an important segment of the line where people were being badly affected by noise, British Rail re-laid the ballast, making it much deeper. In particular, British Rail laid continuous welded track along a key section of the line, resulting in a considerable improvement. But there is still, for all that, considerable noise, which is why I listened sympathetically to the representations made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing and why I ask the Minister to take careful note of his arguments.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I shall not detain the House for long. Almost every speaker I have listened to in this most interesting debate has touched on the same subject. The core of the problem is that there is no law against unpleasant neighbours—it matters not whether they be in rural villages, urban areas, or the inner cities, or whether they are ethnic neighbours. I listened with great interest and some dismay to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) who sought to make an ethnic point rather than commenting on the real problem, which is that of neighbourhood noise in general.
The police with whom we all deal day by day share with us two or three recurring and intractable problems. The most intractable is that caused by unpleasant and unneighbourly neighbours. I doubt whether there is an hon. Member who does not receive at least half a dozen—many hon. Members receive far more—complaints a year from neighbours about neighbours.
I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) who commented on the 1068 inadvisability of putting young people in flats predominantly designated for the elderly. As a wry aside I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson), "Yes, because the children would not get any sleep." That was said only half cynically because a pleasant young couple with a young baby in my constituency are having their lives made extremely difficult by an elderly neighbour who does not like them or their baby and who takes delight in turning up the television far too loudly. The House must get to grips with this difficult problem because there are not yet enough powers on the statute book to handle it.
Not many weeks ago the Department published a wonderful book—£24.50, and cheap at the price—entitled "The Common Inheritance". I do not mean to be mocking when I call it a wonderful book. It contains an environmental strategy of which the House and the country should be proud, but, as with most strategies, there are weaknesses in it.
One of the saddest paragraphs in this otherwise mainly magnificent volume is paragraph 16.38. I apologise for having been kept by constituency business from part of this debate, and if the paragraph has been quoted before I can only say that perhaps repetition will do no harm. The paragraph reads:The Government is not persuaded that it would be right to make noise nuisance an immediate criminal offence".I understand that thinking; it is a draconian step to bring the criminal law into this sort of arena. But unfortunately the paragraph continues:or to give the police further powers to control noise. Noise nuisance is often complex and subjective".The paragraph continues:While noise can be very annoying, criminalisation is a very heavy stick to take to it.So it would appear that we are not going to do a great deal about the problem. Paragraph 16.41 states:Local authorities have powers to serve noise abatement notices and prosecute if necessary. If this does not resolve the problem they can take further court proceedings. The current maximum penalty for non-compliance with an abatement notice is £2,000.When can the Minister last recall a penalty of even 2,000p being imposed for such an offence? The average environmental health officer is far too busy generally—I would not say too busy tracing stray unlicensed dogs—to get to grips with such problems. In Margate in my constituency, he does not have the time or the staff to investigate vastly over-occupied houses.With the best will in the world he certainly does not have the time, energy or people to monitor the sort of day-to-day complaint that is received by every hon. Member.
If the environmental health officer had the resources, how would he get his evidence? He does his best. When I write on behalf of a constituent, he sends that constituent or me a form for the constituent to complete. He asks the person to keep a note of the date and time of every occurrence of nuisance so that a pattern can be built up and, in time, the council can send somebody round to see the neighbour. Usually within five minutes of a council officer leaving, one neighbour is banging on the other neighbour's door threatening to thump him for complaining to the council.
I said that this was an intractable problem and I do not pretend to have any answers—never mind all the answers. This is not a partisan issue because every constituency suffers from it and the House has to address it. Unpleasant 1069 neighbours make other people's lives a misery. We are not talking just about the young or about members of the ethnic community playing ghetto blasters.
My daughter is 18 and occasionally plays music over the room in which I work. She sometimes plays it rather more loudly than I would like. It will not surprise anyone to know that I have the same altercations with her that most parents have with their children. If such circumstances arise in my domestic environment and, I suspect, in the domestic environments of most hon. Members, it is not entirely surprising that it happens in every street and in every town and village.
There comes a time when nuisance becomes pervasive, excessive and sometimes deliberate. Sometimes the constant revving of motor bikes late at night is done deliberately to annoy a neighbour. At times the constant loud playing of the television or record player is deliberate in order to make other people's lives a misery. At that point, the environmental health officer or the police or both working together should have the powers they need to go in and do something about it.
In my time in the House I have had many complaints but I cannot think of one that has been satisfactorily resolved other than by moving one person, usually the innocent party, out of his home. Invariably, the new neighbour is complaining in less than six months that he is suffering from the same nuisance.
I urge the Minister to take another long, hard look at the problem, and especially at the one weak paragraph in this otherwise proud document "The Common Inheritance" to see whether there is any way of giving the police and the environmental health officers greater power.
I did not come to the Chamber to talk about neighbourhood nuisance at all. I wanted to raise another issue affecting a relatively small number of people nationwide. However, to those people the issue has great importance. It may surprise the House to know that the issue is agricultural nuisance.
I invite the House to picture a scene early on a Sunday midsummer's morning in a Kentish village. Dawn is breaking, so it is perhaps only half-past three. The first bird song is beginning to come across an otherwise still audio horizon. The village is asleep and nothing moves. Suddenly, in the midst of this peace, comes the crash of a gun, and then another and another. There is one every three minutes and only when the church bells start to drown out the noise and the ambient noise takes over can people ignore the guns. These guns are the audible bird scarers used by some fruit farmers.
I live in a rural community and have experienced this, as have a significant number of people living in similar agricultural communities. As with so many other agricultural practices, it is unfortunately the inconsiderate few who cause the problems for the many. Those living in rural areas—particularly those who live, as I do, surrounded by fruit—and who have the benefit of them, understand that birds attack soft fruit, top fruit and young vegetables such as cabbages and peas when they have just been planted. A flock of pigeons, for example, can have a devastating effect on a newly planted field of young vegetables. I have seen farmers in tears as a result of such devastation. Therefore, I do not question the need to use, on occasion, some mechanism or device to scare away birds.
A considerable amount of research has gone into this. As a result of the growth in the problem, an organisation 1070 with the unlikely name of BANG—Birdscarers Anti-Nuisance Group—was formed. It quickly established a sizable nationwide membership consisting of people who discovered that they had a common cause for complaint. That was five or six years ago, and, sadly, these people still have cause for complaint because, with the best will in the world, not a lot has been done.
We have useful meetings with extremely courteous members of the Minister's staff. The civil servants whom the members of BANG have met have been considerate, sympathetic and attentive. We have been waiting for a byelaw or code, which has had the longest gestation period of any document for which I have ever waited. We have seen drafts of this code and we have been invited to comment on it. I hope and believe that members of this organisation have commented intelligently, responsibly and fairly. They have taken no direct action, despite considerable provocation. The organisation has discouraged people from doing what they are most minded to do, which is to go out and take a sledgehammer to the devices.
While we should like to find an entirely separate solution to the problem of bird strikes on fruit and vegetables, and to obviate the need for the use of audible bird scarers, I for one—I do not speak for everybody, because some would like an outright and immediate ban—accept that there are occasions when brief use of audible bird scarers may be justified. However, some farmers overlook what has become known as the dinner gong effect. I have watched pigeons sitting on a telegraph wire waiting for the first gun to go off and then flying towards it because that tells them where the food is. These birds are not stupid. A bird scarer works effectively for about three days. After that, the dinner gong effect comes into play and birds fly towards it, rather than away from it, and they get used to it.
But that in itself is not the problem. The problem is that the code of practice provides that the bird scarer should he used once every 15 minutes. That sounds all right—one bang every 15 minutes within reasonable hours from, for example, 6 am rather than 3.30 am, first light, until not too late at night, say up to 10 pm. It must be realised, however, that that is once every 15 minutes for each machine. If there are three guns in a cherry orchard and each one is firing once every 15 minutes, my miserable mathematics tells me that a gun will fire once every five minutes. If there are another three guns in the next field and a further three in the field next to that, which is owned by another farmer, the effect is rather like that which I described when I began my speech. It is something akin to the battle of the Somme.
I have described a problem which is small in the sense that it does not effect many people, but for those whom it does affect, like those who are affected by the sort of noise nuisance that we have been discussing throughout the evening, it is an extremely serious problem which makes life intolerable.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is sympathetic to the complaint that I have highlighted. I know that he and the civil servants in the Department care and that they want to find a solution. I must say, however, that, as with other problems, the time for research and consultation is over. We need a code of practice that takes full account of the number of machines within a given area as well as times and frequency of use. We need also a model byelaw to back it up. Without that, the environmental health officer, never mind the police, will stated not the remotest chance of controlling not the responsible many, who use 1071 the machines properly, but the irresponsible few. Those few, like the other causers of disturbance of whom we have heard, make others' lives a misery. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister for some comfort for those who I know are concerned. I hope that he will be able to offer it to me this evening.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I apologise to the House for not being here for the earlier part of the debate. I wish to make only two brief points as it would not be fair in the circumstances to seek to make a longer contribution. I have not heard the speeches of the Minister and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) or those of other colleagues. I wish to speak only about neighbour nuisance and vehicle noise.
Neighbour nuisance is a great and intractable problem and is often worse for the victim than for the Member. On some occasions I have been both the victim and the Member. There is a specific problem for tenants—as a matter of law, it is not faced by those who are landlords. If there is a complaint by one tenant about another who is next door or in the same block, a barrier against the taking of action is that the complainant will often find that it is necessary to give evidence in court in due course. He may feel inhibited by the expectation of a threat being meted out by the person against whom he is complaining. An obvious example is that of elderly single people complaining about younger and much more physically active and able people. We have all had such circumstances brought to our attention.
When a landlord is required contractually to provide quiet enjoyment for a tenant, would it not be possible to oblige the landlord to ensure that that requirement is met even if it is not the fault of the landlord that quiet enjoyment there is not? If, for example, a landlord—be it a local council, a housing association or a private owner—owns several properties in the same area and one tenant is causing a breach of the quiet enjoyment to the tenant next door or across the way, it should be possible to have a statutory device whereby, on sufficient complaint in writing by the aggrieved tenant and supported if necessary by the police or an environmental health officer, the landlord can take action as a breach of tenancy without leaving it to the other tenant to take action. Tenants would thereby know that if they broke the terms of reasonable neighbourliness, there was some prospect of them being prosecuted and if necessary—I say this conscious of the implications—losing their tenancy.
That requires simply that we adequately resource environmental health departments to ensure that there are enough officers to monitor the problem. The reality is that there are few such officers. In my borough, on only one night a week can people call on the environmental health department, which has a couple of officers who volunteer to be on duty. Sufficient civil or uniformed policing is not available.
I entirely endorse the sentiments of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine). Local authorities should be much more intelligent in their allocation policy than they often are. They allocate properties in the same area to people of totally different life styles. Placing families who have 1072 young children next to pensioner families is asking for trouble. A more sensitive allocation policy prevents many avoidable disturbances.
On transport, I want to register what seem to be the major complaints. The first very rarely affects a constituency such as Southwark and Bermondsey but it affects much of rural Britain: the extraordinary noise and frightening effect of low-flying aircraft. I stayed with my family in Herefordshire in the summer. Everybody jumped out of their skin as, one after another, low-flying aircraft flew over. My hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the north, Berwick-upon-Tweed and the Borders regularly complain about low flying. It is a blessed nuisance and it must be mitigated and minimised as much as possible.
The second complaint is much more of an urban problem, about which a public inquiry is being held in the City of London—helicopter noise. I have a simple view: in any built-up area it is not possible to have helicopters without adverse environmental impact. I have never known helicopters to be welcome additions to the transport scene in urban areas. The presumption should be strongly and regularly against them.
I ask the Minister to relay to his colleagues in the Department of Transport the point that track, whether it be underground or railway, should increasingly be the most modern technology available—rubberised track, which allows the softest transport of trains. We debated that in the context of the Jubilee line extension. It is possible to have much quieter track, which must be used on all railway developments.
Whatever other complaints we may have about the roads, the one that causes most aggravation is motor cycle noise. I do not know why so many people who ride motor bikes get away with making so much noise so often. It is perhaps because they go so quickly and one cannot take the registration number and report them, but of all the types of traffic noise, we must be much tougher on licensing, inspecting, checking and, if necessary, prosecuting those who ride motor bikes. They not only frighten people but add enormously to the noise of traffic, and a few people can make life hell for many. If they were caught more often, or prevented in the first place, life would be much better and we should have a much quieter existence.
§ Ms. Walley
With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to speak again.
Virtually every contribution has borne out the importance of the Government tackling the problems of noise. The Opposition have no doubt that the Noise Advisory Council is badly needed once again. Apart from anything else, the findings of the Batho working party have demonstrated that the Government should take action. They should not say, "Wasn't it an interesting debate? Don't we all understand the problems of noise even better?" They should set out in the Queen's Speech new legislation that takes on board the many important issues raised this evening. That is a job for the Under-Secretary of State in conjunction with every one of his colleagues in the Department of Transport—the debate has shown that noise is a dominant problem in transport-related issues—the Home Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and every other Department.
1073 The Under-Secretary should not be content with introducing legislation, although the Queen's Speech will be the litmus test of the Government's commitment to dealing with noise. Other things can be done that do not depend on new legislation. I should like the Under-Secretary, after the debate, to let me know what new regulations, statutory instruments and other forms of action will deal with the many problems about which we have heard.
Stoke-on-Trent district council has made representations to me about the issue raised by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and told me how harassed and intimidated tenants are by the prospect of having to make a court appearance to substantiate their allegations about an environmental health problem which should be dealt with by the local authority. It all comes down to resources and introducing a spirit of community so that people want to be more tolerant and are encouraged to be more concerned about others and about the effect of their behaviour on others.
Much has been said about environmental health officers. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers made a substantial contribution to the Batho report. That contribution must be matched by the Under-Secretary recognising that resources are needed. As I said in my opening remarks, the earlier debate on standard spending assessments showed that that had not been recognised. It must now happen. I urge the Under-Secretary to give us some idea whether he will consult as widely as possible with not only the Institution of Environmental Health Officers but the local authority associations which will be involved in implementing the proposals about which we have heard so much.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
The fact that we have had a debate on noise and had so many varied contributions from so many hon. Members shows that noise is very much on the environmental agenda.
The number of complaints from the public about noise nuisance has been rising for some time. This is due not so much to the fact that equipment and vehicles are noisier—often, the reverse is the case, although there are more aircraft and cars—as to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). People are now more demanding. Now that they have more disposable income and more leisure time, they are less inclined to put up with excessive noise. That is right and proper. This is very much a quality of life issue and it is wholly right that the Government should respond and draw up a package of measures to deal with this difficult subject.
No hon. Member has sought to over-simplify the problem. It is not just that many Departments of State are involved, although a glance at the last page of our noise review working party report shows that six Departments contributed to the review. The complexity of the subject also arises from the fact that judgments about noise are very subjective. Excessive noise is not just about decibel levels but about pitch, tone, timing and duration. That is one reason why the working party concluded that our approach of tackling the problem under the statutory nuisances provisions was right, and that an attempt to criminalise noise would probably fail.
1074 It is a tribute to the noise review working party that it anticipated almost all the points raised in this debate. It did not have complete answers to all the problems but it pointed the way, if not to immediate action, at least to further study. Not all the recommendations are fit for immediate legislation and some of them do not require primary legislation anyway. They concern matters such as building regulations, which can be put into effect without legislation. Other issues are to be pursued through planning guidance notes or negotiations with our European partners. Many of the items that cause noise—cars and other vehicles as well as aircraft—are internationally traded and it therefore makes sense to pursue noise abatement measures in an international context.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) drew attention to the need for resources, and in her introductory remarks, at any rate, she was rather dismissive of the noise chapter in the White Paper. She must surely agree that the fact that a whole chapter has been devoted to noise is an achievement in itself. I cannot help but draw a comparison between that and the paucity of comment on noise in the Labour party's document "An Earthly Chance", in which noise rates only half a column.
The hon. Lady complained that our White Paper lacked specific recommendations. That is an unfair charge, especially as I cannot help noting the wording of the noise section in the Labour party's document, which is full of phrases such as "We shall consider whether" and "We will look at strengthening" and "We will encourage manufacturers". I do not necessarily criticise the Labour party on that score, because these are difficult subjects and it is not always possible to be especially assertive, but it ill behoves the hon. Lady to criticise the Government in similar terms.
§ Ms. Walley
Does the Minister accept that the chapter in the White Paper is not enough if it is not backed up by legislation in the Queen's Speech next week? After all, it is the Government who have the responsibility to do something about noise.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
In his introductory speech, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside set out the Government's commitments. However, the working party review report is available for public consultation. It would not be proper to rush into early legislation on some of the issues that require extensive consultation, not least with the environmental health departments which are in the front line in the struggle to contain excessive noise.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North made much of the fact that more money—or more resources as it always seems to called these days—is necessary to tackle the problem at local authority level. Westminster council is one of the best councils at responding to complaints about noise nuisance. It maintains a 24-hour response and it manages that with one of the lowest community charges in the country. It is not simply a question of spending more money; it is a question of according the problem the right priority.
The hon. Lady also referred to quiet neighbourhood schemes and she gave the idea a cautious welcome. I am not entirely sure that that idea is the complete solution to the problem. However, I believe that it will help. We are 1075 funding a pilot scheme in London and the details will be announced shortly. It builds very much on the voluntary approach to noise control.
Not everyone emitting excessive noise does so deliberately to disturb his or her neighbours. If people in an area or a street could get together voluntarily and agree among themselves perhaps to give each other notice of a late-night party or to agree not to cut the grass on a Sunday or play the bagpipes after 10 pm, that would be good. It is possible for people to agree among themselves and avoid the need for outside statutory interference.
However, there are other forms of noise nuisance in which inescapably the Government must involve themselves more closely. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) spoke with predictable authority about railway noise and in particular about the problem facing his constituents who may be experiencing more noise on existing lines as a consequence of the channel tunnel and the London rail link.
Clearly my right hon. Friend is aware that that issue is being taken seriously by the Department of Transport, which is considering closely the noise implications of the channel tunnel scheme for those living in Kent. My right hon. Friend would agree that there is a difference between those faced, perhaps unexpectedly, with a new railway line and those who live alongside an existing railway line on which traffic may have increased. After all, they bought their houses and moved to the area in the knowledge that the railway line was there. However, I do not dissent from my right hon. Friend's view that a noise nuisance, however caused, is serious and that is why I am pleased that the Department of Transport is considering that aspect of the problem.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing also referred to the sources of rail noise. It is important that the construction and use of trains and rolling stock are now being addressed from a noise point of view in a European context. We already have the Road Vehicles Construction and Use Regulations and if we can produce something similar for railways and rolling stock, that would help reduce noise at source.
In that context, although no hon. Member raised this issue tonight, I believe that the idea of environmental labelling of consumer products generally might well take into account the potential in some items for noise emissions. When we get round to awarding environmental labels throughout the European Community, if one is considering things such as do-it-yourself equipment, the award of a label should take into account whether the equipment is noisy or whether some effort has been made in its design to moderate or suppress noise.
No one who heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) or the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) can fail to have been impressed by what their constituents go through in respect of neighbourhood noise—in particular, the specific problem of blues parties. The question whether such parties are a form of public entertainment is before the courts. Therefore, I cannot comment on that matter. However, I can draw attention to the passages in the noise working party report that deal with that issue.
1076 The noise abatement notice procedure works reasonably well when there is a persistent and repeated source of noise. In those cases, it should be possible for the environmental health officers concerned to conclude that there is a noise nuisance and to issue a noise abatement notice. If that notice is ignored, a criminal offence may have been committed, and a magistrates court can fine those concerned up to a maximum of £2,000. In the case of noise nuisance from commercial or industrial premises the fine is being increased to £20,000.
I concede that special difficulties arise when noise nuisance may move about from house to house. That is one of the features of pay parties. It is not always known in advance which houses or premises will be used. Therefore, it is often impossible for environmental health officers to serve a noise abatement notice in time, or indeed even when the event is in progress.
The Batho working party has recommended that we examine the possibility of strict liability or of making it an offence to permit one's property to be used in a way that leads to the emission of excessive noise. We shall certainly look closely at that, but I repeat that the Batho working party and, so far, our own deliberations have concluded that it is not realistic or right to make noise nuisance a criminal offence in itself. The working party said that any attempt to define noise would eventually have to fall back on the concept of whether the noise concerned is a nuisance. If it is a nuisance, it is best dealt with by the fairly well-tried and tested procedures under the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as I think I am entitled to call it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham mentioned a number of issues, including dogs. I did not think that it would be possible for me to get through today without debating dogs in some form or another. My hon. Friend quite rightly said that the registration of dogs does not make them bark any less loudly, although I remind him that barking dogs are subject to control under the Control of Pollution Act and therefore fall to be controlled under the statutory nuisance provisions.
I also agree with my hon. Friend about piped music, which I regard as an abomination. However, naturally the thrust of his remarks concerned transport noise, and especially the noise from aircraft. Again, he speaks with great authority. It chiefly falls to another Department to respond to his comments, and I undertake to draw them to the attention of the Minister for Public Transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham also mentioned motor cycles, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson). Officials in my Department are shortly to meet representatives of a group of interested organisations that have prepared a draft code for off-the-road motor cycle sports. That may not be terribly relevant to Twickenham, but it is important in more rural areas. The general question of motor cycle noise is a classic instance of noise emitted by an internationally traded commodity. I can confirm that Britain is in the forefront of efforts being made in the European Community further to reduce and restrict noise from motor cycles and motor cycle silencers at source.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) spoke with great legal knowledge about abatement notices. He asked whether excessive noise could be made a criminal offence; I believe that I have already dealt with that point. He also emphasised the key role of environmental health departments. That was also 1077 recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who concluded that they are usually too busy. I suppose that the same could also be said about the police, who are also stretched. It all comes back to priorities. In the Environmental Protection Act 1990 we have laid a duty on environmental health departments to respond to all reasonable complaints, and I hope that they will take that issue seriously.
As I expected, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North raised the question of audible bird scarers. I am grateful for the constructive way in which he has contributed to the deliberations within my own Department about the working out of a code of practice. Coming, as I do, from a rural area, I recognise that bird scarers can be nuisance. My hon. Friend very fairly recognised that farmers do sometimes rely on them, but the Government are responding to that acknowledged difficulty by drawing up a code of practice. Two drafts have been prepared for consultation, and, after all the preliminary work and consultation has concluded, we intend to publish it. My hon. Friend will know that it does not itself have statutory force, but it is taken into account by courts in determining whether a source of noise amounts to statutory nuisance. This system of codes of practice gained the endorsement of the Batho working party.
I hope that I have managed to cover most of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a telling point about tenancy law; I believe that, if local authority tenancy agreements require that no noise be caused, failure to comply can already lead to eviction without the liability to rehouse falling on the local authority concerned. However, I shall read his remarks in Hansard to see whether we have anything further to learn.
I thank all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and if I may, I will take their remarks into account in the general consultation procedure that we are undertaking following publication of the Batho working party review.
§ The Lords Commissioner to the Treasury (Mr. Irvine Patnick)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.