HC Deb 23 May 1991 vol 191 cc1114-20 1.59 pm
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to bring again to the attention of the House the problem of noise—in particular, the problem of noisy parties and the noise created by individuals, mainly in the towns and cities of our country.

The House will remember that on 31 October 1990 we debated the subject at some length and discussed comprehensively the problems caused by noise. I intend to concentrate now on a very wide subject—the problems caused by individuals who seem totally bereft of any feeling for their fellow citizens and neighbours.

At that time in October—and before that date—we had available to us an excellent White Paper from the Department of the Environment. We also had available to us the Batho report—a Government working party report —on noise nuisance. Since then, the Environmental Protection Bill has been passed, part of which takes into account the problem to which I wish to draw the attention of the House.

It is particularly apt that the debate should take place at this time when my postbag and, I suggest, those of many hon. Members are beginning to reflect concern about noise as summer approaches. People remember the last two summers, which were long, hot and dry. Due to parties in and around our towns, noise nuisance increased. An interesting press article recently suggested that my hon. Friend the Minister was considering a fresh approach to the problem. Since last October's debate, he has had time to reflect upon it. His Department has issued a few directives and suggestions which I believe will help us to combat this terrible nuisance. It is pertinent to point out that the complaints about noise that local authorities have received increased tenfold during the past year. Only the dog problem comes close to that. I believe that that was aired earlier today.

It is pertinent to ask exactly what the problem is. I believe that there are two aspects to it. First, there is the noise caused by noisy parties. Inevitably, they are linked in the minds of the public with blues parties. In some cases, they are illegal, under recent legislation passed by the House. People are asked to pay to go to parties that are held outside the law. They are also asked to go to parties that take place on an ad hoc basis.

The tragedy of these events is that they do not occur for just one or two hours. Many go on for several days. I fear that during the coming weekend—a bank holiday weekend —a party might begin in my constituency tomorrow, Friday, and last at least until Monday. That will be a terrible nuisance for those who have to put up with the party and also for those who are not invited to it.

Many hundreds of people are likely to attend such parties. The way they behave and the nuisance that they cause should be of great concern to us all. It needs to be said—although I am sensitive on the issue because of the criticism that came as a result of the speech that I made in the House last October—that part of the problem arises in towns where there is a large Caribbean influence. That is the case in my constituency. Those of Caribbean origin tend to enjoy loud music rather more than the rest of us do. Their style of music is not particularly accommodating to those who live in close neighbourhoods. Also, regrettably, attached to some of those parties—only a minority—are activities such as drug taking and fornication. That is not my evidence but that of my constituents, and I bring it to the House's attention on that basis. There is concern that those communities tend to dominate lives in certain neighbourhoods with customs that are alien to those of Anglo-Saxon origin. It is a tiny majority, but the problem must be recognised and cannot easily be put under the carpet.

Those parties do not take place in warehouses outside towns or far away from residential areas. They tend to take place in tower blocks, of which there are several in my constituency. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) has had similar problems in his constituency. They tend to take place in close communities and, therefore, the nuisance they cause is doubled. If there is a party on, for example, the sixth floor of a tower block with loud music—one must not underestimate how loud the music can be—with scores of people attending, the nuisance extends throughout the tower block and adjoining blocks. It is a terrible problem.

There is also the problem caused by noisy individuals, some of which is deliberate. Last week I received a letter from one of my constituents who has problems with his neighbours. That is not unusual as many hon. Members receive such correspondence. Sometimes music is deliberately turned up to annoy neighbours. There is no doubt that ghetto-blasters played in the vicinity of others can cause extreme problems. Certain individuals seem content to enjoy themselves throughout the night to the annoyance of their neighbours. There are also instances of people deliberately turning up their television sets to annoy their neighbours. We must bear in mind that many of these events occur in tenements and council blocks with thin walls.

There is also the problem of car noise. High-powered cars may be revved up late at night, youngsters may roar up and down the street and music may be played loudly causing many problems for the neighbours.

On a minor scale, there is the problem of the do-it-yourself enthusiast. On occasions they seem to believe that they should be boring holes in the wall at 3 o'clock in the morning. Such persons may be doing admirable things to improve their own facilities, and l am aware that some facilities do need improving, but there are better times to do it.

Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

I do not look like—nor am I—a do-it-yourself man. I believe that there should be a chap with his name on his ladders. However, as my hon. Friend will know, there are self-build housing groups which need to work and can only work at weekends or in the evenings. Will my hon. Friend comment on those housing groups and on the curtailment of their activities being imposed by some over-enthusiastic local authorities? Those groups build perhaps 30 or 40 houses, not one or two. We should also include those chaps who want to build their own house and live in a caravan while doing so.

Mr. Carlisle

I sympathise with what my hon. Friend has said. Nobody would wish to lessen the enthusiasm of the do-it-yourself enthusiasts or the self-build housing groups. However, my hon. Friend will know that they have to obtain permission from the local authority, as do others, and if they are carrying out commercial work they have to obtain permission about hours. If any legislation is to be framed or any directive controls are to be imposed, they must take full account of those who go about their business legitimately and in a neighbourly way. My hon. Friend will agree that such people are not deliberately provocative—they just want to get on with a job that they have to do out of hours.

It is probably true to say that almost every hon. Member who, like myself, represents large urban areas has received complaints about noise. In last October's debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) outlined the problems faced by residents in city areas.

The message from that debate and from my constituents is that they seem powerless to act. The problem is that those who commit unneighbourly acts are not stopped by the various remedies that are available. Those remedies vary. The first and obvious one is for a report to be made to the local environmental health officer. Assuming that his office is open at night—many of these problems occur in the early hours of the morning—he will send an officer to answer the complaint. When the officer arrives on the scene, having ascertained what is going on and perhaps confirming the trouble, he offers the organiser of the party or the perpetrator of the noise 30 minutes' grace.

I am sure that environmental health officers will agree that the problem is identifying the organiser of the party. One can picture an environmental health officer, or his deputy, arriving at a party of 300 heaving bodies on the seventh floor of a tower block in Luton and trying to ascertain who organised it. The notice of abatement must be served on that person, who then has 30 minutes to turn the noise down. In most cases they do so, but when the officer disappears the music is turned up and the problem persists and sometimes worsens.

Often, environmental health departments will ask for witnesses. The problem is that people are reluctant to report on their neighbours. Hon. Members all have experience of that.

If legal action is taken, it is two or three months before the case gets to court, by which time the problem may have disappeared or have been forgotten by the public. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that the problem of identification is important.

The second remedy is for people to go to the police. It is a sad fact that in England the police have no power because making a noise is not a criminal offence. That is the nub of the problem. In many instances, the police will attend but do not have the manpower to prevent the party from continuing. They are often reluctant to go into a party of many people, who may be highly intoxicated, perhaps on drugs and, to put it kindly, in a boisterous mood. It has been reported to me that police have sat outside waiting in their cars. I fully understand their reluctance, especially where the party, as I said earlier, is of a Caribbean nature.

The police, who are sensitive and anxious to maintain racial harmony, are reluctant to break up such a party because of what might ensue if they do so. One must feel for young officers who are sent to deal with such an "offence"—I say that although it is not a criminal offence to cause much noise—only to find on arrival that they are severely outnumbered. I can understand the police being reluctant and somewhat fearful to intervene in some cases because of the lack of manpower.

Another option which has been promoted by my hon. Friend and his Department—and by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside in the previous debate—is to try to create a form of neighbourhood noise scheme. That idea sounds attractive and I know that some work has been done on it, but I fear that although such a scheme would probably work well in the nice suburban areas of some towns, it would not be much good in tower blocks with many hundreds of flats. It is unlikely that one could ever get people together to take on board a curfew or whatever was decided by the local community. It is a nice idea which would work in some areas, but I regret that it would not work in parts of my constituency because I personally know of some individuals who would take no notice of such a scheme.

The last remedy, which I have tried to use on some occasions, is to go to the local borough housing manager or to the committee if the people involved are council tenants and to ask if they are breaking their tenancy agreement by causing a nuisance. In some cases, the borough council is sympathetic, but there is a problem if the people are moved to another area and the noise springs up again. I do not believe—though I stand to be corrected —that the borough council would be able under the law to sever a tenancy unless the people were deliberately flouting their particular agreement.

The problem is that people who are afflicted by such parties and such noise have very little remedy to enable them to escape and to get things put right. Following the debate and in addition to the initiatives taken by the Department, there are other actions that we must take.

First, we must have the power, whether through the police, environmental health officers or anyone else, to stop such parties immediately or to stop the people making the noise. The 30 minutes' grace is nonsense, as is having to wait for court action. It must be possible to stop the party immediately if it is causing a nuisance to other people. Secondly, it must be a criminal offence to make such noise. There is no doubt that on some occasions the nuisance is terrible, as proved by the sad letters that we have all had, especially from old people. It must be made a criminal offence if people persist in making such a nuisance of noise to their neighbours.

Thirdly, the police must have the power, if necessary, to confiscate the equipment immediately. That would at least stop the immediate problem and might stop any future problem unless further equipment were purchased. However, such equipment is very expensive. Fourthly, everyone who attends a very loud party must be involved if arrests are made, as is the case in a pub serving drinks after hours. There must be more of a community responsibility to stop this terrible nuisance.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in his Budget speech that the great scourge of modern times was the noise emanating from mobile phones in rather plush London restaurants. I must say, with respect, that he knows nothing about the noise that emanates from parties in my constituency and from those in many other towns and cities. The scourge of noise and nuisance during the next few summer months will be terrible for many people in my constituency. It is the Government's duty to encourage any measure to combat that nuisance and at least to make people's lives a little more worth living.

2.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) has done the House a service by drawing to its attention his concerns and those of his constituents relating to the problems of noise. As my hon. Friend reminded the House, the problems of noise and Government plans for tackling them were the subject of a wide-ranging and thorough Adjournment debate last October. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing this opportunity to review progress since. I note from re-reading the official record of that debate that my hon. Friend spoke about particular concerns for him and for his constituents, including noise resulting from road-widening schemes and from noisy parties. Today, he has, for reasons that he explained, concentrated on noisy parties and I will shortly deal with his points.

Whether the problems are specific to Luton or nationwide, the Government fully understand the concern about noise which, although invisible, can be one of the most potent forms of pollution in its ability to irritate and to create stress in all our lives. It is important that people should feel confident that the problem is being tackled and mitigated. The Government have an important role in ensuring that the framework for doing so exists. We are taking action in many ways to mitigate the pollution of noise.

The Government's present policy initiative commenced with the setting up of an independent noise review chaired by James Batho. Its report was published together with our initial response last October.

Since last October's debate, part III of the Environmental Protection Bill has been enacted and the maximum fine for breach of a noise abatement order on trade or business premises has been substantially increased. We also took the opportunity to amend the Bill to give effect to one recommendation that we knew would emerge from the noise review and we clarified the duty on local authorities to take reasonable steps to investigate complaints. In addition to the review and the Environmental Protection Act, we published the White Paper "This Common Inheritance" during the same period. It has a chapter on noise and a good deal of the noise review working party's thinking is in it.

However, my hon. Friend concentrated his concerns on noise from neighbours. There is no doubt that noise from neighbours generates most complaints and that it is, in some ways, the most intractable topic because individual freedoms as well as nuisance are involved. Seeking to strike the right balance between individual freedoms is never easy.

It must be sensible for neighbours to try to sort out problems among themselves before invoking the local authority and the law. With that in mind, I am delighted that our first pilot neighbourhood noise awareness scheme has recently been launched in the Forest Hill area of Lewisham. The straightforward idea of the scheme is simply that a local group of residents come together in an area of about 1,100 dwellings, mixed in both form and tenure—some privately owned, some council owned, some detached houses and some blocks of flats. A leaflet has been prepared by and for the residents suggesting ways in which the impact of noisy activities can be restricted. In preparing the leaflet, the residents have sought collectively to determine, for example, when it is sensible for people to carry out DIY work or when it is sensible for them not to carry out DIY work.

Anyone who is suffering and who cannot secure an improvement by a direct approach can drop a note into the local authority neighbourhood office and the complaint will be followed up. The Department of the Environment has funded the development work on the project. We will watch its progress closely and we shall be interested to see how it develops. We hope that if the initiative in Lewisham proves to be a success, it can be replicated elsewhere, including, perhaps, my hon. Friend's constituency.

In view of the misleading impression that may have been given in some articles in the press about the neighbourhood noise awareness scheme, I stress that in all such schemes the initiative must lie with residents. The leaflet will say whatever they want it to say. There is no national model telling people what to do—nor is there necessarily a desire to prevent individuals from engaging in particular activities. The objective is to make people think about the disturbance that they may cause and about the times of day at which their neighbours may find that least irritating. Where disputes arise, the scheme will enable communities to settle them without recourse to court action, although the power for an individual to go to court as a last resort remains unchanged.

My hon. Friend referred to the difficulties caused by noisy private parties, such as blues parties, which go on not just for hours but sometimes for days, and at a volume that pollutes the local environment. He expressed concern about ghetto-blasters and car radios played loudly either unthinkingly or, even worse, deliberately. We have given a good deal of thought to complaints about noisy private parties. As my hon. Friend emphasised, those who complain about noisy parties are frequently frustrated that they are powerless to act. It is understandable, therefore, that they should become even more frustrated and furious when they find that a local authority officer or police officer arriving at the scene of a party is apparently also powerless to act to stop it in its tracks.

The officers face several obstacles. Making a noise is not in itself a criminal offence. The name of the organiser cannot be ascertained. The noise-maker cannot be arrested. Moreover, I suspect that there are problems of natural justice in making the owners of premises responsible even if they are not there when the party is held. We are looking at ways in which to make progress on that. It may be possible for council officials temporarily to remove equipment such as loudspeakers, with police support where appropriate. I am also considering the provision in Scotland, where it is an offence not to desist from making a noise when requested by the police to do so.

My hon. Friend specifically referred to blues parties. In addition to the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act, we must bear in mind the fact that blues parties that party-goers pay to attend may qualify as private entertainments and may need to be licensed. If a council can establish that a party is being held for private gain and if that party is not licensed, penalties may be imposed. A fine of up to £20,000 or imprisonment for up to six months or both may be applied in respect of parties for which no licence is held, or if a licence exists but its conditions have been breached. Those powers constitute a significant deterrent to the people who organise blues parties with the intention of making a profit.

The noise review working party was also concerned with the control of noise from commerce and industry in mixed residential areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) reminded us that these issues are not always easy to resolve. In many towns there are no neat distinct residential and commercial areas. Some people might want to build new homes. However, local authorities can take action in respect of self-build if they believe that a nuisance is being caused to others.

We are concerned that the present arrangements for mixed residential areas are not completely satisfactory. We shall be writing to the British Standards Institution about the recent revision of the relevant British standard. We are also considering the regulations on noise abatement zones. Modern technology should allow us to make the regulations simpler and more useful. We intend to underpin the work on tackling the nuisance of noise with appropriate research.

The Department of the Environment spends about £750,000 a year on research and the priorities have recently been re-ordered in line with the priorities identified by the working party. I hope that the House will see—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)