This website and its aims
The Noise Pages focuses on noise issues involving students living in rented properties in residential areas near the University of Bristol. Yes, other people can also be noisy and disruptive, but "student noise" has a history and context that warrants special attention: Experience shows that noise problems in this area are indeed most often associated with students; and they are subject to university disciplinary rules that don't apply to other people. In conjunction with residents' groups, this website seeks solutions to these problems. Read more below.
I worked in journalism for more than 30 years, starting as a reporter on my local newspaper near Manchester and finishing as a copy editor in Hong Kong with Bloomberg, the business and finance newswire. After almost 20 years in Hong Kong I returned to the UK with my family in 2005. We settled in Bristol, and have not regretted it. The city has a buzz, a pleasant environment and plenty of historic buildings. I'm supposed to be completing a decade-long renovation of our Victorian home, built in 1857.
For much of my 11 or so years in Redland, noise wasn't a big problem. That changed in 2013, with an outbreak of loud parties nearby. The problem has fluctuated since, some years worse than others.
Students are present for only about two-thirds of the year, and that includes some quieter periods (exam time). Summers are peaceful. A lot of students do not annoy their neighbours. But the minority who do is sizeable, and it's a bit of a lottery as to whether they end up living in your street. Some residents may wonder what the fuss is about; others are less fortunate.
The biggest sources of disturbance are loud, late-night parties and students shouting on their way to and from the pubs and clubs. These problems have worsened in recent years, with more rowdiness on the streets at night and a trend towards bigger, louder house parties with hired DJs, sound equipment and doormen. Some of these attract 100 or more people—far more than a Victorian house was designed for—raising health and safety, insurance and legal concerns. (Plus, neighbouring gardens become public lavatories and there's vomit and litter on the pavements next day.)
In the Redland, Cotham and neighbouring areas which this website focuses on, these problems chiefly involve students with the University of Bristol (UoB). A few students from the University of the West of England (UWE) also live in this area and are occasionally cited in noise complaints. The group most complained about are second-year UoB students "living out" for the first time. (First-years live in halls and are not a focus of this website.) Post-graduate students are more likely to be among those complaining about noise, as are university staff who live locally.
There's no magic bullet. The police don't have statutory powers to deal with noise from a private house, though they can respond to public-order offences on the streets. They also have powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. These are being used against student parties in some parts of the country, but not here, it seems. I continue to press the case with our local neighbourhood policing team.
Bristol City Council's enforcement officers do have noise powers, but they're not easily invoked late at night. Cut-backs in staff and spending have rendered the council largely ineffective on noise.
As for the universities, both say they're not responsible for what students do off-campus. But they do tell students to respect their neighbours, and discipline those who don't—including for misbehaviour in private property. UoB maintains it has no power to intervene at the time the misbehaviour is happening (a view I challenge). Residents want them to do more.
One group that often escapes attention is landlords and their agents. Most student houses are licensed HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupation). These come under a regulatory regime that puts a legal duty on landlords to try to prevent anti-social behaviour (ASB). Landlords, in turn, are monitored by the council. This regime is clearly failing to curb ASB as intended. I recommend that residents should send their noise complaints to landlords, as well as the university, and I offer advice on how to do that.
What about students themselves? Might those who behave responsibly exert some peer pressure on those who don't—to protect the reputation of all students?
Finally, discussion on this subject routinely brings up a comment about the economic benefits the universities bring to Bristol. Given that universities receive significant amounts of public money, those benefits are a return on investment, not an act of charity or some sort of bonus. In any event they neither excuse, nor compensate for, anti-social behaviour. Residents are right to insist the universities ensure their students don't impose an unfair burden on the areas where they live.
I seek to reduce community tensions, not increase them. With that in mind, here are the main principles I work to.
Journalism: Since this is my background, I try to be objective, fair and factual. I will correct any factual mistakes brought to my attention. I try to be transparent in what I do. I believe I'm reporting on matters in which there is a legitimate public interest.
Data privacy: I've had extensive discussion with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees data privacy, as well as receiving legal advice from a subscriber. I believe my use of data, both now and in the past, complies with the law.
Incident reports: One of the things I do is to report on noise incidents, based on my own observations, information from people I trust, corroborative accounts from other residents, or a combination of all of these. The purpose of the reports is to show the extent of the problem and to highlight the real impacts on residents—insights that inform efforts by me and residents' groups to seek better responses from students, universities, landlords, police and council.
Names: I don't name students involved in noise incidents—this site is not about "naming and shaming", and never has been. Usually, I don't know students' names, unless they have emailed me, which they are welcome to do. In any event, I don't store this information in any database. I also don't name residents who send me information about incidents. I occasionally name residents in news reports, usually because they are acting in some capacity with a residents' group. I also have a list of subscribers, which contains names and email addresses of people who have signed up to receive my email newsletter.
House addresses: I've made a key change recently (January 2019) in how I present reports of noise incidents. From now on, I will not routinely include house numbers in reports. I will rely on the street name, date, and approximate location to indicate where an incident took place. Residents sending me an incident report should continue to include a house number in their email so I can be sure to match their comments to the right event (especially, for example, when two events happen in the same street on the same date); I will edit out the number for purposes of publication. However, although I will not routinely publish a house number, I will store the number in an off-site database of incidents so that I can analyse trends and, particularly, identify HMOs which receive repeated mentions. In these instances, there may be a case to contact the landlords and/or the council with a request for better supervision.
(My belief that we should insist the HMO regulations be made to work as intended was the original reason for including house numbers. Publishing the numbers was the fairest and most accurate way to convey the facts. However, students have claimed this practice made their houses vulnerable to thieves—a story that has started to take on a life of its own, with plenty of conjecture and very few facts. This diverts attention from the core issue: Keeping people awake at night is not acceptable and it's about time students recognised their behaviour needs to change. Rather than have that message drowned out by rumour-mongering, I decided to take the issue off the table. It makes no difference to the aims of the site.)
Leafleting: After a noise incident, I may leaflet nearby houses to find out who has been affected. If residents send noise reports to me, whether in response to a leaflet or not, I may quote from those emails in compiling a report for publication. I don't identify the residents who have emailed me. (If ever there is a need to do so, I will ask permission first.)
There are two universities in Bristol, the University of Bristol (UoB), close to the city centre, and the University of the West of England (UWE), whose campus is further north. References on this site to "the university" will usually be to UoB unless otherwise stated, because my principal focus is on noise in Redland, Cotham, Kingsdown, Clifton and other districts close to the UoB campus. The vast majority of students in those districts are with UoB. However, there are some UWE students here and I post contact details etc for UWE. I do not intend, for the moment at least, to get into issues relating to first-year students living in UoB university halls in Clifton or Stoke Bishop—they are officially "on campus". My focus is on students in the second year and above who live in rented private-sector accommodation.