Cotham and Clifton Down councillors have voiced support for a possible review of Bristol’s noise and waste enforcement procedures.
Their comments came at a meeting of the council’s Communities Scrutiny Commission on 7 December 2020 as it considered a report on HMO licensing, planning regulation and ways in which noise and waste problems are handled.
I took advantage of public-forum rules to present a statement to the meeting (held on Zoom).
Pointing to the report’s own conclusions, I suggested that licensing and planning cannot solve the here-and-now issues in areas with lots of HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation), and there was therefore a need to find ways of making noise and waste enforcement more effective.
You can see the official meeting video at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWxy7y_TPOY&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=BristolCityCouncilLive. I present highlights below. (Times are when a person starts speaking. Excerpts aren't in chronological order.)
In my statement (0-58-36), I urged the council to look more closely at how enforcement is carried out:
► "As the report notes, neither HMO licensing nor planning regulation can bring immediate change. It says the most appropriate vehicle to deliver a (quote) “immediate response” to the kinds of problems mentioned is the council’s Neighbourhood Enforcement Team. If so, I think Scrutiny needs to take a detailed look at how NET operates. Disappointingly, I don’t see that analysis in this report."
I went on to give some examples of issues that should be looked at:
► "… The report talks a lot about waste management, whereas I believe the largest complaints category is noise. My area has many HMOs, most housing university students. Data from University of Bristol shows that noise accounts for more than 80% of the complaints it receives.
"Another example: You can’t make a noise complaint to NET unless you provide a 14-day noise diary. But many noise events don’t lend themselves to that approach. So people either don’t complain, or they fall at the first hurdle. Do NET records capture the noise problems that residents in Redland, Cotham, and Clifton experience? …"
Scrutiny Commissions—the council has several—are advisory bodies that examine subjects in detail with a view to making policies more effective. The Communities panel is headed by Cotham councillor Anthony Negus, a veteran of years of tussles over problems linked with HMOs.
Clifton Down councillor Carla Denyer, who’s a member of the commission, supported my remarks and suggested it should schedule a follow-up report looking more closely at the Neighbourhood Enforcement Team :
► (1-21-48) "The thing I want to pick up on is the point that Andrew Waller made in his statement … I do also share his view that there might be some inefficient processes or not prioritising the things that bring the most benefit, and so I wondered if either we could consider that ourselves as Community Scrutiny or that’s something that we could task someone with looking in to.”
Her fellow Clifton Down representative, Clive Stevens, also spoke at the meeting by way of a public-forum statement. Referring to NET’s noise-complaints procedures, which class loud parties as “one-off events” that won’t be investigated or recorded, he said:
► (1-01-15) "I appreciate that they’re not going to come out at 2 in the morning and sort things out, but the data collection is utterly critical for policy development and for other departments responding. So NET must, must, must start setting up an ability to record these one-off noise events …”
After Cllr Jo Sergeant also voiced support for a follow-up discussion, Cllr Negus indicated he would take soundings from members after the meeting. He noted that when enforcement had been raised earlier in the year as a potential agenda item, members had put it low down on their lists, but he added:
► (1-48-00) "I’m personally very happy to revisit that because I think this is such a complicated subject that goes to the heart of so many things we do in the city. I think we need to get this right. I think, despite what the officers have told us, there are powers that they desperately need and haven’t got. We do need to do things better and that needs national intervention. So … I’ll put round a note again, asking again if people would want to be able to take this forward to a further meeting."
The head of the Neighbourhood Enforcement Team, Chris Swinscoe, was present at the meeting and explained some of the constraints his department works under:
► (1-22-38) "I understand that work could be done in looking at how we focus our resources. I would say currently we have five-and-a-half officers dealing with waste and highways issues, three dealing with nuisance, and then three dealing with licence enforcement in relation to taxis and premises. So we do have a very small number.
"We do try to look at basically where we can have the most impact, and I know there are some frustrations with local residents that have been raised here to do with the diaries.
"A lot of our focus is actually on what we can actually legally do. So we are aware there’s a number of people who complain for example about noise. But of course our legal duty is around statutory nuisance. So, yes, whilst the resident may be disturbed by noise as a one-off incident … for the council to agree to take an action in serving the likes of an abatement notice, we’re already looking at a statutory nuisance, which is ongoing behaviour.
"So whilst we’re not disputing local residents are being disturbed by kind of [indistinct] one-off parties, there isn’t kind of any action that can be taken.
"One of the things that was done in creating Neighbourhood Enforcement … there was quite a reduction – a 40% reduction – in officers. So there has to be then a prioritising of that work that was going.
"There were also a number of issues to do with the back-office staff in relation to hundreds of reports of those one-off events …[they] were just building up and up and up and letters would be going out sometimes weeks later after an incident was gone. So the previous system where any one could just call in at any time wasn’t working, which is why we’ve introduced the 14-day diary to actually help do that assessment so we can prioritise our limited resources, be that with night visits, installing noise equipment or working with the university or different partners."
Comment: I was of course delighted to get chance to air these topics, and very happy that both "my" councillors weighed in with support. We will have to wait to see whether the commission agrees to hold a further discussion. If it does, I will be ready with comments and questions. (Indeed, I have already written to Cllr Negus indicating some of the areas I think should be looked at. I will probably post a further article in the next week or two.) AW
The meeting page is here: https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=149&MId=8600&Ver=4. The document under debate is agenda item 9 and is available for download.
Note: I and others also submitted a significant number of public-forum questions to the meeting, seeking further details on HMO licensing and planning matters. The questions and the written answers can be seen in the Public Forum pack (see fourth bullet point at the page above, or try this direct link): https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/b27006/Public%20Forum%207%20Dec%2020%2007th-Dec-2020%2017.00%20Communities%20Scrutiny%20Commission.pdf?T=9