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Reading the runes on noise: Mixed messages in the data

The Noise Pages recorded 117 noise incidents in 2021-22, from July 2021 to end-June this year.

Most of these, 57%, occurred in Cotham ward, followed some distance behind by Clifton Down and Clifton wards. (Perhaps more people in Cotham report to this website.)

The monthly pattern of incidents (dark bars in the chart) shows a transition away from the unusual spikes that happened during the two “covid summers”. After the extraordinary surge in July 2020, there was a marked drop in July 2021. That trend continued in July 2022, with just four incidents reported, representing a welcome return almost to the “zero” levels of pre-pandemic summers.

Although noise picked up sharply in September 2021 as students flocked back to the city, incident numbers didn’t reach the usual October peak and remained relatively subdued for the rest of the year.

That at least is the picture portrayed by the reports residents sent to this website (and confirmed to a degree by conversations with people around the district). However, those reports are only a sample of complaints sent to the universities, since not all residents copy their emails to me.

Other data sources suggest a more mixed picture—including, on the face of it, a big increase in the number of noise incidents being reported.

Operation Beech

First, there’s the number of callouts reported by Operation Beech, the anti-noise police patrol funded by University of Bristol. Beech attended 298 incidents during September to June—and the monthly breakdown does show October as the busiest.

The Beech figures don’t include July and August 2021, which were noisy months, as the Noise Pages data shows. Still, they cover the whole of the area around UoB. And as such they provide some clues as to what the overall levels of noise were in 2021-22.

If we imagine Beech attends three-quarters of all noise incidents (probably an over- estimate), then its total, rounded to 300, implies at least 400 overall. Add in some significant numbers for July and August 2021 and the total for the past year, July to June, could easily have been 500 or more.

Circa 500 noise complaints in a year?! That’s huge!

It’s more than double the pre-pandemic trend—in 2017-18 and 2018-19, UoB reported area-wide noise totals of 218 and 205 respectively.

UoB Numbers

Is such a big increase credible? It seems to be, based on partial figures UoB reported to the Bristol Student Community Partnership. The university’s new community liaison officer, ex-policeman Steve Smith, recorded 156 noise incidents from March, when he took office, to end-June.

As a crude estimate, if we multiply that four-month tally of 156 by 3 we get 468 incidents over 12 months. And since March to June is typically a quieter period, 468 is probably on the low side. So, yes, a ballpark figure of 500 incidents for the full year is quite possible.

(Last year, UoB reported 415 noise complaints for 2020-21, but since there were unanswered questions about how the numbers were compiled, I didn’t report them at the time. Even allowing for some possible differences in counting, it now seems clearer that noise numbers are indeed an order of magnitude higher than two years earlier.)

What happened?

Were the most recent crop of students hugely noisier than their predecessors? During the two covid summers, definitely. But even if you exclude those summer spikes, the signs still suggest a substantial increase on past annual totals. If we estimate over 10 months not 12 to recognise that past years had barely any summer incidents, the Beech data suggest a total around 400 while UoB’s numbers extrapolate to 390.

The likeliest cause, in my view, is that Operation Beech makes it easier to complain.

Easier to Access

Piloted in June 2019 (with minimal impact on that year’s figures), Beech was formally adopted in academic 2019-20 but ran only for parts of the year. Once covid hit, however, the patrols became a weekly fixture, employed partly as a means of policing student gatherings that breached covid rules. For most of the past two years, it has run three nights a week, every week. (This included July this year; after an August break, it will return in September—see article link below for more.)

Beech is easy to access—just key a number into your mobile phone and send a short text. That’s a lot simpler than hunting down the uni contact address and writing an email. And, if Beech works, it’s much more effective than a complaint the following day.

Because of its appeal, it seems plausible that Beech has expanded the numbers of people prepared to complain and that, probably, a lot of noise that might not otherwise have been reported is now coming to light.

If the opposite were true—that the prevalence of noise has substantially increased—I’d expect to be hearing about it (literally). But I don’t detect a big upsurge in my own area (if anything, the reverse), and I’m not receiving a flood of angry emails from residents. Nor am I seeing such signs in other media.

In summary, rising complaints (covid effects aside) appear chiefly to reflect better reporting. And in a sense, that’s positive—there’s clearly much to do, but we know more about what’s happening, and where.

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