My call for review of council noise enforcement: Scrutiny chair asks officers to respond
Updated: Feb 13, 2021
Councillor Anthony Negus has asked council officers to respond to issues I raised about Bristol's noise-enforcement policies. (This article has been updated: see end note)
This follows a public-forum statement I made to a February 8 meeting of the council's Communities Scrutiny Commission, which Cllr Negus chairs.
My statement cited a paper I have posted here, "Noise Enforcement in Bristol: A Failure to Protect Communities", which calls for a review of current policies—by both the council and the police—in a bid to ensure residents are protected against night-time disturbances that rob them of sleep:
I told the Scrutiny meeting the paper lays out key topics:
"Most important are the council's refusal to deal with so-called "one-off" events such as loud late-night parties. The police also refuse to respond to these events—101 tells callers it's the council's responsibility. So neither agency acts and residents are left to endure sleepless nights. Communities are being poorly served."
Among potential issues that a review might seek to answer, the paper suggests the council's Neighbourhood Enforcement Team should be asked to clarify the legal basis for its current approach (paragraph 1.15). I also queried whether the team is aware the police routinely refer 101 callers to the council (paragraph 2.7).
After my public-forum statement, in which I cited the web link to the paper, Cllr Negus said council officers would be asked to respond.
"As chair I'm going to ask that the questions within that statement and also the statement itself has a reply, please, because I think it sums up many of the things we've mentioned in the past both as individual councillors and as a Scrutiny commission. So, I think it would be very good to have the council's answers to the points you raise, which have been well put."
(See links at end for video record of meeting.)
Central to the council's enforcement policy is its interpretation of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the main legislation it uses in relation to noise. At the Scrutiny commission's December meeting, where I also spoke, a council officer linked "statutory nuisance", the key legal concept in the Act, to "ongoing" noise, meaning disturbance that happens regularly or is continuing.
For the council to serve 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 one-off parties, there isn’t kind of any action that can be taken," the officer said in December.
I challenge that view. In the paper, both in the main section and in a more detailed appendix, I show there are a number of cases in which courts have found "nuisances" (in the legal sense) to exist even in cases involving single events.
I also show evidence that Bristol City Council itself had different approaches in the recent past that did not regard "one-off" events as beyond its jurisdiction.
It's clear one of the main reasons the position has changed is spending cuts. The council was forced to axe its out-of-hours noise hotline several years ago. (Enforcement officers do still work out-of-hours but only on cases they've already accepted for investigation.) This means that by the time the council receives a complaint about an all-night party, the event will have finished and officers will not have had chance to witness it or take noise readings.
But other evidence might be available, especially as most residents these days have smart phones that can take video, record sound and make noise measurements. Unfortunately, the council won't know whether such evidence exists because the noise-complaints page on its website is set up to reject cases unless they're supported by a 14-day noise diary—a strategy that suits cases of "ongoing" noise caused by rowdy neighbours but effectively blocks complaints about "one-off" events such as parties.
I argue that by preventing people from registering complaints about "one-off" events, some of which might meet the test of a statutory nuisance, the council is potentially in breach of the duties imposed on it by the Environmental Protection Act.
I also suggest that, in the process, the council is rejecting valuable data about the frequency and nature of noise in the city. This could be important because the council has just lost a planning appeal in which its efforts to block a new student HMO were overturned—the planning inspector hearing the appeal said "no cogent evidence" of the harms HMOs might cause had been presented to him.
In pushing for a review, my main hope is that the council will open up its complaints page so that noise of all types can be reported. Complainants should be asked to fill in a web form with key data that can then be screened automatically to identify cases that might qualify as statutory nuisances; only then should a judgment be made about whether officers can take "reasonably practicable steps" (which is what the law requires) to investigate and take action.
I don't expect this would result in a sudden burst of enforcement actions—there still will be many cases where it's difficult to act after the event. But I believe it will preserve an opportunity for action in cases of major disturbance witnessed by many people. It will also make it more difficult for the council to ignore these problems.
I argue that the police should also review their position, since many night-time noise disturbances meet the definition of anti-social behaviour, which the police can deal with. While it's true the passage of the Environmental Protection Act in 1990 gave powers to councils rather than the police, the much more recent Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, passed in 2014, recognises that noise is an ASB matter as well as an environmental nuisance.
Indeed, one of the bright spots I note in the paper is the success of Operation Beech, which is staffed by officers from Avon & Somerset Police but paid for by the University of Bristol and specifically targets student noise in designated areas. Residents can access the service through a dedicated mobile-phone number. (In contrast, the same police force tells callers to 101 its officers don't deal with noise in private dwellings—residents are advised to contact the council.)
Although I applaud the Beech initiative, I think there are still areas in which the city's universities should be challenged. The most important one is the need for a substantial, sustained—and, above all, effective—effort to educate students about the responsibilities they will face when they move into rented accommodation in the community.
In my introduction to the paper, I conclude: "Action is long overdue to uphold the basic right of residents to get a good night's sleep and be protected from behaviour that harms mental, physical and emotional well-being."
I also submitted written questions ahead of the meeting—see the link below.
Communities Scrutiny Commission, Feb 8 2021 agenda page (choose "Public Forum" to see answers to written questions): https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=8601
The meeting was held on Zoom. The YouTube video record is available at the following link. My public-forum statement lasted from 11.10 to 13.50 and Cllr Negus spoke immediately after: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D79F95oZWX4&ab_channel=BristolCityCouncilLive
My statement to the meeting:
Responses to my public-forum questions—see separate article.
Revision note (13/02/2021):
This article was originally posted in advance of the meeting. I have updated the headline and opening paragraphs to reflect Cllr Negus's comments and include necessary context. I have also added a link to the YouTube video of the meeting and to a separate article about the written questions I submitted, and the answers that were provided.