Noise nuisance complaints account for a high proportion of the requests for assistance received by local authority noise teams and housing providers, whether local authority or registered social landlord managed. They are also some of the most emotive, with neighbour relationships frequently stretched to breaking point and the accompanying danger that longer-term animosity could develop.
In ASB complaints, noise is often an aggravating factor linked to wider and more serious issues such as substance misuse, drugs, sale of age-restricted products, rowdy parties and domestic abuse, including situations where children could also be at risk. In many cases, the noise complaint is the only tangible evidence of more serious issues.
What has been interesting during the Covid-19 lockdown and life during the subsequent easing of restrictions is the need to differentiate between what is unacceptable noise and situations where the levels of sound and behaviour are reasonable. Such factors as people cooped up for long periods of time whilst isolating, ambient noise levels possibly being lower, the neighbours’ kids climbing the walls, the hot weather fraying nerves and levels of anxiety being higher due to employment and financial concerns; all these can result in complaints being submitted, with an expectation that they are sorted out.
This is when some historic, embedded and, possibly, antiquated practices can contribute to and even elevate stress levels still further. Asking someone to keep a paper record of a noise problem that is happening at that very moment may be one such thing, but being able to quickly form an opinion about the severity of the disturbance from a recording submitted by the complainant can help put things in perspective, defuse the situation and avoid a protracted and involved investigation at an early stage.
The old public health adages around the importance of early intervention and prevention being the best form of cure are relevant in the context of noise problems. Whilst the concept of ‘designing out’ problems is applauded, more often than not the local landscape is what it is and those dealing with the issues around unwanted sound have to deal with what arrives in their in-tray (or rather, inbox).
Proactive neighbourhood and estate management will definitely assist, but by the time the victim of a noise problem has contacted the council or their landlord, they’re likely to be quite irritated. What isn’t going to ease their level of frustration is the perception that no one cares about their problem or things aren’t happening quickly enough in terms of finding a resolution.
Noise logging sheets can assist in initially assessing the nature and frequency of a problem and also in testing the commitment and determination of a complainant to assist the investigating authority, especially in situations where staff resources are limited or under pressure. The flip side is that they can be a way for an already busy investigating officer to delay getting involved in the investigation of a complaint and defer a decision about whether action is required. Granted, a not-insignificant number of the complaints will disappear because aggrieved individuals won’t always complete the sheets and there is no further contact with the service about the issue. But is this fair, especially for already disadvantaged individuals or groups? One has to ask the question ‘How would you like to be treated in such a situation?’
Reliance on the use of traditional diary sheets for the collation and verification of information doesn’t provide the citizen with the opportunity to record the offending noise. The practice can be viewed as outdated, because:
- The data provided is subjective, often of poor evidential value, open to misinterpretation and difficult to verify
- They rely on the capability of the victim to write up a description of their experience and the impact
- The data collection can be for an extended period of time, during which the victim continues to be subjected to disturbance
- Citizens are increasingly familiar with electronic communications and online services, and logging sheets are not an ‘immediate’ resource, often considered cumbersome and a burden to maintain, and
- Logging sheets are of limited value in assessing the relative impact of the disturbance and prioritising the response required.
Complainants become disillusioned and distrustful when, after spending weeks completing noise logging sheets, they are advised that what they have provided is insufficiently detailed, lacks clarity and, as a consequence, is unusable. The logs may also have to be disclosed if legal action does transpire sometime in the future, thus opening up the potential for the reliability of the complainant in a witness capacity to be challenged.
When the investigating officer receives the noise logging sheets, further investigations will likely still be needed. So the suffering individual could well join the queue waiting for the specialist sophisticated (and expensive) noise monitoring equipment. Once the officer has journeyed to the site, installed the kit, demonstrated how to use it, returned to the office and then back out to collect it, downloaded the files and then listened to and analysed the recordings, there may be enough evidence on which to make a decision about the appropriate intervention. Possibly just a little time consuming and costly when modern and customer-friendly options are available.
This is where The Noise App comes into its own. The Noise App utilises smartphone technology to enable citizens to submit a noise complaint, capturing significantly more information than is available with traditional paper diary sheets, letters, online forms and telephone calls. It empowers victims by providing them with the means of gathering evidence and confirming the impact that the disturbance has on them.
Personal data is collected by the subscribing organisation (the data controller) who can manage it in accordance with their data protection protocols. Cases received by the service can be quickly assessed and triaged. Malicious, vexatious and/or repetitive allegations can be quickly reviewed, filtered and closed, avoiding the need for unwarranted and protracted investigation.
This is a measurable cost saving in terms of officer resource. Cases needing further action can be allocated to officers or teams and a communication link established with the complainant. From a service-quality perspective, team leaders can access individual cases and review actions and progress. Being cloud based, the system is remotely accessible on a 24/7 basis to complainants and investigators alike.
There will be occasions when traditional arrangements will still need to be relied upon; examples include, if noise logging sheets are required to verify specific aspects of a complaint or affirm the reliability of a witness, or when individuals either don’t have access to or are not confident in using electronic devices. Specialist noise monitoring will also be required in situations where specific profiles of the noise are required, and this is important in connection with complaints associated with commercial, industrial and licensed activities.
Purchasing, maintaining, calibrating and deploying specialist noise monitoring equipment is expensive, though, so it needs to be used selectively. The Noise App enables the officer to obtain an insight into the nature of the problem and make a swift decision about intervention options. This is particularly relevant for issues that may require the involvement of other agencies.
In the modern world, and especially under such extraordinary circumstances, finding new ways to communicate quickly, effectively and safely with customers is paramount. As more of us become familiar with using phones and tablets to communicate for work or socially, now is the time to embrace the use of this technology and to engage with and support customers at the time when they need you most.