Noise is an unavoidable part of everyday life. Whether we live in a town or the countryside, we are surrounded by noise most of the time. While we all contribute to that and must accept a certain degree of noise from others’ activities, some types of noise are unwelcome, especially at particular times and, in extreme cases, noise may have a damaging effect on our health.

The job of the environmental health practitioner (EHP) is to ensure that as far as practicable the degree of noise in the environment around us remains at a level that is not harmful to health.

There are several ways in which EHPs help to control the amount of noise in the environment. The ideal approach is to try and prevent excessive amounts of noise occurring in the first place, for example by advising on suitable noise limits when planning applications for new developments are being considered.

Where excessive noise does occur, EHPs can usually investigate and suggest solutions. In many cases, the person or business making the noise will be unaware they are causing a problem and it may be resolved by offering them advice on reducing the noise, or by getting them to talk with those living or working nearby to agree a mutually acceptable solution. Sometimes formal mediation can help in these situations.

If, however, a solution is not achievable by persuasion or negotiation and an EHP considers the noise to be so bad that it may be harmful to health, they may be able to take legal action under the statutory nuisance provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or other legislation.

In the longer term, EHPs are working to ensure that overall levels of noise in the environment are gradually reduced. Noise mapping is one of the tools employed in the UK and EU. It involves identifying the number of people affected by different sources and levels of ambient noise. This knowledge can help in the production of noise action plans to manage the noise, reduce levels where appropriate and promote tranquillity.

In March 2010 the Government published a Noise Policy Statement for England. The aim of the policy is to promote good health and a good quality of life through the management of noise within the context of Government policy on sustainable development. The CIEH has endorsed the Statement and has urged local authorities to adopt it, not only by embedding it across all their departments but also by promoting it among their communities.

CIEH publications on noise

▼ Noise and Health 

The health effects of noise are divisible into two: auditory and non-auditory.

The first are about impairment of hearing and occur almost exclusively in industrial settings. Environmental noise levels do not produce these effects.

Non-auditory effects include, most commonly, annoyance (if such an effect can truly be called a ‘health’ effect), sleep disturbance, interruption of speech and social interaction, disturbance of concentration (and hence of learning and long-term memory), and hormonal and cardiovascular effects.

While it is often suggested, there is no real evidence that noise per se induces mental illness, though there is some to suggest that noise-sensitive people are more prone to mental illness and that the effects of noise may be more pronounced in mentally ill people.

Sources of further information

▼ Noise Mapping 

A noise map is rather like a weather map: it shows the hotspots where it is noisy and the cooler areas where it is quiet. Noise maps are produced by computer software which predicts the noise level at a specific point as it spreads out from the sources of noise that have been included. The software takes account of features which affect the spread of noise such as buildings, the shape of the ground and whether the ground is acoustically absorbent (e.g. a field) or reflective (e.g. concrete or water).

Noise maps have three main purposes:

  • They can be used to find areas where noise levels are high and these can be linked to population data to estimate how many people are affected
  • They can help in the production of noise action plans to manage noise and reduce noise levels where appropriate
  • They can be used to test the effectiveness of different methods of reducing noise, whether by planning – e.g. re-routing traffic – or noise reduction techniques – e.g. noise barriers. Alternative approaches can be rated according to the number of people benefited and the cost of implementing the plan to decide which are the most cost-effective.

Noise maps can also help to identify quieter areas which can be protected.

Under EU Directive 2002/49/EC of 25 June 2002 relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise, noise mapping must be carried out for all agglomerations with more than 250,000 inhabitants and for all major roads which carry more than six million vehicles a year, as well as major railways which carry more than 60,000 trains per year and major airports.

Further information

▼ Planning and Noise 

Expert bodies launch consultation on noise and planning

Over recent years, we have seen the introduction of the Noise Policy Statement for England, as well as substantial changes in national planning policy. But these developments have not been accompanied by detailed technical acoustic advice.

The lack of detailed guidance can lead to the inconsistent application of policy that may in turn result in unsatisfactory development and affect quality of life.

To fill that gap and facilitate efficient and consistent decision-making in the development control process, the Institute of Acoustics, the Association of Noise Consultants and the CIEH have joined to produce Professional Practice Guidance (ProPG) focussing on noise sensitive development.

Following two regional workshops and formal open consultation on a draft text, the working group are now considering all the comments received before finalising the guidance for publication.

The National Planning Policy Framework (March 2012) states that planning policies and decisions should aim to:

  • avoid noise from giving rise to significant adverse impacts on health and quality of life as a result of new development;
  • mitigate and reduce to a minimum other adverse impacts on health and quality of life arising from noise from new development, including through the use of conditions;
  • recognise that development will often create some noise and existing businesses wanting to develop in continuance of their business should not have unreasonable restrictions put on them because of changes in nearby land uses since they were established
  • identify and protect areas of tranquillity which have remained relatively undisturbed by noise and are prized for their recreational and amenity value for this reason.

Effective land use planning is important to help prevent or mitigate potential noise impacts. The express inclusion of noise in the National Planning Policy Framework means that it will be a material consideration in local planning decisions. Design, including acoustic design, is another material consideration and a failure to reflect it may result in the refusal of development consent. Where noise may be an issue, a noise impact assessment may be required as an integral part of the process for making those decisions and should be sought at the earliest possible stage of the planning process.

By avoiding the location of noise sensitive uses near to noise-producing premises, noise problems can often be prevented. Where this is not possible, noise controls need to be incorporated into new noise-producing developments and mitigation measures may be prudent for new noise sensitive developments such as housing, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and places of worship.

It is an important function of the environmental health service to contribute to a local authority’s land use planning functions by providing professional and technical support and expert advice on noise, which may include:

  • drafting policies relating to noise for local development plans;
  • assessing the localised noise impacts of new development proposals by vetting planning applications and drafting appropriate planning conditions and informal guidance;
  • contributing to the decision making process by preparing or contributing to committee reports and attending committee meetings where necessary; and
  • providing technical input into the assessment of compliance with planning conditions relating to noise, and contributing to the planning enforcement process.

While a grant of planning consent cannot excuse any nuisance subsequently caused by the development, applicants for schemes which may give rise to noise issues are strongly advised to discuss their proposals with their local environmental health department at an early stage.

▼ The Control of Noise 

The principal legal control over neighbourhood noise is based on the concept of 'nuisance', contained in Part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Act empowers local authorities to deal with noise from premises such as homes, pubs, and factories, and from machinery, equipment and vehicles in the street.

If an environmental health practitioner is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists, the local authority will usually, though not always, serve an Abatement Notice on the person responsible for the problem. Failure to comply with the notice after that time is a criminal offence, and the person could be prosecuted. Equipment used in the commission of a noise offence can be seized.

There are some occasions where the local authority is unable to take action, particularly where the noise occurs intermittently and is not judged to be a statutory nuisance. If the local authority decides that formal action cannot be taken, the complainant will be informed and will be given advice about taking action themselves if they wish to do so.

Further information and advice on dealing with noisy neighbours can be found in the following Defra information guide:

If you are currently suffering a noise nuisance and need advice or assistance, please contact your local council environmental health department. You may be able to do this by email. See the Directgov website for details.

Summary of noise legislation as at September 2012.

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