Noise – or unwanted sound – is a universal problem

Noise can be annoying, interrupt conversation, disturb sleep and, in extreme conditions, cause damage.

The types of noise that are experienced can be classified into some fairly broad categories: occupational noise which is experienced at work, neighbour or neighbourhood noise and environmental (ambient) noise caused by transport and industry.

Noise affects many people. In 2002/03 local authorities in England and Wales received five times as many complaints about noise than in 1982/83. Over 300,000 complaints about noise were received in 2002/03, up four fold from 1984/85. Research into attitudes to all sources of environmental noise was undertaken in 2000 on behalf of Defra. The research found that 18% of respondents reported noise as one of the top five environmental problems that personally affected them. Nearly 70% of respondents reported general satisfaction with their noise environment.

However, around 84% of respondents reported hearing noise from transport sources and just over 80% reported hearing noise from neighbours and/or other people nearby. Almost 40% of respondents reported being bothered, annoyed or disturbed to some extent by noise from neighbours. A significant minority (21%) reported that noise spoilt their home life to some extent and 8% reported that their home life was spoilt either ‘quite a lot’ or ‘totally’ by noise.

So it is not surprising that noise has been moving up the political agenda. In 1996, the European Commission published the Green Paper – Future Noise Policy – which put forward the view that action to reduce environmental noise had previously received a lower priority than other environmental issues such as air and water pollution.

Noise management was given a further boost in July 2002 when the EU’s directive on the assessment and management of environmental noise was adopted. It focuses on the impact of noise on individuals, and complements existing EU legislation which sets standards for noise emissions from specific sources.

Already there has been considerable progress made in limiting and reducing source noise levels through technological advances.

Furthermore, through legislation, local authorities and other agencies have been able to control specific local noise problems. But more work is still needed with the recognition now that a more strategic approach to noise management is required.

The UK Government’s own approach to tackle noise was underlined in the 2000 Rural White Paper – Our Countryside: A fair deal for rural England, within which were the proposals for the development of a national ambient noise strategy in England.

A consultation on the proposed strategy, launched in December 2001, confirmed wide-spread support for tackling noise, with many respondents urging to give noise a higher profile, more in line with other environmental issues such as air and water quality.

Noise assessment project

The Government has, over the last three years, been gathering evidence and engaging with stakeholders to develop strategies for both ambient and neighbourhood noise by 2007. The project aims to gather information on ambient noise in England, establishing the number of people affected by different levels of ambient noise, the source of that noise (i.e. road, rail, air and industry) and the locations of the people affected.

Noise can be assessed in a number of ways; it was chosen to carry this noise assessment project out through noise mapping, looking specifically at noise from major roads, railways, airports outside agglomerations and all noise emanating from such sources as well as industry within agglomerations. Undertaking this work will also contribute to meeting our obligations under the EU Directive to have noise maps for the UK by 2007.

The maps are produced by computer software that calculates the noise level at a specific point as it propagates from the sources of noise that have been included. The software can take account of the noise sources (e.g. the number and type of vehicles for the transport sources), features which affect the spread of noise such as buildings, other barriers, the shape of the ground (e.g. earth mounds), and whether the ground is acoustically absorbent (e.g. fields) or reflective (concrete or water).

The maps are being produced by specialist companies experienced in noise prediction, computing, and managing the large amounts of information that will be required to produce the map for each area.

In August last year, Defra announced that they had commissioned maps for over 20 major towns, cities and regions across England. These maps follow on from the one already produced for London, which has also won a prestigious innovation award for the best new media technology to improve public life. The cities and towns to be mapped include: Bristol, Bournemouth, Brighton, Reading, Portsmouth, Southampton, Southend, Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Blackpool, Preston, Tyneside and Teeside, along with the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Defra will make the maps available to the public. Given the complex nature of the maps, and the enormity of it all, they have opted to provide a web site where the public can search the areas mapped via post code entry. Such a site is already running for London:

The maps will show the extent of the noise impact from the source being modelled. However, it is important to understand that these are strategic maps based on average sound calculated by computer modelling, based on the input data used. Although it is possible to inspect a noise map down to the level of individual houses these maps do not reflect one-off incidents of high level noise such as individual aircraft or a particularly noisy motorbike.

The maps have three main purposes:

Firstly, 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

This leads to the second use – and the main point of noise mapping – to help in the production of noise action plans to manage noise and reduce noise levels where appropriate

Finally, the maps 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 to managing noise – or ‘what-ifs’ – 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.

Once the noise mapping exercise has been completed, the EU directive requires Member States to draw up action plans designed to manage noise issues and effects, including noise reduction if necessary. This work will also be built into the development of the strategy.

Alongside this work, relevant Planning Policy Guidance is also being reviewed and consulted on next year by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This work will bring the guidance up to date and in line with policy developments by producing a more succinct policy statement backed up with comprehensive technical advice.

Nuisance neighbourhood noise is being taken seriously by Government. Alongside existing specific legislation, new measures to help local authorities tackle ‘noisy neighbours’ more effectively will be provided under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act and will come into effect in April 2006.

The Act will provide local authorities and other service providers with the further powers they need to enable them to manage the noise and the wider local environment more efficiently, and to meet public expectations. The specific powers in the Act address many of the issues which blight our neighbourhoods including litter, fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned and nuisance vehicles, as well as statutory nuisances such as neighbourhood noise.

This will include powers for example to turn off intruder alarms after a certain period of time. The Act will also give local authorities, as of October 2006, the power to serve fixed penalty notices for noise from licensed premises.

It is a fact of life that we all make noise. Whether we are talking to others, playing music, enjoying entertainment, driving in our cars, using trains and aircraft, or just going about our daily business. What is a noise to one person may be pleasurable to another. Excessive noise can reduce quality of life and in some extreme cases, destroy it entirely.

With 89% of respondents to Defra’s initial consultation on ambient noise in favour of the Government’s approach to developing the strategy, it is clear there is an appetite out there for a strategy on both ambient and neighbourhood noise.


Ambient Noise

Neighbourhood noise Talk to your local authority or read the free advice leaflet ‘Bothered by Noise’ online at:

Noise at work General Enquiries about noise at work should be directed to the Health and Safety Executive, see or ring 0541 545 500

A range of publications and free leaflets relating to noise at work are available from HSE Books, see or ring 01787 881 165

Noise from transport General enquiries about noise from individual vehicles should be directed to the Department of Transport.

Noise from industry Call the Environment Agency’s 24 hour hotline on 0800 80 70 60

Published: 01st Mar 2006 in AWE International