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.

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.

▼ Planning and Noise 

Industry guidance to cut noise nuisance in new homes

The Association of Noise Consultants (ANC), the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) and CIEH have together produced The Professional Practice Guidance on Planning & Noise (ProPG).

The new guidance is a blueprint for acoustic practitioners, council planners and developers and aims to protect home dwellers from noise by putting good acoustic design at the heart of all new residential development.

The guide is available in three pdf documents:

  1. Main document 
  2. Supplementary Document 1: Planning & Noise Policy and Guidance 
  3. Supplementary Document 2: Good acoustic design 

Noise exposure can have a wide range of adverse impacts, from increasing the risk of heart disease to affecting children’s school performance, and while current Government planning and noise policy and guidance sets clear objectives, it does not prescribe specific numerical acoustics standards and it allows a range of different approaches to be used.

The three organisations say that if their recommendations are followed early in the planning process:

  1. Good acoustic design will enable homes to be built in some areas previously considered unsuitable because of noise
  2. Noisy sites where residential development will never be suitable can be quickly identified, saving developers time and unnecessary costs  
  3. Home building can be started much earlier on sites where noise is not an issue.
▼ 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 GOV.UK website for details.

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