Would YOU pay £1k to shut your neighbours up?

Would YOU pay £1k to shut your neighbours up? Noisy sex. Manic vacuuming. And DIY at 2am. Rows between neighbours have tripled since lockdown, leading to a boom for professional peacemakers

  • 44 Councils in the UK have reported a rise in noise complaints during lockdown
  • Neighbours have begun paying between £375 to £2,500 per day for a mediator
  • Lawyer Sarah Gosling explained how noise disputes can affect your house price

At 9am on a weekday, Abigail, 35, a civil servant, was ready for an online work meeting. She had moved the bathrobe hanging on the back of the door to create a plain background.

She had set her two children up with some schoolwork in another room. She had closed the door and combed her hair.

Then, just as her colleagues were appearing on Zoom, they were rudely interrupted by loud groans from the couple in the flat upstairs.

‘We categorise it as bedroom noise,’ says Mike Talbot, a professional mediator. ‘We get that quite a lot. Especially beds banging up against the wall in adjacent flats.’

Abigail didn’t complain to the amorous pair and, after contacting Mike, decided it wasn’t worth taking further. But some do, and end up confronting neighbours with the aid of a mediator.

Mediators revealed they’ve seen an increase in calls from people who are furious with the noise made by their neighbours (file image) 

During lockdown, Mike, a psychotherapist and CEO of UK Mediation, has been deluged by calls from people who are furious with their neighbours.

‘DIY projects, loud music, late-night barbecues,’ he says. Complaints to his office are now running at three times the usual rate.

‘People often misunderstand the nature of mediation,’ says Russell Shackleton, a mediator and founder of Shackleton Consulting & Development in Newbury, Berkshire. ‘They think they can ring you up and you will just call the other party and tell them to stop what it is they’re doing.’

If both parties agree to a day’s mediation, in the morning the mediator speaks with each party separately. Then, in the afternoon, the mediator shuttles between the parties or will get them together in the same room (on Zoom at the moment), with the aim of reaching a resolution about future behaviour.

Warring neighbours can expect to pay from £375 to £2,500 per day (split between both parties) for mediation, and lawyers who offer mediation services tend to command higher prices. But business is booming as the restrictions on our movements put our relationships with those next door under ever more strain.

Discord between neighbours has risen dramatically over the past four months. Forty-four councils in the UK reported a rise in noise complaints since the start of lockdown, according to a BBC report. Leeds city council reported the biggest rise with 1,171 complaints in April, compared with 780 over the same period last year.

Several of the country’s coronavirus restrictions, including the shutting of pubs and restaurants, have now been eased. But many people will continue to work from home, with about 18.5 million employees having set up home offices during the shutdown.

Around three-quarters of the British population live in a flat, terrace or semi-detached house, many of which have thin party walls and poor soundproofing.

A mother from Edinburgh, ended up in the Press after telling her neighbour she would go to their agent because of the sound of her child running (file image) 

What makes the situation particularly incendiary is that it’s not the same for everyone. Some people remain furloughed and able to give DIY their full attention, while others are still beavering away as they did in the office, albeit now from their cramped bedroom or kitchen table.

And while some children have returned to school, most schools will not open fully until September. This can result in an inordinate amount of noise: toys scattered on the floor, shrieks, door-slamming, tantrums and loud reprimands.

‘If you continue allowing the child to run non-stop day/night, the agent will be contacted. It’s very loud and that’s surely obvious on flooring — as is the stomping!’ one neighbour recently wrote to a mum in a block of flats in Edinburgh, in a case that ended up in the Press.

The woman had recently moved into the flat with her toddler after being furloughed from her job as a hotel office manager.

Another unexpected source of noise pollution is grown-up children moving back in with parents after the virus cut short university terms across the country, and who have compensated for a depleted social life by going on Houseparty, the group video chat, into the early hours.

All this means that people who never normally spend so much time at home are now, on a daily basis, finding out just how noisy other people’s lives can be.

Sarah Gosling (pictured) who is a chartered legal executive at Bonallack & Bishop solicitors in Salisbury, Wiltshire, warns noise disputes can affect house prices 

Andrew Holt, a solicitor and mediator at Coole Bevis solicitors, in Hove, East Sussex, has received more than a dozen inquiries from enraged neighbours in three months during lockdown — and they continue to come in as restrictions ease.

‘I normally get one a month,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they are threatening to sue each other, or have got to the point where they’ve got solicitors involved and have sent horrible letters to each other and spent hundreds of pounds and got nowhere because each side is so entrenched.

‘Or else they say the police aren’t interested, the council aren’t interested, I’m really stressed and anxious, I don’t know where to turn. Basically, people are at their wits’ end and want it to stop.’

Deliveries are another source of tension as Covid-19 has moved our shopping habits almost entirely online. Lockdown may have reduced traffic noise — but it hasn’t stopped the bleeping of reversing Ocado vans late at night or the buzzing of the door as flat dwellers are asked to take in a stream of parcels for neighbours.

‘People’s lifestyles have been altered in quite a significant way,’ says Mike. ‘I had a case recently where a guy was pulling up rotten decking at 2am,’ he says. ‘He’d been furloughed and was staying in bed until midday, and then got up and did this job.

‘The neighbours are key workers doing shift work and had to get up at five in the morning. So this fellow hammering and sawing was keeping them awake, and when they came out to remonstrate with him, he was quite rude and threatening.’

Andrew Holt who is a solicitor and mediator at Coole Bevis solicitors, in Hove, East Sussex, explained once you have a problem such as noise, you become sensitive to it (file image)

Eventually, after mediation, a compromise was reached. ‘They agreed some times when he could and couldn’t do his DIY, and some acknowledgement that his neighbours were on a different timetable to him.’

This row goes to the heart of why tricky neighbours are so provoking. ‘We get upset when we think we’re being deprived of something that’s important to us,’ Mike says.

‘It’s important that I have my nice property which people can’t intrude on or damage. It’s important that I get my sleep at night, get access to my drive and so on. And if my neighbours have compromised any of those important things, I get annoyed.’

Once you have a problem such as noise, you become very sensitive to it, says Andrew. ‘So when it happens again, even if it’s not as loud or as long in duration, it’s still annoying because your brain goes back to how you reacted when it first started.’

Noise in particular has a ‘profound impact’ on people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life, confirms the Chartered Institute Of Environmental Health. And the stresses of recent months in lockdown has compounded the problem because we’re in a heightened emotional state.

‘We are more tense, more fragile, people are not sleeping as well,’ says Mike.

‘So we are a bit more on the edge and are going to be less tolerant.’ Perhaps that explains why one woman who recently turned to a mediator ended up accusing her upstairs neighbour of doing an excessive amount of cleaning.

Andrew revealed people taking revenge on their neighbours have let down tyres and moved bins (file image) 

Perhaps it was the neighbour’s fear of the virus that was behind her constant vacuuming and dusting, or she just had the time to spring-clean her London flat completely.

Either way, the other woman retaliated — by playing super-loud heavy-metal music. The row was eventually resolved with the mediator’s help.

Andrew believes such ‘retaliatory actions’ are often based on a fundamental misunderstanding. He says: ‘People hear a noise and think it’s deliberate. Whereas it might not be. And then what happens is they retaliate, and you get this escalation, which is awful.’

He lists some of the things people do for revenge: ‘Letting down tyres, moving bins — people really like to mess around with other people’s wheelie bins as a way of upsetting them,’ he says.

‘Lockdown has also increased people’s paranoia and I have also noticed a recent trend for installing CCTV cameras. You can get a situation where each neighbour has a CCTV camera trying to catch the other out, and then they find it’s neither of them letting the car tyres down or moving the wheelie bins, it’s some bored teenager.’

He adds: ‘The law says you can only have a CCTV camera pointing at your own property. You are not allowed to have it pointing at anyone else’s. But they do that. And then get into trouble for doing it.’

Mike Talbot, a professional mediator, said people who were depriving themselves of company were more likely to complain at the height of lockdown (file image)

Russell believes that sometimes the real problem is not what it appears to be on the face of it. ‘Imagine you’re working from home and your next-door neighbour is kicking a ball at the fence. Now, that’s going to be annoying for you. But is it going to be so annoying you go to a website to look for a civil mediator, write out an email and contact them?

‘If you dig down, you’ll often find the cause is something else. It could be that the person who made the complaint doesn’t actually have an issue with the neighbours but their partner does, so it’s a move to try to get peace within their own household. Or maybe something has gone on at the school gates or on social media that has upset one or other of them.’

At the height of lockdown, what annoyed people about late-night parties wasn’t just the noise.

‘If someone was depriving themselves of company and visits to the pub and they then saw their neighbour not following the rules, they were more likely to complain,’ says Mike. On April 30, UK police said they had received 194,000 calls ‘snitching’ on people over five weeks of lockdown.

So, what do you do with a nightmare neighbour? You can complain to the council, which has a duty to investigate any ‘statutory noise nuisance’ such as loud music or barking dogs.

If your neighbour is a tenant, you can contact their landlord. Or you can use a mediation service (some housing associations have their own internal dispute resolution service).

Andrew said you have to declare any disputes with your neighbour as part of conveyancing (file image)

The professional body the Civil Mediation Council (civilmediation.org) lists many practitioners. There is no statutory regulation of mediators. They run a voluntary system to which mediators can sign up. You can also access mediation for free through community mediation services.

But if a neighbour is threatening violence or harassing you, contact the police. As a last resort, you can go to court.

However, Sarah Gosling, a chartered legal executive in the dispute resolution team at Bonallack & Bishop solicitors in Salisbury, Wiltshire, warns that the courts are not a quick solution.

She says: ‘Inquiries in relation to neighbour disputes have increased by 50 per cent over the three months of lockdown.’

Having a nuisance neighbour can also affect your house price. Andrew adds: ‘You have to declare any disputes with your neighbour as part of conveyancing.’

However, harmony can be found. ‘One couple decided to pull out their hedge. Again, they had time on his hands and this great, big hedge had been bugging them for years,’ says Mike.

‘So they hired machinery and were pulling it out, when the neighbours said, “What are you doing with our hedge?” And they said, “It’s not your hedge, it’s our hedge.” It got into a big dispute.’

Through mediation the two households decided to share the cost on a new arrangement. ‘Now, they have a neat box hedge and a fence. It was a happy ending.’

WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE A NIGHTMARE NEXT DOOR

Mediator Mike Talbot offers his top tips for dealing with noisy neighbours:

1. Always listen to their side of the story before you make any accusations. You may find out the facts aren’t quite what you think.

2. Pick a good time and place to open the conversation. Not late at night, not when either of you have been drinking, or when either of you are about to get in the car. Don’t frame it as a confrontation, and try to do it privately. The end of the back garden is far better than by the road or in the front garden.

3. Look for common ground. For example, ‘I really need my sleep, as I’m sure you do. I’m guessing we go to bed at different times. It would be great to have a conversation about when it’s OK to be noisy. That way, we can both get our sleep.’

4. Focus on the future, not the past. Have a conversation about what can happen starting tomorrow, rather than arguing about what has gone wrong in the past.

5. Don’t make allegations about the kids or partners. That’s when tempers can get frayed as people are sensitive about family members, especially children.

Focus on getting an agreement from the person you are talking to. This can include what you would both like to happen differently in the future, and what the two of you will do should things go wrong. Look at it like a pre-nuptial agreement, a safety net that spells out what should happen in the event of future fall-outs.

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