Noise is an equity issue

Listen out for the voice of the voiceless

The better-off we are, the louder our complaints about any noise problem we may have.  

This can give the impression that noise is not really a concern for people who are less well-off.

Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.

But before looking at some of it, it is worth making this distinction.  Communities, areas, places can be impacted by noise but not necessarily disturbed by it.  To get a true picture of the noise climate both issues need to be addressed.

What is very clear is that in Britain and across the world poorer communities are the most impacted by noise. 

I suspect aircraft noise may be the partial exception to this.  It obviously depends on where an airport is sited but many flight paths fly over rich and poor communities alike.  At Heathrow, for example, some of the wealthiest communities in the land – places like Richmond and Teddington – are overflown but so are some of the most densely-populated and deprived wards in Europe.

Even in aviation, though, there may be some bias against poorer communities.  Would a developer have dared to build London City Airport in the 1980s on fashionable Hampstead Heath instead of run-down North Woolwich?  I know I’m being a bit unfair because there was no reason to build an airport on Hampstead Heath while the justification for it in East London was to regenerate an area devastated by the closure of the Docks.  

But would Hampstead ever be considered for an airport even though, on reflection, there might be a market for private jets there.  After all The Bishops Avenue is close by, home to monarchs, business magnates, and celebrities – in the famous words of an estate agent: “Among the wealthiest circles in the world The Bishops Avenue is better known than Buckingham Palace. It’s a significant demonstration of status. If you live there, you don’t need to explain to people that you’re rich.”  Houses go on the market for up to £65 million.  But a new airport nearby is just inconceivable.

Traffic noise has been described as largely a main road problem these days – i.e. on the roads where low-income communities live in disproportionately large numbers.  Ironically, it is the result of the ‘progressive’ traffic policies pursued over the last 30 years.  Traffic-calming on, and closures of, ‘residential’ roads have funnelled traffic on to the main roads which for many low-income residents are their ‘residential’ roads.

Plans to reduce or tame traffic on ‘residential’ roads can only have all-round benefits if they include proposals to cut traffic on the adjacent main roads at the same time.  It can be done by reallocating road space on the main roads away from cars to other modes of transport through, for example, installing bus and cycle lanes.  Some of the measures being brought in post-Covid may do that but it shouldn’t be hit and miss.  It needs to be a mandatory requirement. 

Anybody can have noisy neighbours but we are a lot more likely to do so if we are less well-off.  A MORI survey revealed that almost 20% of people with a household income of less than £17,500 (2003 prices) regularly heard noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants.  In contrast only 12% of people with an income of over £30,000 could hear their neighbours.

It is a similar picture with wind turbine noise.  When I wrote a short report called ‘Location, Location, Location’ in 2006 on wind turbine noise, it became clear to me that those most affected by wind farm noise were poorer communities in rural areas.  

OK, so it is fairly clear that noise disproportionately impacts low-income communities.  But are they also the people most disturbed by it?

There is some truth that people can adapt to noisy surroundings, particularly if it is the only world they have known.  There is also evidence that some people like noise; that it is silence which disturbs them.  But is a very big jump from there to argue that because people in low-income communities complain less about noise they are not disturbed by it. 

There is evidence of very real disturbance.  When I did more work on surface level transport matters 25 years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with local communities (mainly about the provision of public transport).  In the poorer areas if Inner London there were some complaints about buses and trains, but, invariably, the conversation turned to traffic.  That was the big concern: the air pollution and noise it caused; the danger it posed and the way it divided communities.  Yet rarely did the communities have the time or resources to set up an action group.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from the emerging economies of the ‘developing’ world.  I covered it extensively in my book Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011.

This from Dr Yeswant Oke, a medical consultant and anti-noise campaigner In Mumbai (where noise levels are extraordinarily high):  ‘People and patients are silently suffering as they feel helpless.  People feel agitated and angry, impotent to some extent.  Indians are very docile.  They would rather suffer than have enmity with the neighbours.  But lately patience is wearing thin, and more and more people are complaining to get relief.’ 

A survey in Vietnam found that over a fifth of residents in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are highly annoyed by the typical daily noise levels in the cities.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The concern about noise is there.  It is just that it is not been voiced publicly.

The obvious danger is that, if the concerned voices of poorer communities are not being raised or not being heard, the louder, more confident voices of those of us who are better-off will drive policy much more than we should.  We will get our peace and quiet….but perhaps at the expense of the voiceless.

This is what has happened on the roads.  Confident voices have pushed the traffic away from their streets on to the main roads.  And, in a double whammy against those living on main roads, the ‘confident voices’ drive regularly along these roads past the homes of people who are much less likely to have a car.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in aviation.  Communities with confident voices can get special treatment.  And those communities less well-resourced can be more or less sidelined.  I think the only explanation why communities in Glasgow – one of the most heavily overflown cities in Britain – have been ignored by the airport for so long is that the flight paths are over some of the most deprived areas in the country.

My conclusion is not that well-heeled communities should shut up.  It is that local authorities and national governments don their headphones, turn up the volume in order to try and hear – and then act on – the complaints, often whispered, from poorer and less well-resourced communities. 

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