Noise complaints from neighbours are a common issue for many business owners, and it is difficult to know how best to deal with them to prevent them from escalating and potentially being on the wrong end of nuisance litigation.
The noise itself can put a business at risk, and it is a particularly pertinent issue since the emergence of Covid-19 as businesses find ways to create or expand their outside spaces. The Government has also supported this through schemes such as pavement licences being extended for another year.
Noise can come from many sources, but it is more likely to be a problem for businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors due to the “entertainment” value they bring to their customers. With that often comes background music, DJs, and general chatter and excitement from customers enjoying their leisure time or finding their way home at the end of the night. Other general business noises, like deliveries and refuse collections, as well as smells such as kitchen and food smells or smoke, can also lead to complaints, particularly if they occur during unsociable hours.
All noise has the potential to lead to a complaint, and unfortunately, there may be times when despite a business’ best efforts to minimise disruption to neighbours, you still find yourself having to deal with a complaint. You may come to be aware of a noise complaint in a number of ways. The best-case scenario will come as an informal approach from the neighbour with a request to remedy the issue. If this happens, it may be possible to resolve the issue by, for example, training staff on ways to reduce noise, moving the entrance of the premises so that noise from people coming and going is lessened, or changing the location of the smoking area. That could potentially solve the issue, and the neighbour takes no further action. If this happens, solicitors do not tend to be involved.
On the other end of the scale, the neighbour may not approach you directly but instead the local council. This, unfortunately, means businesses are not given the opportunity to remedy the issue and may not even be aware that there is a problem until later down the line. The neighbour could also contact local newspapers or make comments on social media platforms, resulting in negative publicity for your business. Most local authorities have informal processes in place, which they use before proceeding with formal action. These include “traffic light” systems, panel meetings, or mediation (although with increased budget cuts, the latter is becoming less readily available). However, it is important to note that the council may take formal action quickly and without any notice to you, which could result in measures such as forcing you to limit capacity, employ door staff, reduce your opening hours, or other measures which may be difficult for the business to comply with. The local authority also has the power to suspend your licence, revoke your pavement licence, or issue noise abatement notices, which you can be prosecuted for if it is breached. Therefore, you should take steps to deal with the complaint as soon as possible.
Whether the complaint comes via informal or formal means, the business must take the complaint seriously. It is likely that if the neighbour intends to pursue the matter, they will be compiling evidence of all the issues they wish to complain about. As soon as you become aware of a potential problem, start keeping a diary or log of what has happened, when, and what steps the business has taken. It may also be useful to speak to other business owners in the area. You could also lobby parties such as the policy, local MPs and councillors to get support. The noise only needs to affect a small percentage of people to be considered a public nuisance. A neighbour can also pursue a claim for private nuisance, which is treated differently in law to public nuisance.
You may be in the unfortunate situation where a neighbour is pursuing what you consider to be a vexatious claim. If this happens, you must seek advice at the earliest opportunity. The local authority will usually assist you. It may be suggested that you engage a sound acoustician to conduct a noise impact assessment and implement a noise management plan. This will assist you to put in place both interim measures and finding a longer-term solution. From a litigation perspective, you are likely to require input from an expert if you find yourself having to defend a claim, and this will also show the court that you are taking the complaint seriously and attempting to rectify the issue.
With Spring around the corner with its warmer weather and longer days, and the threat of Covid still a real concern, many desire to socialise in outdoor settings and many businesses have adapted and expanded their outside seating areas to respond to these demands. This inevitably brings with it the higher likelihood of noise complaints from neighbours.
If you are concerned about potential complaints or have been made aware of noise or other complaints by a neighbour and you are concerned about the effect it may have on your business, do not hesitate to contact our specialist Hospitality & Leisure Team below.