Keeping the volume of complaints down

Information collated: Poppleston Allen outlines the main points when dealing with noise complaints (image: Getty/Gary John Norman)
Information collated: Poppleston Allen outlines the main points when dealing with noise complaints (image: Getty/Gary John Norman)

Related tags Licensing Health and safety Training

Dealing with complaints from neighbours arising from music at your premises is a bit of a dark art. There is no black and white answer and the law on public nuisance is blurry to say the least.

Over the years we have written many times with advice on how to reduce the risk of noise complaints or indeed enforcement action by residents or the environmental health officer (EHO) arising from music noise, so I thought I would approach the issue in a slightly different way and highlight the main points from 20 years of dealing with such complaints that spring to mind:

  1. Firstly, let’s define what you want from having music. You want your customers to have a good time. But you don’t want that to come at the risk of bad relations with your neighbours, the possibility of formal noise complaints, the threat or issue of a licence review by those residents – or indeed from an EHO who is put under so much pressure by those residents that they feel the need to issue a review or indeed a noise abatement notice themselves.
  2. First golden rule – the EHO is unlikely to be interested in your premises unless local residents have complained to them. They have other things to worry about so if you keep your neighbours happy your local EHO is likely to be happy too.
  3. How do you manage that? Well, first and foremost you have to be in control. It sounds obvious but it is more complicated than that. You need to be in control of everything from booking the music, the demographic of the people attending, the nature of the music, where it is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and how you communicate that to your neighbours. If your neighbours know that they are dealing with a competent licensee who keeps them informed and if necessary can turn the music down in the event of a valid complaint on the night, they are much more likely to trust you moving forward and not feel the need to approach the authorities. It is when that relationship breaks down that you lose control.
  4. Let your neighbours know when you are having music events and most importantly when the music will be switched off. There is nothing more annoying than seeing something advertised on online media or a chalk board outside stating the music will finish at 11pm for it to then go on until a quarter past 11 (you might also find yourself in breach of your licensing permissions, by the way).
  5. Crumb of comfort – it is worth knowing that the principle of “Agent of Change” has now been written into the Government guidance relating to the Licensing Act.  In a nutshell, if you have been having music at your premises for several years and there are new developments nearby, the authorities cannot simply disregard your interests because these new residents are unhappy with the fact that there is a pub playing music. Like all things in this dark art of dealing with noise complaints, the issue isn’t black and white, but the fact that you were “there first” is a factor that the local authority must have regard to.
  6. Be careful of outside promoters and private events.  Their intentions may be wholly benevolent but they are unlikely to have the long-term interests of your business or your premises licence in mind.  This is where control comes in again.  Do you have control of the mixing desk for that 40th​ birthday party if the guests are all demanding one last song?
  7. The acoustically obvious points – consider the positioning of speakers, remember that smaller speakers dotted around, rather than one huge speaker can still provide your customers with a good time but may limit the impact of noise breakout.  Consider the direction of the speakers and having them positioned off the floor to limit vibration.
  8. If you have an acoustic lobby (two sets of doors rather than just one) try to make sure that one of them is self-closing.
  9. Frequency of events – many people have a tipping point.  They may be comfortable with four events per month but six is just pushing it over the edge. Again, there is no right or wrong here, but what you are trying to do is reach an understanding with your neighbours and prevent any escalation of complaint to the enforcement-level.
  10. If you are having issues regarding complaints about noise, consider agreeing a noise level (usually measured in dBA) with the EHO. This gives both you and the EHO a measure of protection.  The EHO can say that you are sticking to your agreed limits and if the residents have had some involvement in the setting of that level then you have all agreed to draw a line in the sand which should be acceptable.  If you cannot agree a level, then you are really in no worse position than you were before.  At least you will have tried (and at this point I would certainly suggest obtaining legal advice and a suitably qualified acoustic consultant’s advice).
  11. Local residents are very powerful. It costs them nothing in monetary terms to complete a review application. On rare occasions I have seen businesses either close or have to completely revamp their offer because of ongoing problems with local residents relating to music noise.
  12. That having been said, residents are not all-powerful. Licensing law is about the balancing of differing interests, including – and critically – yours. Very often you will find residents approaching the issue of noise in a much less professional manner than you do. EHO are generally unimpressed when residents complain of noise but have no detailed evidence to back it up, no specific diary entries, no description of the words of the particular songs that they say they could hear, no dates and when they have recordings these are simply taken on an uncalibrated iPhone. And how can you solve the issue if you don’t know what or when the issue is?
  13. There is the old saying, “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer”.  That is unfair on your neighbours, who are not your enemy, but you get the point.  If you understand their needs and expectations then you remain in control of the situation, which should ensure a good night’s sleep for all concerned.

• Andy Grimsey​ is an associate solicitor at Poppleston Allen

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