Local government plays a leading role in managing noise impacts in the community. So how are councils coping in the light of population increases, higher housing density, more construction, more traffic and the increasing use of portable speakers? Patricia Moore reports.
There was a time when we were mostly OK living with noise. It was often annoying but what could you do? Fast forward to the 21st century and, while the sources of aggravating noise may have expanded considerably, thanks to the internet and media coverage we’re all better informed as to our rights and expectations when it comes to noise pollution.
That’s according to Darran Humpheson, senior acoustics specialist at Tonkin + Taylor. In addition, he says, councils now have the ability to control and abate noise issues during consenting. “They do this by setting noise limits for certain types of development, and enforcing control for unreasonable noise such as loud music or noisy premises.”
Noise pollution isn’t limited to the party down the street and building sites – or the neighbour’s helicopter. Roading projects and the increasing volume of traffic also provide challenges for local bodies, says Richard Jackett, principal acoustic scientist with WSP Opus.
He says the company has, over the past 30 years, developed much of the knowledge that underpins road noise and vibration policy in New Zealand. It has established, for example, sound limits for road traffic noise and ascertained how to predict vibration effects from construction activities.
Richard believes there are opportunities to be more proactive when it comes to identifying and preventing noise and vibration problems without the necessity to change legislation.
“For example, the noise from vehicles travelling at 50km/h is mostly caused by the tyres’ interaction with the road surface. We now know which surfaces make the least noise.
“So, by using that information when roads come up for resealing, we can improve suburban noise environments, one street at a time.”
Jon Styles is director and principal consultant at Styles Group. The firm is a specialist consultancy in the management, prediction and assessment of noise and vibration effects under the resource management framework, and suppliers to GHD.
He says that, as our population increases, local government faces a challenging task in managing the noise issues arising from growth and intensification.
“Many councils are facing increasing pressure to allow less-regulated growth for reasons including keeping the cost of building down and giving developers maximum flexibility.
“In our experience, it is vital for councils to insist on the minimum acoustic standards being met to avoid incompatible land uses being established close to each other, and to enforce the requirements of the RMA on noise-makers in their area to avoid adverse health effects and to create healthy and thriving communities.”
Excessive or unreasonable noise affects more than just our hearing. As Darran explains, a growing body of evidence indicates that higher levels of environmental noise can have negative health outcomes including hypertension and reduced sleep quality that can cause heart-related conditions.
A 2018 noise pollution study in Australia by Sony revealed 95 percent of respondents felt irritated by everyday sounds. Ironically, loud music nearby annoyed just 49 percent of respondents.
Richard notes there are now more sources of noise pollution and the public is more aware of the damage noise and vibration can cause to wellbeing.
“Councils are stuck in the middle, having to accommodate growth without sacrificing the health of residents.
“We can help councils by providing the tools they need to understand and manage noise impacts before they become a problem. Waiting for people to start complaining is not ideal.”
Solutions are often simple. Richard says a tool developed by WSP Opus for managing construction noise, predicts which properties will be affected, allowing council or the contractor to do a mail drop giving people at identified addresses advanced warning.
“People are generally pretty tolerant if they know the noise is necessary but it still shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
So where does this leave the council staff and contractors charged with noise control – often handling difficult situations without a technical background or training in acoustics?
The situation varies across the country because, as Darran points out, “council staff who are noise specialists are rare and are often over-stretched”.
He says this has led to officers being described as ‘incompetent’ and reports being dismissed as ‘not worth the paper they’re written on’.
The solution may lie in councils investing more to retain specialist staff or having staff work with specialists on noise issues, he says.
Jon says this highlights the challenging role of council environmental health or monitoring officers and town planners who are not only tasked with solving noise issues but are required to respond to a wide range of other complex issues.
“Resolving complex noise issues represents significant time and cost to councils, a process which can often be avoided through the identification and proper assessment of noise issues at the very early planning stage. A bit of effort at the start can save big on time and money in the long run.”
Darran’s experience has shown that by identifying the right level of controls and engaging with communities, noise effects are understood and mitigation measures can be targeted most effectively.
“This engagement approach also applies to developers to harness their creativity in coming up with solutions to control noise.”
He believes there should be a fast-track process to gaining consent for those projects which benefit the wider community and improve their quality of life.
“For people exposed to unreasonable noise, councils should be better resourced to deal with these issues with swifter resolutions for noise polluters.”
One man’s chainsaw or backyard barbecue gatherings may well be unreasonable noise to another, but there’s general agreement residents don’t need to accept high levels of noise or vibration.
Jon Styles: “We think that if councils are paying attention to the way land is being developed and are ensuring that their district plan controls continue to be fit-for-purpose, there’s no reason for noise levels to exceed normally-acceptable standards.”
But there can still be conflict. “We do however see that rural environments close to towns and cities are seeing intensification of activities such as cleanfills, landfills, quarries, transport infrastructure and noisy recreational activities that are needed to support urban growth.
“This means that the idea of a quiet rural setting close to town is no longer a reasonable expectation.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.