I am working with a church that's receiving complaints about noise from neighbours. What is the decibel level that we can legally work at?
SOS contributor Mike Crofts replies: I'm afraid it isn't that simple. You don't say what the noise being complained about is, but whatever the source, there are many variables, potentially involving several different sets of legislation (pollution, planning, health and safety, licensing and so on). Also, you must consider not only the complaints from those outside the building, but the well-being of the churchgoers and the clergy (church employees).
Noise nuisance — the term used by Environmental Health agencies to describe noise that constitutes a statutory nuisance within the terms of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 Section 80 — is by definition a subjective assessment, and depends on the perceived effect of the noise on the person affected rather than the actual level of the noise source itself. In deciding whether to take action following a complaint, the local authority will take a number of things into account: for example, the time of day or night the noise occurs and how often, how long it lasts, what the 'normal' ambient level of noise is in that location, what type of noise it is (ie. the predominant frequencies) and exactly where it is perceived to be a nuisance (usually at the nearest noise-sensitive dwelling). What's an acceptable noise level on the street may well be considered a nuisance inside someone's bedroom. You can do a quick test by standing outside the nearest residential property and listening to the noise level coming from your building. If its level is such that you might have to raise your voice to hold a conversation, and it's noticeably louder than the general background noise, you may have to take steps to reduce it.
If the Noise Act has been adopted locally, there is a set limit of 35dB that applies between certain hours, although as far as I'm aware not all councils have adopted this.
Noise levels inside the building must be considered in respect of employees, which includes the clergy and any volunteers, such as youth club workers, club bar staff and so on. This noise is controlled by the Noise at Work Regulations (though there is 'derogation' until April 2008 for any noise caused by entertainment) and must be measured at under 80dBs, otherwise appropriate action must be taken. The rough rule of thumb for this level is not having to raise your voice to hold a conversation at one metre, but you can get gadgets like the Sensorcom Soundcheck (right) that will give you an approximate dB reading, for around £10. However, if the building has a licence under the Licensing Act 2003, there may be further conditions regarding noise.
I would advise you to discuss your particular case with the local Environmental Health Officer, who will not only be familiar with the approach taken by the authorities in your area, but also may well already be aware of the complaints and any investigations carried out. It's also worth reading the report on noise management that was drafted by DEFRA and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. You can find it on-line at www.cieh.org/library/Knowledge/Environmental_protection/Noise/NoiseManagementGuideSeptember2006.pdf. It should give you some idea of what a huge and convoluted subject this is.