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Council noise officer 'misled' a judge

Noisemaker: a successful ruling against Alton Towers has implications for rides like Oblivion (above). A local couple brought the private prosecution after "25 years of misery" from noise.

By Will Hatchett

A council officer who misled a court while under oath has been cautioned by a judge, during a private prosecution brought against Alton Towers theme park.

The noise officer, an associate member of the Institute of Acoustics, could now face prosecution for attempting to pervert the course of justice. The rare move came during a seven-day trial at north Staffordshire magistrates court, which found Tussaud's Theme Parks Ltd guilty of nuisance.

Stephen and Suzanne Roper, who live just 91m from the entrance to Alton Towers, had taken out a private prosecution after their local authority, Staffordshire Moorlands DC, rejected their allegations of nuisance. The Ropers told the court that they had suffered "25 years of misery" caused by noise from machinery, screaming, loud music and fireworks.

Giving evidence for the defence, Helen Woollaston, technical officer for Staffordshire Moorlands DC, told the court she had not given any assistance to Alton Towers. But, under pressure from the prosecution, Ms Woollaston was later recalled by the defence and changed her statement.

She then said she had "forgotten" that she had supplied documents and met the park's legal team on at least two occasions. The judge cautioned her that she was not obliged to incriminate herself and Ms Woollaston declined to answer further questions about the supply of evidence and the meetings.

District judge Timothy Gascoigne ruled that Ms Woollaston's notes should be made available going back to 1999. They outlined numerous complaints from local residents about noise, as well as noise measurements and details of breaches of the park's public entertainment licence.

The judge said: "The way [Ms Woollaston's] evidence came out was deeply disturbing. As a local authority officer it would be incumbent upon her to act impartially."

He ruled that screams and mechanical noise from the park were a nuisance and that fireworks were intrusive. Alton Towers has until November to agree measures to reduce noise, when an abatement order will be issued and the company will be sentenced for causing nuisance. The company may appeal. The Ropers may seek damages in the civil courts.

Mike Stigwood, environmental health consultant and CIEH member, advised the Ropers on their case and gave evidence as an expert witness.

He said: "Although this decision only concerns the Ropers, it is important to realise that at least 50 people live in the vicinity of the park, some right next to it."

He said that detailed discussions would now be held with Alton Towers on noise reduction. Staffordshire Moorlands DC declined to comment on Ms Woollaston but said: "We propose to reflect the judge's findings in future actions and will use the judgement as a benchmark. We do not accept the view... that the council has not been of help."

In a statement, Alton Towers said it was "disappointed" by the ruling, but that it would "work towards a compromise solution acceptable to all parties". It said it had always sought to behave responsibly, adding: "It is inevitable that there will be some noise associated with our business. We do not believe that this decision is representative of the level of actual complaints received or the feelings of the majority of local residents."

13 August 2004

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