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Alton screamer is too loud

Local residents have won a long running battle against Alton Towers theme park over noise. Residents, fed up with inaction from their local authority, issued a private nuisance abatement notice against Tussauds, the theme park operator. Tussauds ignored this, resulting in the latest hearing in Staffordshire Magistrates Court.

The judge agreed that the noise from the park was a statutory nuisance, and has ordered a second hearing in November to agree terms of an abatement order.

Residents complained about noise from high profile rides such as Oblivion, as well as noise from fireworks, corporate events and traffic - the judge dismissed the latter. In terms of the Oblivion ride, its design is such that it held up riders at its highest point prompting screams that could be then heard at the residents' properties.

Alton Towers defence was that it was the nature of a theme park that there would be some noise, and that the park was popular with most locals, and few had complained. But noise monitoring at the complainant's property convinced the judge there was a nuisance and that an abatement notice should be agreed.

In an unusual twist to the proceedings, the local authority environmental health noise officer was accused of misleading the court and withholding information from the complainants. Prosecution lawyers argued that the local authority had a duty to be fair and impartial, and that help offered to Alton Towers had not been offered to the residents. The judge described this as "deeply disturbing".

Documents eventually revealed to the court revealed that council monitoring showed that maximum noise levels of 1 27db were recorded during fireworks events, but the council did not think this was a nuisance.

Residents were given specialist advice by acoustician Mike Stigwood, while Tussauds was represented by Atkins' Geoff Jackson. The judge heard that Atkins had monitored noise over the years, but not at the relevant properties. The judge also visited the residents' garden, and considered the screams and mechanical noise from the ride to be intrusive and a clear statutory nuisance.

End to screaming at Alton Towers?

Lis Stedman charts what happened at an unusual court case involving Alton Towers

The recent court judgement finding Alton Towers guilty of noise nuisance is as explosive as some of the spectacular fireworks displays that were part of the grounds for complaint.

There are various aspects that make the case particularly worrying, notably the attitude of Alton Towers as delivered by its representative, in the judge's words, that "we do not think we have a problem". Secondly, and "deeply disturbing", to quote the judge again, was the evidence from Staffordshire Moorlands District Council's noise officer, Helen Wollaston.

It transpired during the court case that she had denied evidence to the complainant's legal team that proved their case that the theme park had produced excessive noise. By contrast, she had supplied this information to Alton Towers some three months previously - something she initially denied in court.

So what was the case, and how did this remarkably damning judgement come about? The case was described in the local paper, the Staffordshire Sentinel, as a "David and Goliath" fight. Making the complaint was a local couple, Churchill China chairman Stephen Roper and his wife Suzanne, who had lived since 1968 within the tiny rural hamlet of Farley in the Churnet Valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The problem? Their home is sited just 100 yards from the main entrance to Alton Towers - a lovely location when their neighbour was just a grand 19th century house in a large park with a small fairground, but becoming something rather less wonderful with the development of the theme park. Unfortunately Farley House is also on higher ground than Alton Towers and not screened from the rides, exacerbating the potential for noise nuisance.

Mr and Mrs Roper took Tussauds Theme Parks (the owners of Alton Towers) to court for breaching the 1990 Environmental Protection Act after trying unsuccessfully to get the theme park to reduce its noise levels. In a private prosecution in Staffordshire Magistrates Court, they had served abatement notices on the operator who didn't comply, prompting the current action. The terms of the abatement notice will now be agreed and put before the court in November.

Opening the case, their QC said they had been forced to endure years of excessive and cumulative noise from some of the park's most famous rides, such as the Oblivion and Corkscrew. Pop concerts and fireworks spectaculars also added to the couple's misery.

Independent acoustics expert Michael Stigwood, acting for the Ropers, measured a range of noise levels over a six-month period during 2003, both when the park was open and when it was closed. Stigwood told the court that when planning permission for Oblivion - visible from the couple's house - was being sought, council officers had based noise predictions on the effect on a dwelling 800m away and screened from the theme park. The impact on the Ropers was not taken into account. Stigwood's readings showed a 'significant increase' in noise when Alton Towers was open, at a level, according to BS4142 (which quotes an increase of 10dB as a trigger) that would be likely to cause complaints. If the wind was blowing away from the house, predictably, noise levels could be significantly lower.

Events such as fireworks displays and the two days during which BT hired the theme park for a private party, were cited as "more like a nightmare" by Roper. Fireworks displays caused particular distress, he testified.

Two formal notices were served by the couple on the theme park management, saying that the noise levels constituted a statutory nuisance. However, the company did not arrange to meet with the couple or have an acoustics expert visit their home to judge whether they had a valid complaint.

Alton Towers health and safety expert, Marcus Brian - who was not a noise expert or member of the senior management team - was the only company representative to testify. Brian admitted having seen a statutory notice but said: "We did not believe at that time or now that there was a nuisance. No specific action was taken."

The Ropers' barrister subsequently asked: "So you took the point of view you would see them in court?" Brian replied: "From our point of view, there was no statutory nuisance." Alton Towers went on to bring in its own noise expert, Dr Geoff Jackson, who suggested that the "spectrum shape" of the noise recorded by Stigwood was consistent with Birdsong.

He claimed that if bird calls and tree noise were removed from Stigwood's graph the registered noise at peak times would be only 3dBA above normal background.

Stigwood told Noise Management: "I did a spectrum with loads of peaks, and showed that only a very few peaks were affected by bird noise. There was a small addition to the LA90 of 0.1 dB, if you count all bird noise." Stigwood analysed 12 years of historical data and proved that bird calls never contributed more than 1 dB to noise levels.

"I did wonder why he didn't go and replicate my work," Stigwood says ironically. "He would have got the same results."

The next stage of the proceedings was pure Perry Mason. Helen Wollaston, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council's noise officer, was called back to court after the prosecution team realised there was a discrepancy between what she had said in court and what she had told one of their solicitors, Richard Buxton.

He had asked for information, which had been refused previously. Buxton then contacted Wollaston to try to obtain further information and made a note of the subsequent conversation in which Wollaston told him that Alton Towers had obtained the information. She categorically denied the contents of the conversation in court, and said Buxton was entirely wrong.

Realising the conflict after Wollaston's initial evidence, the prosecution said in court that the Alton Towers' legal team had a duty to reveal the truth, and the next morning Wollaston produced a new statement saying she had forgotten giving Alton Towers the information, adding: "It was an oversight."

It transpired that the documents in question contained extensive information about noise complaints and sound levels above the legally permitted level, and that Wollaston had had a series of meetings with Alton Towers and had given them detailed information from her notebooks leading up to the trial.

Stigwood says: "Basically she had misled the court previously about the conversation with Richard Buxton, and tried to suggest that when she said he was categorically wrong, she thought he was referring to sending the attachments to her statement. It appeared very arrogant."

Stephen Hockman, acting for the Ropers, asked her in court: "Do you accept you gave incorrect evidence last Friday?"

She replied: "Possibly I did." Deputy District Judge Timothy Gascoyne then advised her: "You do not need to answer any of Mr Hockman's questions on this matter, because you might say something that will incriminate you."

After this, to a string of questions from the QC, all she would say was that "it was a major oversight on my part".

The court was told that the Roper's solicitor had asked Wollaston for documents about noise levels from Alton Towers three months after she had given them to the Alton Towers defence team. Hockman said: "You told Mr Buxton that he could only have the information if he asked the permission of all the complainants at Alton Towers. Yet you gave all this straight to Mr Whitehouse, Tussauds' solicitor, the very people who have been causing these complaints." He added: "I put it to you that when Alton Towers wanted information there was no problem, but when anyone else wanted to obtain information, every difficulty was put in their way."

The notebooks surrendered by Wollaston were damning: they showed that Alton Towers had breached the Public Entertainment Licence noise level of 65dB(A) during an MPeople concert in 1996, and repeatedly during a later Tina Turner concert. The council took no action on either occasion.

There were also other notes of noise problems and nuisance, and many other public complaints. Worse, Wollaston had used the best figures from a series of readings to prove that a l dB reduction in noise from Oblivion had been achieved (which she said was sufficient to abate the nuisance). The judge could pass the papers to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Judge Gascoyne's conclusions in the case bear quoting at length. He said: "While of course commercial enterprise is entirely appropriate and indeed is encouraged because it replaces other declining industries, simply because it is a leisure park does not mean that it should be treated any differently, say, to a factory unit."

The location was pertinent, he pointed out. "The level of noise that is acceptable will depend partly on the location. Obviously should this park have been in the middle of the industrial Midlands then the question of acceptable noise would have to reflect the character and surroundings of the area." The judge backed Stigwood's expert contribution, saying: "The cross- examination and re-examination does not in my view take away from the compelling evidence of the rise in the noise level when Alton Towers is open. Of Jackson's testimony regarding Birdsong and tree noise, the judge noted that "without any other monitoring I do not accept that [Dr Jackson's] theories explain the rise in background noise."

Judge Gascoyne condemned Wollaston's actions. He said: "The way her evidence came out was deeply disturbing. On the Friday afternoon she denied supplying information to the defence. As a local authority officer it would be incumbent on her to act impartially."

The withheld documents included an overview of Alton Towers fireworks events, he noted, with a massive 127dBA peak noise level. Stigwood notes: "The Amax was 106 - it's still loud." Finding Alton Towers guilty, the judge added that there was a "clear statutory nuisance" that unreasonably interfered with the Ropers' enjoyment of their property.

The problem was exacerbated by Oblivion's design, he noted, which was intended to encourage screaming. He also found that the fireworks were intrusive. The judge also, understandably, rejected a defence submission that the Ropers were protected by Wollaston in her role (as a council environmental health officer).

In response to the verdict, company representatives said Alton Towers had taken steps to reduce noise nuisance by limiting firework shows to 30 minutes and cutting sound-testing times for PA systems. A statement said that Alton Towers was "naturally very disappointed" and would work for a compromise, adding: "We are a theme park and it is inevitable that there will be some noise associated with our business. We are also the major employer in the area, and a catalyst for the development of hundreds of other support businesses. We do not believe that this decision is representative of the level of actual complaints received or the feelings of the majority of our local residents."

A press spokesperson for the company said: "Most likely we will be appealing - but we can't talk about it any more at the moment."

Staffordshire Moorlands said in a statement: "We do not accept the view expressed by the complainants that the council has not been of help. Clearly there has been a difference of approach and expectation between the council and the complainants. However, we believe that our policy of dealing with nuisance issues through negotiation has had measurable success."

Staffordshire Moorlands' environmental health services manager John Tildesley says that the council is "reasonably confident" in how it deals with Alton Towers in terms of procedures. At concerts, a noise officer would be in contact with the mixing tower, he added, and if noise levels rose above the set limit the tower would be told to turn the volume down.

In consultation with the theme park, over the past three years the council has managed to get the overall explosive power of the fireworks reduced, he adds. Tildesley notes the difficult balancing act the council faces: "We have to cater for the majority rather than one or two individuals who seem not in step with the community at large."

He will be happy if the judge sets clear guidelines: "Anything that gives clarity in future dealings will be welcome." He defends Wollaston as "not having perfect powers of recall", adding: "I have a great deal of sympathy for her - it could have been any of us." She simply failed to remember to whom she had given information, he says. "I would have expected if one side was using documents under disclosure rules that they would have revealed them to the other side."

Stigwood hopes that victory for the Ropers will also help other neighbours suffering from noise - at one house the noise is up to 10dB worse than at Farley House. But fear of failure, and costs, deter most private prosecutions - the Ropers were unusually courageous. "I really feel sorry for the other neighbours," says Stigwood. "It's always been one of the problems that this was a private action and merely protects the Ropers. I take the view that the council can't now avoid doing something. They have to be satisfied that there is a nuisance, and the judge says there is a nuisance."

As for the Ropers, they told Noise Management: "We were not alone in feeling all along that the council has treated residents badly and seemed to favour Alton Towers every time, but even we were shocked by what came out in court. Clearly our priority is to sort out the noise problem through the action we were forced to take ourselves, but we will also be trying to make sure the council behaves properly in the future, if necessary by enlisting the Ombudsman's help."

August/September 2004

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