It is not uncommon for planning permission to be granted to noise-sensitive projects such as residential housing next to existing sources of noise.  The existing businesses that are operating and generating the noise, such as entertainment venues, motor sport, scrap metal recycling centres or construction industry, may be concerned about having their business affected by the requirement to abate what becomes a statutory nuisance – a nuisance that affects a person’s use of their home; from limiting or preventing adequate sleep to simply generating unwanted noise upon a balcony or garden when it would be in use.

Is there a defence for “being there first”?

There is largely no defence for being there first. Businesses do not have a right to sterilise the land, people are entitled to the use of their homes such as opening windows and there is no legal process for preventing this.  You cannot take away the resident’s right to freedom from statutory nuisance where health is affected, the courts have specified this in previous cases where this has been considered. The expectation will be that homes take priority over business and that the planners have allowed it and therefore the noise must be reasonable.  If the residents complain, the local council is obliged by law to investigate cases of nuisance and if they find nuisance they must take action.

Planning for noise

When planning residential housing near to existing noise sources such as a music venue or recycling centre, separation distance is the most effective way to reduce the noise.  Acoustic barriers become increasingly ineffective when considering first and second floor windows. 

Noise is a complex technical issue and designing for minimising noise impact is an area where mistakes can be made and risk is underestimated. This is particularly true where noise guidelines are used out of context or for source for which they were not designed.

Engineering out the problem

Planning is sometimes granted on the belief that the problem can be engineered out.  Designing for minimising noise impact, such as using barriers, avoiding windows on walls facing the noise sources and using better insulating materials can be effective.  However, it is necessary to always consider the right to having open windows and use of outside spaces.  Noise mapping using sound modelling software can help with estimating the decibel levels that can be expected based on the proposed designs.  Noise impact assessments will commonly contain noise maps for this purpose.

How important are decibel levels?

Audibility is of fundamental importance.  However, frequency of occurrence, the duration of the noise, the time of day and the character of the noise are factors that are usually more important for determining nuisance that the decibel level, this is supported by research conducted by MAS and guidance by the World Health Organisation. 

The character of the noise should be considered important. This factor is typically more important than the absolute decibel level.  Some characteristics that should be considered include:

  • The spectrum from low to high frequencies and whether the noise is tonal or broadband in spectrum range.
  • The impulsivity of the noise i.e. how quickly and how high it increases relative to the initial level. 
  • The repetitive nature of the noise.
  • How it compares to ambient noise sources and whether it is ‘in-keeping’ when considering the locale
  • Whether the noise is pleasant, unpleasant or imparts a message  i.e. its psychoacoustic components.

When looking at the decibel level it is always important to consider the existing prevailing sound environment. This process is outlined in BS4142 2014 Methods for rating and assessing industrial and commercial sound (BS4142 2014). A noise impact assessment using this methodology compares the specific sound level from the noise source with the background sound level (LA90,T statistical value). BS4142 2014 identifies four acoustic characteristics/features including tonality, impulsivity, intermittency and introduces a penalty for other sound characteristics that may be present within the noise.

National planning noise guidance

The Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on noise sets out clear categories of impact in terms of observed effects, such as “noticeable and intrusive”.  It does not define these in terms of decibel level but applies a semantic scale with outcomes e.g. likely to close windows due to noise or recognise there will be a permanent change in the acoustic environment post development.

When setting decibel limits for noise, some short-term, unavoidable activities that would otherwise be regarded as unacceptable are usually permitted.  The most important factor considered is where the noise has an adverse impact on health and quality of life.

As a business owner

If you are operating next to a newly permitted residential area, mistakes may have been made regarding the noise impact that your business may have on new residential property.  You may be expected to demonstrate that you have undertaken the “best practicable means” to reduce noise.  It may be necessary to better isolate, insulate and sound-proof the premises or processes to minimise noise impact on the new properties.  You may also be responsible for the noise caused by customers of your business, such as people leaving a music venue late at night.

MAS have helped many businesses who have been served abatement notices or whose trading has been affected by noise complaints. 

For more information check out our page Investigating a Statutory Nuisance


Mike Stigwood
& Terri Stigwood

About us


01223 982912