How do I deal with noisy neighbours? We ask an expert

During the pandemic, complaints about noisy neighbours soared. Now, with the government keen to prove that it’s tough on antisocial behaviour, there are plans to give the police more powers to sort out disputes. However, councils and courts increasingly favour a less drastic solution: mediation. I asked Dr Mike Talbot, CEO of UK Mediation, how it works.

In 2020 there were 16,000 disputes in mediation, including neighbour quarrels. Why do so many arguments end up there?
I’d say the opposite: not enough do! Too quickly people start a world war. Mediation helps people have a conversation. They have to want to participate. And it has to be about things they can control: DIY, pets, cooking smells, playing the guitar at 2am.

What are things people can’t control?
Child-rearing. Saying, “They shout at their kids” is a red rag to a bull. Or in flats, saying, “I can hear everything.” Well, the wall is as thick as it is. If it’s normal living noise, sorry, but that’s how it is.

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I am so happy to hear you say that. I once had a neighbour who would bang on the ceiling at anything: dropping a teaspoon, closing the oven door. He was so present, it was like he lived with me. Anyway, before this interview turns into counselling, what are the current rules on noise?
It’s about being reasonable. There was a case that went to mediation: a posh flat downstairs complaining about neighbours upstairs moving around. Upstairs said they’d already put rugs down, they didn’t put the washing machine on after 9pm and if children visited they only played in the carpeted room. It went to court.

Justice for the first-floor flat!
It came out that it was the noise of walking around upstairs that was upsetting them. The judge applied the reasonableness test and said: “They can’t hover above the ground, so live with it.”

All so unnecessary. And expensive.
In court, often it’s no longer an argument about, say, the £60 broken fence, but the £20,000 fees, whereas there are community mediation services that are free. Mediation is getting people to a win-win place, not the adversarial win-lose …

where the only winner is the lawyer. Roughly half of Britons don’t know their neighbour’s name. Is this a factor?
You definitely don’t want your first conversation to be when there’s a problem. But it can be a personality thing – how tolerant someone is. Also history. If somebody has had a dispute before, they’re thinking, “I’ll be ready this time.” The smallest thing becomes huge.

If someone reading this is having a noise issue, what should they do?
Pick a time and place to speak – don’t go around angry at 2am. Neutral ground is good, so leaning on the garden fence. Listen first. You could say: “I noticed you had friends around and it got late. Were you celebrating?” Hear what they say, then put your point across. Maybe: “Lovely to hear it was your cousin’s wedding. I hope you had a great time. From my point of view, it went on quite late – I had to be up at six.” Talk about the future, don’t argue over the past: “Can I ask that in future you keep it down after 11pm?” And when things improve, acknowledge it. Stick your head over the fence and say: “I noticed people were round and you kept it down. I appreciate it. Here, have a lettuce.”