Noise complaints fall on deaf ears

Residents’ complaints over street noise fall on deaf ears

Councils accused of failing to implement EU measures
August 26th 2008
One in four Spanish households suffers from noise problems, whether it comes from the bar below, a neighbor’s air conditioning or traffic. But only six out of the 18 cities required by law to map their noisiest areas by August of 2007 have done so.

In July, another deadline passed obliging them to present plans on reducing noise. So far, no city authority has handed in its proposals, which, in turn, must be passed on to the European Commission. Generally speaking, Spanish town halls have failed to act on the country’s noise problem until they are forced to by the law. It took José Antonio Siles and 17 other residents of the resort town of Vélez Málaga 13 years of complaints before the Supreme Court ordered his town hall to pay out €12,000 for every year they suffered. The local authorities in Vélez Málaga were judged to have been “passive” in applying antinoise legislation. “The sound boomed through the windows and the entire building vibrated,” says Siles, who ended up fitting extra thick double glazing to his summer home. “We would come for a month’s vacation and it would be absolute hell.”

Spain’s ombudsman says that noise is one of the most frequent complaints it receives about the environment. It even produced a special report on the problem in 2005. A law on preventing noise was passed in 2003, based on an EU directive. It required town halls and local authorities to locate noise offenders, and establish tough measures to shut them up. So far, the Environment Ministry has not been able to meet the European Commission’s request, running the risk of a fine. It has information on airports and rail road lines, but the information needed from city halls has still not been collated. “It’s a long process, and I would say that the deadlines were rather optimistic,” says José Manuel Sanz, in charge of monitoring noise in the ministry.

Only Valencia, Alicante, Málaga, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and more recently Vigo and Zaragoza have so far made any effort to meet their obligations. They have handed in their maps, but have made no plans to combat noise. “We are preparing the information, and will send everything we have by September 20,” says Sanz. “Most local authorities have failed to meet their obligations about reducing noise,” says Francisco Soler, an environmental lawyer. “The effect of this is that those affected by the problem feel as though they are not protected by the law.”

The residents of Vélez Málaga, faced with the noise barrage produced by dozens of bars and discos just meters from their doors, have sent at least 300 letters to their town hall. They repeatedly called the police, reported the problem to the media, and even demonstrated. “We tried everything, and spoke to everybody, ” says José Antonio Siles. Finally, they decided to take legal action. This is an option that only the truly desperate are likely to take, given the cost and time involved. Antonio Bocos, another lawyer who specializes in noise, says he receives around 20 complaints a month, two of which go to court. That said, he believes the problem is gradually being solved, thanks largely to tough sentences for offenders. Airports, freeways, bars and neighbors are the cause of most noise in Spanish cities.

The World Health Organization considers exposure to dangerous noise levels a public health issue. Aside from the impact on hearing, it can also lead to psychological, heart and hormonal problems, as well as affecting our sleep. It is the responsibility of city authorities who issue permits for bars and other potential noise makers tomake sure that they respect the law and stay within established guidelines. Ignacio Sáenz, who heads a nationwide group against noise, says that part of the problem is legislation from before new laws came in. “Things are improving,” concedes lawyer Agustín Bocos. “There are fewer cases than even a couple of years ago.”

For residents suffering from excessive noise levels, experts recommend that your first step is to call the police. They will normally investigate the complaint and attempt to mediate. Should that not be effective, the next move is to present a formal complaint to the city council. “The most important thing is that they take measures using decibel meters,” says the lawyer Beltrán Gambier. If the noise levels are shown to exceed the legal limits, then the victim can prove that their rights are not being respected. However, the lack of personnel available to carry out such measurements often means that a private entity will have to be paid to do them instead.

From El Pais - International edition. Author ANAÍS BERDIÉ, Madrid

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