Love thy neighbour?
New research reveals that complaining about the folks next door has reached epidemic proportions. What is it about our neighbours that annoys us so much? Tim Dowling offers a few pointers
Thursday April 12, 2007
We are, according to a clutch of recent statistics and surveys, a nation at war with next door. All we do these days, it seems, is complain about our neighbours. The Office of National Statistics reported this week that in 2006 we made almost 6m official complaints to environmental health about neighbours. The Noise Abatement Society, meanwhile, says there was a 28% increase in complaints about garden noise alone last summer.
Why have we grown so unneighbourly? The Daily Mail, not surprisingly, blames immigration (this is nonsense; one might more sensibly blame the Daily Mail). The Office of National Statistics itself cites a higher number of smaller households, and growing population density in our cities. Most local authorities put the rise in complaints down to the "selfish attitudes" of some neighbours combined with an unrealistically high "expectation of quiet" of others.
Of course, you could argue that the only thing an increased number of complaints proves is our increasing willingness to complain - or perhaps our increasing unwillingness to take the matter up with next door. As Dr Peter Marsh, a social psychologist and co-founder of the Social Issues Research Centre, puts it: "The problem is with how you measure these things. It has become a lot easier to make formal complaints now because people have a better understanding of the channels, which would explain why instances have increased."
As for what we are actually complaining about ...
This remains our biggest source of dispute, with loud music, barking dogs and young children listed among the major causes of irritation. One might also include building works, blaring televisions, or people who leave Radio 4 on all day to keep their pets company while they are at work. There is also the increasing prevalence of smoke alarms that go off every time you try to grill anything, burglar alarms that go off for no reason and people who buy their children drum kits for Christmas (while we're laying blame, I am guilty of four of these, but I'm not saying which ones. My neighbours know well enough).
With so much to choose from, it is strange to hear that a recent survey has found the most irritating neighbourly noise to be wind chimes. Yes, their incessant tinkling can be annoying, especially during a tornado, but if you are the sort of person who complains to the environmental health people about next door's wind chimes, then look no further for the Neighbour from Hell, for it is thee.
Apart from drains, this particular irritant is in the nose of the beholder. Either you like the pungent odour of well-rotted horse manure, or of fresh grilled mackerel coming through the extractor fan, or you don't. Some neighbours, no doubt, can get exercised about the perfume of certain rather common sorts of flowers. Urban dwellers might complain about the lingering whiff of cheap aftershave in the stairwell. In the main, you have to be careful with smells; you never know where they might really be coming from.
For those who have them, gardens are a traditional front line for confrontations with neighbours, as any keen leylandii grower will be all too well aware. Urban and suburban gardens, once sorely underutilised, are now, thanks to a rash of gardening make-over programmes, used rather too much. Homeowners are encouraged to regard their gardens as "outdoor rooms"; in practice this usually means that they will stalk around them without a shirt on while barking into a mobile about how mashed they were the night before. Other nuisances, according to a poll conducted by Cornhill Direct, include hot tubs, barbecues, automatic solar lights and trampolines which allow the neighbour's children to spy on you on an intermittent basis.
The important thing to remember is that your outdoor room is outdoors, and that the barbecue smoke wafting over from No 23 is as much a part of the exterior environment as the helicopter hovering overhead, the wind that blew your shed down and the foxes that made off with your cat. In other words, suck it up.
Parking-related conflicts are among the ugliest disputes between neighbours, resulting in shouting matches, feuds, violence and even murder. These arguments are invariably based on a single misapprehension: the belief that the small stretch of Tarmac outside your house is your private parking kingdom. In fact, the bit of street in front of your house does not belong to you. You do not exercise any control or rights of dominion over it. The system works the same way it does anywhere else: the space is yours until you move your car, after which it will be filled on a first come, first served basis. You should not be surprised if your neighbours are unmoved when you complain you have had to park three streets away - that happens to everyone, not just you - nor should you be shocked by their suggestion that the walk might do you good, you fat moron.
Not with lawn, in this case, but with a quick call to the local council. If there was a sharp rise in neighbourly complaints last summer, we might well attribute some of it to the hosepipe ban that was in place in many areas, and the fact that several water authorities actively encouraged neighbours to shop one another for any surreptitious infringements - which can't have done much to breed neighbourly love. Similar schemes have been introduced regarding the misdeployment of bins and any flouting of planning laws - and it is unlikely they led to much love either. While you should always tell the police if you think your neighbour is building an unapproved temporary structure on top of, say, the dead body of a business rival, in general a system which relies on neighbours ratting on each other cannot be conducive to the public good.
The source of the conflict could be a corridor, a party wall, a length of fence, a shared television aerial or a large communal garden in the middle of a square with certain by-laws restricting the playing of ball games (in the latter case, no sympathy should be shown to any aggrieved party on the basis that if you have access to such a garden, you deserve no one's sympathy). Complex tenancy or leasehold agreements govern a lot of the rules about certain common parts, but in the case of a load of old rubbish which is blocking up the shared alleyway out back, then the answer is simple: I said I would move it and I will, if not this weekend, then next. I promise. What is that awful smell, by the way?
Are you a neighbour from hell? Views from around the country
Doncaster, South Yorkshire
Afzal Khan, 22, sales assistant
I suppose if you hate R'n'B I might be the neighbour from hell, yes, but who hates R'n'B? Some people downstairs have just got a dog, and it shouldn't really be in a flat and sometimes it barks all night. And I can hear them walking around when I'm in bed, because their floor is wood and it sounds like tapping. It makes me feel like I should be allowed to play music or whatever because if they don't care, then why should I?
Sue Scudamore, 42, civil servant
I've had no problems with my neighbours. All it takes is for people to be tolerant within normal limits, but it works both ways. We always think before we put the TV on loud, and we've never had a problem in either of the two areas we've lived.
Joan Dale, 36, full-time mother
We get on with our current neighbours fine; they're lovely. But one of the reasons we moved was because our last set were a nightmare. There were always young lads in the front garden drinking and smoking, and when we had the baby a couple of years ago we thought it was best to move somewhere nicer. Since then we've been very careful about making sure we don't disturb our neighbours - with a young child in the house, it can get noisy.
David Martin, 37, builder
I don't really know my neighbours, because we all rent and they change so often. I love classical music, and I play the keyboard and sing, but I try to be considerate. Sometimes they play this kind of bang-bang music between about nine and 12, which drives me crazy. It's different when I play my classical - who could possibly object to strings and brass going off?
Chantal Greene, 29, solicitor
It's really frustrating when you've had a tough week and you want to unwind over the weekend, but the neighbours are having a barbecue or a garden party. You hear everything and you feel like you can't use your own lawn because you'd be intruding. And it's your house! They're very nice and they always tell us, but you can hardly say "no" when they ask if you mind them celebrating a birthday or something. I suppose everyone just has to be tolerant, and it's all about give and take.
Catherine Black, 40, full-time mother
My neighbours are all great. They are quiet and they keep themselves to themselves, but if we need help, we can always knock on their door. We live in a small apartment building and some of our neighbours are students, some professionals and some are old. But they are all fantastic. We are very good, even with our little one - he doesn't bounce on floorboards or anything. The neighbours say to us they would like us to stay.
Margaret Banks, 70, retired
We all get on well, but it's not exactly Coronation Street around here. My neighbours are quite reserved but they are nice. I just fed one neighbour's cat for a fortnight. I think that I'm a good neighbour, but then I am old now and I don't get out and about as often as I used to.
Mitsy Greenwood, 64, freelance bookkeeper
Mine are good neighbours. They're no trouble. They are very supportive; I'm on my own and if I need something lifted or done, there's always someone's husband around willing to give me a hand. I think I'm a good neighbour. Maybe once upon a time, when the children were young, we weren't, but there are no problems now.
Miroslav Perovic, 38, teacher
I do know my neighbours, but we don't really get on. I have two young children, including a 10-month-old baby who can scream the house down. We get complaints from them about noise, but they are just as bad. They live above us and march all over the place and play loud music. I think that as neighbours we're fine, but the noise is something we can't help as the flats have hardly been soundproofed. We do talk about the problems, but it's not a nice thing to discuss.
John Newman, 60, retired
I know and get on with all my neighbours and we meet up socially at least once a year. There are no problems with them really. I certainly don't have any bad habits.
Maria Lyons, 43, beauty therapist
I think I'm a good neighbour. We don't disturb anyone. If we're having a fire in the garden, we think about the best time to do it. I'm on call for an elderly neighbour in case she falls. When we had an extension built recently, we went out and spoke to everyone about it. Once, we allowed one of our hedges to grow too high and the neighbours complained, but we went out and hired some special equipment to cut it down the same day. Friends parking outside us probably annoys our neighbours, but that's because we all share a small lane. We all get by.
Martin Derrick, 50, translator
We recently had an application for a wind turbine turned down and I kept everyone informed on what I was doing. The neighbours weren't committed but they accepted we had different views: one said, "Good luck with your proposal, but I hope it fails." Do they do anything to annoy me? I don't think so - apart, perhaps, from the cats which come in our garden. In winter, especially, they always land on the same spot on our grass and because of the time of year it always leaves a bald spot, but I don't really care. Maybe they get fed up with our children a few times, but then again, they really do like them, giving them birthday presents and things.
Jo Havery-Harding, 45, teacher
Some neighbours drive past my gate too fast sometimes, which puts my children in danger, but on the whole I think I'm very fortunate. I've got four children and a trampoline in my garden, which I'm sure annoys the people next door.
Stella Powell, 67, partner in a local garage and coach hire firm
I like to think that I'm a good neighbour. We try not to annoy people and if anybody wants us, we're here, we'll help. Some neighbours complained about the garage over the 30 years that we've been here, but they're not our immediate neighbours, who have never said anything. We try to be as quiet as we can; even if we're on a late hire, we don't rev the engines or anything when we come back.