Dealing with complaints about bells
If you need additional advice please email the Complaints Helpline at (email), or if necessary telephone either 07503 152223 (likely to go to answerphone) or – during normal business hours – 01264 366620.
Complaints about bells, however trivial they may appear initially, need to be dealt with quickly and sympathetically if potentially serious consequences are to be avoided. These notes are designed to give guidance to those who have to deal with complaints.
It would be difficult to anticipate and deal with all possible forms of complaint here. Therefore these notes seek to deal with those more serious cases which could be interpreted by an Environmental Health Officer as causing a nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
The Environmental Protection Act 1990: Summary of Relevant Points
- It is the duty of a local authority to investigate and take steps to deal with noise which it considers is prejudicial to health or is a nuisance.
- Where the authority is satisfied that a nuisance exists it can serve an abatement notice to prohibit or restrict the nuisance and can require work to be undertaken.
- The notice will specify timescales and will be served on the person responsible for the nuisance.
- The person served with the notice may appeal against it within 21 days from the date on which it was served.
- Complaints can be made direct to the magistrates, avoiding the need to convince the local authority.
Dealing with complaints
- Whenever a complaint is received it is important that the clergy, churchwardens and ringers work together to agree the actions to be taken. Confusion can be avoided if it is agreed at the outset that one person should act as spokesperson.
- Memories can be very unreliable. Keep written records of conversations, dates and times of events; agreements reached with a complainant will be particularly helpful.
- Reactions along the lines that “the church was here first” and “we have been doing this for hundreds of years” are not helpful.
- Even if complaintants simply do not like the sound of bells, most have a genuine concern which needs to be dealt with quickly, professionally and sympathetically.
- Often the problem can be resolved amicably at first contact but sometimes more information is required before proper consideration can be given.
- Irate telephone calls, hearsay and distorted press reports are not a sound basis on which to make decisions which could have a serious impact on future ringing activities.
- Wherever possible discuss the matter with the complainant face to face (an invitation to see the ringing and meet the ringers is often beneficial here) or at least try to obtain details of the complaint in writing.
- Once the problem is defined, clergy, churchwardens and ringers should decide whether or not the complaint is reasonable.
- Much hinges on the definition of reasonable. What is reasonable in one situation may be wholly unresaonable in another. To help decision making and advise on all matters relating to complaints the Central Council has established a national network of Complaints Advisers. Contact details are given at the beginning of these guidelines.
- If you accept that the complaint is reasonable, take action to remedy the situation. This is best done in consultation with the complainant.
- If you believe that the complaint is unreasonable, write to the complainant giving your reasons. The complainant will either accept your reasoning and drop the matter or escalate the issue through a higher church authority or by complaining to the local authority. Either way, if you have been reasonable there is nothing to fear.
Contact with the Environmental Health Officer
Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are employed by the local authority. Part of their duties is to decide whether or not the situation complained about constitutes a “statutory nuisance”.
- EHOs must undertake enquiries to satisfy themselves that, in their view, the complaint is justified before serving a notice to stop or modify ringing.
- Enquiries will probably include some form of noise measurement survey, although this is not a legal requirement, and nearly always will involve discussions with the clergy, churchwardens and ringers.
- Remember that this is a team effort and clergy, churchwardens and ringers need to work together at all stages.
- Reconsider your position if findings are going against you. You may wish to call in your own acoustician to carry out a noise survey. You may also canvas nearby residents to determine their views before reconsidering your position. This needs to be done objectively.
- Various options are available to you if the EHO indicates that he/she believes that your bellringing constitutes a nuisance and is therefore duty bound to serve a notice. These are:
- modify your pattern of ringing to become acceptable to the EHO
- install an adequate sound control system
- accept and comply with the notice
- receive the notice and appeal against it
Notices under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and other legal action
- Do be aware if you have been served with a notice. The notice itself is likely to appear on an ordinary A4 sheet, perhaps word processed, and is identifiable by the heading “Environmental Protection Act 1990” and the words “TAKE NOTICE”. It is not a Court document, merely one produced by the local authority.
- The proper persons to be served with a notice are certainly the vicar, and possibly the Church Council, so make sure you will know if a notice has been served on them.
- If a notice has been served ensure that an appeal is lodged at the local Magistrates Court speedily; that discussions are proceeding with the EHO; and call on the Complaints Adviser referred to at the end of these notes to help.
- There are still means of taking civil proceedings in the County Court to try to “restrain” ringing, there is a means of an individual taking proceedings in the Magistrates Court. It seems that people are unlikely to do this if the EHO will take steps for them. However, if you have any hints or suspicions that civil proceedings are likely or possible, contact your Complaints Adviser in early course.
Although these notes have been prepared principally for those dealing with a complaint, it is better to avoid complaints by taking sensible precautions in the first place. The following comments may help:
- Most complaints relate to the bells being:
- too noisy
- rung too often
- rung for too long
- rung at the wrong time
- If you believe your bells may be too noisy, you may wish to install a sound control system or restrict the amount of ringing, particularly at unsociable times or during hot weather when local residents are likely to have their windows open. Advice on sound control is available from the Towers and Belfries Committee, Chairman David Kirkcaldy Tel: 01903 813653
- Many complaints arise where new houses are built close to a bell tower. It is important that the local authority planning department is made aware of the church bells at an early stage in the planning process. In some cases it may be desirable to object to planning applications.
- The future use of land in England is identified in “Unitary Development Plans”. It is worth checking these out from time to time (local library) to ensure wherever possible that a “green” area is maintained around your bell tower.
- It is helpful if those within earshot know when the bells are going to be rung so that they can take action.
- Ensure that the bells are rung regularly and at fixed times.
- When special ringing is necessary, make sure local residents know about it by broadcasting the fact in a door-to-door circular or at least by publication in the parish magazine or local newspaper.
- Most people can tell the difference between good ringing and bad and are more likely to complain about the latter.
- Poor quality ringing is most likely to occur when too many novices are ringing at the same time.
- In a situation where the whole band is new, the problem is difficult to avoid, but one popular solution is to install a simulator. This is not very expensive, and will provide a valuable new dimension to teaching.