Skip to main content

Quiet Cities

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016

Will all those who are not staying please leave quickly and quietly, as we are moving on to the intriguingly titled but no doubt important debate on quiet cities?

I beg to move,

That this House has considered quiet cities.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this topic; I believe this debate is a parliamentary first, certainly in the UK. There has been much debate in this place and outside, and within the legislative process in this place and outside, on green cities and smart cities in recent years. I am delighted that the Minister will answer the debate on behalf of the Government, though I am not sure whether he is delighted. He has clearly drawn the short straw today, but he has, I think, an appreciation of the aesthetics of politics.

In Shropshire, we do not have large cities—in fact, we do not have a city, and I hope that we will not have a city—but we do have slow towns. We have in the county the slow town of Ludlow, just a few miles from my Shropshire constituency. However, there has been very little public discourse or political dialogue about quiet cities—making our cities and towns quieter, and in so doing, improving the quality of life for millions of city dwellers.

Noise pollution in UK cities is becoming a greater problem, and loud cities do have an impact on the quality of life of millions of people. They also have an impact on our health. A scientific report by Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden suggests that prolonged exposure to high noise levels can be associated with elevated blood pressure; an increased heart rate; sleep deprivation; in extremis, hearing loss; tinnitus; cardiovascular disease; and cognitive impairment. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 20 million US citizens struggle with tinnitus at some point in their lives. A 2011 report by the World Health Organisation concluded that noise pollution is a direct threat to public health. Further symptoms of exposure to noise pollution include constriction of blood vessels, unhealthy tightening of muscles, and increased anxiety and stress.

What can be done? According to the World Health Organisation, national Governments, local authorities and urban planners can take some relatively low-cost action. In the case of the United Kingdom or England, that could involve Highways England and local highways authorities and agencies procuring better low noise emission road surfaces; quieter pavements; designing cities to encourage more safe use of bikes and pedestrian areas—I recognise and am glad that the Government are doing a lot in that area—encouraging the building of noise buffers when new environments are being built, which would involve landscaping and tree planting to alleviate noise; ensuring that all new public transport systems are as quiet as possible; and Government and local authorities asking, “Does this new bus or train service reduce noise in this particular city; does it make a difference?” For example, in relation to the train operating companies, let us take the Virgin Pendolino train, which I know the Minister literally takes, as do I. People will notice the difference between the Virgin Voyager train and the Virgin Pendolino. Modern technology can make a difference; making the right choice can make a difference.

Many of the WHO recommendations complement the Government’s targets on climate change, but the right to some respite from constant noise needs to be a central feature of Government policy—part of their strategy—not a by-product or consequence of another Government policy.

My own observations are these. The Government should work with motor manufacturers to encourage all cars and vehicles to have linings that stop the doors making a noise when they are slammed shut. A simple rubber lining would make a huge difference; metal on metal makes noise. Slamming doors are even an issue in the House of Commons. Where the doors are lined, they close quietly; where they are not lined, they slam and create noise pollution.

Emergency vehicles should reduce the use of their very loud sirens after midnight. The blue flashing lights are enough to alert people to their presence in the dark. Of course discretion should be allowed. That is an issue even when walking down the streets here in Westminster. The ambulances are going out to save lives; we respect that and recognise it, and they have to get through heavy traffic. But some of the sirens are so ear-piercing compared with those of other emergency vehicles. Ambulances do seem, anecdotally, to be far louder than police vehicles. Perhaps there is a reason for that, but do the sirens need to be used after midnight when the blue lights can be seen? That is a public debate I think we should have, because it does impact on people’s lives in cities and towns up and down the country.

Perhaps we should put polite notices on public transport systems. We cannot compel people to do things, but we can encourage people, through polite notices, to set their phones to vibrate or silent, as I know you do from time to time, Mr Hollobone, when you are in the Chair. I hope that we all have our phones on silent or vibrate at the moment.

There needs to be a national conversation about how to make the country—our cities and towns—quieter. We could even use polite notices about loud conversations on telephones, which I am sure have been an irritant to us all. I confess that I probably have had such conversations myself. I should do so less, and now that I have made this speech, I probably will. [Interruption.] I have proved my point, because the phone of one of the officials has just gone off. Although it is a nice tune and not an irritant, it should be on vibrate or silent. The point is that noise pollution has an impact on and makes a difference to our lives every day.

What about urban design? The concept of green buildings and skyscrapers has been around for some time. We need to encourage that more. Many years ago, a friend of mine whom I have not seen for some time—Dr Kenneth Yeang, a Malaysian-based, but Cheltenham College and Cambridge-educated green skyscraper architect—was one of the originators of green design, by which natural air cooling, instead of costly and noisy air conditioning units, is built into the building.

Space should be designed with sound in mind, so that we reduce noise pollution. Utility companies should be made to replace manhole covers in a way that does not increase noise. Loose-fitting metal covers crack or clank every time a vehicle goes over them. As hon. Members walk down the street tonight, they might hear that same noise. Imagine being an office worker or somebody living nearby, hearing that clank every few seconds on a busy road. Very low-cost, simple measures can be put in place. These problems are a noise nightmare for many local residents and office workers in this city, and in many towns and cities around the country.

A social survey by the City of London assessed that general attitudes to noise suggested that alarms and aircraft noise are the two most common causes of noise complaints. I will not comment on aircraft noise today, as that has been done many times in this place and, no doubt, will be done again. I do not want to be drawn into the third runway debate. Nevertheless, the Government can work with the security trade bodies to seek out ways of countering noise pollution from alarms. They can also recognise and work with what aircraft manufacturers are doing do reduce noise from aircraft.

The Government—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and other Departments—could work with car manufacturers to encourage the increased production of low-noise tyres, and the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government could do more to work towards procuring silent road surfaces. I pay tribute to the Transport Secretary, who has done a lot in that area, but I hope the Government can do more. The silent road surface that covers some parts of the M54 in Shropshire has made a real difference to the quality of life of my constituents and those transiting through the constituency—both those inside and outside vehicles. Let us move towards that nationally, and make a national difference, not just a local one.

The Government could get London black cabs to convert to quieter vehicle models. I believe that that is in the Mayor of London’s strategy. I live in London as well as in Shropshire, and there is a big difference between a London black cab going by, accelerating, puffing out lots of diesel and making a noise, and the cars of the much criticised Uber drivers. I am not here to promote Uber, but most Uber drivers drive electric vehicles that are greener, cleaner and quieter. When they accelerate off, they can hardly be heard. They are making a difference. The cab trade in London generally needs to work towards using more environmentally friendly and quieter vehicles. That is the point of the debate.

Another example is the London Duck Tours. Has anyone seen the London Duck? It is a converted military vehicle that is so noisy and polluting. Throw on top of that the microphone of the person talking about the delights of central London, and it makes a real disruption to the lives of residents not only of central London in SW1, but of SE1, down in Vauxhall. Such things can be changed. It would not be of huge cost, but it would be of great benefit to many people.

A website that I read stated:

“Motorcycle owners value the loud revving noise produced by their engines: this noise is part of what completes the experience of riding vehicles.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that sort of inconsiderate and selfish behaviour does not do sensible motorcyclists any good?

I have ridden a motorbike and I like riding motorbikes, albeit mostly abroad rather than here, although I have friends that ride motorbikes here. Modifications that make motorbikes or other motor vehicles noisier is inconsiderate, but as long as those motorcycles abide by the environmental guidelines and the manufacturer’s model, I do not have an issue with that. I am conscious of the time, so I will have to speed up.

City and town planners should noise map their cities in more detail, creating anti-noise or counter-noise policies. There should be more enforcement by local councils, DCLG and other Government Departments. The national planning policy framework should include a requirement for new home builders to factor noise abatement into their designs—for example, no wooden floors in apartment blocks unless they are on the ground floor. People walk on wooden floors without carpets and it hugely stresses people in apartment blocks.

We should introduce a quiet homes standard and a single national acoustic standard across all new home building, and encourage the Royal Institute of British Architects, working with the Institute of Acoustics, to include training modules on acoustic design in all architect training courses. Certainly all public buildings should meet a minimum noise requirement, especially schools and hospitals where, perhaps, noise pollution creates the most anxiety and disruption. Public buildings should also seek to work towards a quiet mark—the international eco-award scheme for excellence in designing quiet buildings and products.

If central Government and local government cannot move quickly towards having quiet buildings, perhaps we could have quiet policies. That could be done in quite a short space of time. Within some of those noisy public buildings, quiet policies could be implemented and achieved much more speedily and readily. I ask the Government to do more to work with organisations such as the Noise Abatement Society and Environmental Protection UK to help to reduce noise in towns and cities. The police should do more to take action against motorcyclists or vehicle drivers who increase noise by illegally modifying their vehicles. We need to update our environmental laws and the Noise Abatement Act 1960 to recognise new generators of noise pollution, with a defined schedule for offending and common noise pollutions in cities.

Noise, not sound, is an unnecessary form of negative energy—a negative vibrating energy that reaches our ears and causes a sensation of hearing through our nervous system. It is that direct kinetic energy that can, so significantly, have an impact on the quality of life of millions of people in the country. The national nervous system is being attacked every day. Silence matters, and the Government need to recognise that there is a huge difference between sound and noise. Noise is unwanted. Sound, such as that of nature, birdsong in the morning, or even church bells—although some people do not like bells—may be wanted. However, the illegal hooting of horns and overly loud emergency sirens create stress.

Calm matters. It is possible to work towards quieter cities, but unless there is an overall national strategy led and implemented by the Government, local councils and other public bodies, it might never happen. In our increasing technological advancements, let us not shut out silence, time to think and an alternative to noise. My call today is quite revolutionary—a vision for cultural and political change in the built environment of cities and towns—but I believe it would be almost universally popular. It would have a huge positive environmental impact and huge health benefits.

Change can come. My ambition is for London to become the quietest city in the world. It is a big vision, but a big city needs a big vision. With the Government leading, let us all work together towards quieter cities and quieter lives. The one sound that people want to hear in the city is the sound of silence.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a great privilege to respond to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I pay tribute to him for raising quiet cities, a striking and original subject that has not previously come across the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs desk.

Quiet cities are interesting because, as recently as the 1960s, noise was not considered within Britain’s policy framework. In fact, a man called John Connell, an earlier incarnation of my hon. Friend, made it his personal campaign to put noise on the agenda. He led a great campaign, which began by addressing the issue of noisy dustbin lids. His big thing was to introduce rubber dustbin lids, instead of metal ones. His next revolutionary move was to introduce rubber milk bottle stands, so that people were not woken in the morning by the milk being put on their doorstep. He became interested in the issue of airport noise, and he was the first great champion of what is now known as the Boris island project—he tried to get the Japanese to buy into the estuary island. He succeeded in making the British Government and British law take noise more seriously. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s efforts, following that great tradition, will inspire us to look at quiet cities.

Although quiet cities have not previously been done in Britain, as my hon. Friend says, we have green cities, smart cities and slow towns. Yinchuan, in north-west China, is an example of a quiet city, as are Brisbane in Australia, and Hartford in Connecticut. Those places have tried to brand themselves around the idea of peace and silence, as has my hon. Friend. The website of Brisbane, Australia, for example, lists a series of things that are prohibited, all the way from A for air conditioners to R for refrigerators, with dogs sitting at D.

The Government are engaging with the idea, but it is a local authority lead. It is important that the idea of a smart city, a green city or, in this case, a quiet city is locally driven. It is about how an area brands itself and thinks about itself and what its values might be. Someone like my hon. Friend can inspire a city or a town to take that lead, and I know that he has been having conversations with the candidates for Mayor of London about how the idea could be part of the agenda for London. Our colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have proposed coinciding the idea of pocket parks and green areas in cities with the idea of quiet areas, where there would be prohibitions on creating noise.

As the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) suggested in his intervention on motorcycles, there are a number of difficult balances to be struck: one person’s noise is occasionally somebody else’s joy; one person’s noise may be somebody else’s music; one person’s noise may be somebody else’s supercar; and one person’s noise may be a vibrant city. We have to balance such things, and we have to get that balance right, which is why local leadership and local ideas will be important.

The Government have adopted a number of measures over the years to address noise, and I will tick off some of the issues that have been raised. On railway noise, there has been a massive rail grinding programme across the country, which is primarily for public safety and energy but is also significantly reducing the decibel levels created by trains. We have heard a little about laying new road surfaces, and we now have a £300 million programme, of which a significant proportion will be directed towards reducing noise and new highway roll-out. We have Euro 6 standards for engines, which will reduce the decibel levels created by individual engines. We have product standards, so when people go into a shop and buy, for example, a lawn mower, they will be able to see how many decibels that particular lawn mower emits. We have building regulations that have reduced the amount of noise emitted in the construction of hundreds of thousands of houses, as well as reducing the amount of noise heard by people inside by moving bedrooms away from the front and by installing triple glazing.

All of that reflects the common understanding in this room that noise matters. Why does noise matter? We put a value of approximately £6 billion to £7 billion a year on the damage done by noise to health and quality of life. That will remind hon. and right hon. Members of the kinds of calculations we do on air pollution, which causes some £14 billion or £15 billion a year of damage, but in fact noise is different from air pollution. Air pollution, as the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has said in a previous debate, is a silent killer; people are often barely conscious of it.

Noise pollution causes significant health damage, largely driven by the effect on sleep and the stress that comes from loss of sleep. My father was severely deaf, and I was in a meeting this morning with a man who, through driving a vehicle in the 1960s, lost 70% of his hearing. He pointed out that the NHS spends £1,000 a year buying him new hearing aids. He sees three consultants a year, and the batteries of his hearing aids have to be replaced. His productivity in the workplace has been significantly affected by the fact that he cannot hear anything in meetings. The decision in the 1960s to save £500 by not putting a silencer on that vehicle has probably cost the public purse £20,000 or £30,000 over the life of that individual. There is not only a health impact; it is irritating, distracting, frustrating and infuriating to be disturbed by noise when tranquillity is at the core of what we care about.

We can talk in the abstract, but in my constituency the A5036, which leads down to the docks, is very loud. About half a dozen households on that road have been trying to get Highways England to provide acoustic amelioration. Will the Minister have a word with his colleagues in the Department for Transport and try to get Highways England to pull its finger out, if possible?

I would be delighted to set up a meeting with transport colleagues on that issue, which I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising. That issue is a microcosm of the issues that we are facing across the country, and there is often a difficult balance to be struck. We want infrastructure, we want roads, we want railways and we want planes, but all of our infrastructure, all of our communications and all of our industrial heritage are causing noise issues.

I realise that the Government and local councils cannot do everything. Local council finances are being pressed, and we know the reasons and the background, but we can encourage a change in behaviour by incentivising councils, and by rewarding new home builders by giving them recognition, such as a quiet mark or the environmental awards that they seek. Government Departments and local councils should be leading nationally on setting the standard for quiet mark awards. Does the Minister agree?

My hon. Friend is in tune with a whole movement. He will be aware of the Noise Abatement Society, which now runs the annual John Connell awards. I am proud to have participated in those awards for two years in a row. They are a fantastic initiative, doing exactly what my hon. Friend is pushing for. We can probably work with the Noise Abatement Society, which has a lot of innovative ideas, on taking the awards further.

We are also making a large £600 million investment in developing ultra-low emission, particularly electric, vehicles, which will make a revolutionary difference. In fact, one of the issues with electric vehicles, of which colleagues will be aware, is that some people feel that they may be becoming dangerously quiet as they move through the streets. Huge progress can be made on electric vehicles, and we have new funds available to lay quieter roads in future.

I finish with a tribute. Parliament, and Westminster Hall, is a peculiar place. It is often difficult to work out how to come up with and drive through inspiring new ideas, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the novel idea of the quiet city. I encourage cities and towns across the country to think seriously about how different towns, ranging from Yinchuan to Hartford to Brisbane, have managed to create a culture around tranquillity, and the ways in which British towns and cities could take the lead in creating such a culture. In doing so, they would be accepting that from the very beginnings of human language, perhaps the most fundamental word—spiritually, emotionally and physically—has been the concept of peace.

Question put and agreed to.