Noisy Neighbours

Our resident Agony Aunt provides a series of solutions for a single mother who can't escape the noise from her upstairs neighbours.

Noise. Picture: Alan Levine, released under Creative Commons.

Adele Barnett-Ward

Adele Barnett-Ward

Friday 6 January

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I am a council tenant in an affluent area of London. I have three children and was hoping for a house but when I was offered the three bedroom flat I currently live in I jumped at it. I couldn’t believe my luck at being able to live in such a lovely area and the local schools are great.

However, the flat is having a negative effect on my health. From the moment my upstairs neighbours wake up to the moment they go to sleep I have to live through their daily routine and activity, which consists of running jumping and stampeding caused by their children and their dog. The parents are not working so there is someone in the house almost all the time. I have tried to explain to them how the noise impacts me but it makes no difference. I have even tried using earplugs but I still hear them.

I have complained to the council and environmental health. The council have acknowledged there is an issue but refused to install insulation. I looked into getting my ceiling insulated myself but the ceiling is too low – and I’m not convinced it would do much anyway.

The council have offered to move me to a house, but it is in a completely different and much less desirable area of London. When I visited the area I felt unsafe and the crime statistics are much worse than where I am now. The house is terraced so I would still get some noise from neighbours but does have a garden, and off-street parking for my car.

If I take the house it will be an interim measure to protect my health while I try and swap back to the area I am in now so I will keep the two older children in their current school. I have a car so I can drive them. It’s about a 40 min drive each way.

Because the offered house is so far away the council have said that I can turn it down and have one more offer – but I will have to take that one or stay where I am.

What should I do for the best? Stay or go?

It really doesn’t sound like you want to take the offered house, and it is foolish to do so if you are only ever intending it as a temporary measure. The fact that the house is so far away from your current flat demonstrates how rarely council properties of the size you require become available.

That 40 minute commute could easily double in rush hour and, aside from the environmental impact and the detriment to your children’s health and well-being of spending between one and a half and three hours in a car every day (double that for your toddler if you intend to return home during the school day), what will you do if you still haven’t moved back by the time your youngest is due to start school? You will have to move the older ones then and all the commuting stress will have been for nothing. If you accept this house you have to accept it as a permanent move and transfer the children to a local school.

Have you considered moving out of London entirely? You may be able to swap to a house in a leafy area with the safety and good schools (although perhaps not the cachet) that you currently enjoy. Getting involved in toddler groups and your older children’s school would help you build a network of friends much more quickly than if you moved to a new town as a single person without children.

If the most important thing is staying in your current area then you need to stop clinging to the hope of finding a house or quieter flat and find a way to make the current place work. The first thing to do is to accept that you are now hyper-sensitive to the noise from your upstairs neighbours. Because it has been bothering you for so long, every single sound feels like a personal attack.

I think a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would help you find the disruption less distressing. You don’t have to find the money for a therapist – Googling DIY CBT brings up websites, book reviews, YouTube videos… there is a lot of information out there on developing mental resilience in the face of stressful situations.

Have you spoken to your downstairs neighbour about their experience of living below you? What makes you a more bearable upstairs neighbour? Is it all about behaviour? Do you have more sound-absorbent flooring? Or does your neighbour do something different? Do they have any tips you could use? Are there more than three flats in the building? How do other residents cope?

There is power in numbers so if everyone finds the noise excessive then band together and talk to your local councillor and the lead councillor for housing (find their email addresses on the council’s website). If you feel they are being unreasonable or unhelpful you can try escalating your complaint to your MP and trying to get the local paper on side.

If no-one else particularly has a problem with the noise then it is the combination of you and your upstairs neighbours that is the problem.

If they are also council tenants, how about seeing if you can swap flats? Bad luck on the neighbour currently below you, perhaps, but if they’re below you the noise should be less intrusive. Still talk to the relevant councillors but a lone voice – as you have already established – is less likely to be successful. Go into the meetings in a cooperative rather than combative frame of mind, don’t put the councillors on the defensive, help them empathise with your plight.

Also think about how you will be living in the flat long-term. As you are at home all day to hear the neighbours, I assume you aren’t currently in paid work (if the noise was affecting your ability to work from home I feel you would have mentioned it).

If you are living on benefits you will be switched from Income support to Jobseekers Allowance when your youngest child turns 5 and will be expected to be looking to work at least part-time.

Make an appointment with your local Jobcentre Plus and find out what support there is for you to prepare to go back to work. Consider gaining experience or qualifications that will enable you to work in a school or preschool (as a TA or Key worker, or perhaps in a school office or kitchen), to avoid the problem of school holiday childcare (expensive, when you have three children). Once you are spending more time out of the flat you should find the noise more oppressive.

I have given you a lot of options here and asked a fair few questions – but the key point is that if you want to live in your current area long term you are going to have to find a way of living in your current flat, rather than keep hoping the perfect alternative will come along. Good luck!

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