Sam Davies

Noise at night: cause of a problem, or symptom?

This week has largely been occupied by ‘casework’, basically trying to help resolve issues raised directly with me by residents.

Sometimes the issue is a consequence of the resident’s individual circumstances, but more often it becomes apparent that it’s a symptom of a more generalised problem. My aim is always to make progress for the individual, while also analysing what can be done to resolve, or at least minimise, that wider concern, liaising with whatever public services might be necessary to achieve that.

It’s what I would expect from a local councillor, and I hope it’s what you elected me for.

Noisy …and dangerous

One example of what’s happening is a stream of complaints from individual householders over several months about excessively noisy motorbikes speeding through our streets at night. They have explained clearly the impact of this on their own quality of life, and also point out the danger the motorbike riders present to themselves and other road users.

Having raised the issue with the police, their advice was to residents to log every incident with them via 101 or the online chat. This gives them a picture of the activity over time, and helps them work out how best to deal with it. I know a number of residents have painstakingly done this and my perception is that the immediate problem is much diminished, which is great.

However, I can also see several ways in which the motorcyclists’ behaviour might also be signalling a need for more systemic consideration and change.

Investing in public health

There have been some local discussions about how monitoring technology can play a part in reducing excessive vehicle noise, specifically the Medusa noise monitoring cameras first used in a trial in Paris and now adopted by Kensington and Chelsea Council in London. The technology allows law enforcement agencies to issue fixed penalty notices against offending vehicles. But of course, one barrier to the installation of these systems is the funding required.

This is where some ‘joined up thinking’ with public health budgets would be useful. Noise pollution is recognised as having a significant impact on public health, not just in obvious ways (sleep disturbance, annoyance) but also because chronic exposure leads to hypertension and heart disease. So it’s a reasonable hypothesis that investing in noise reduction technology might deliver savings to the public health budgets in the longer term.

But at the moment there is no way of integrating these concerns.

Overcoming divisions

Moreover, there are other ways of reducing the impact of noise which would also bring public health benefits, such as greater use of green infrastructure planted alongside roads. As trees absorb more high-frequency noise than low frequency, this makes them ideal for use as sound barriers. Pursuing this route would also support good mental health, encourage physical activity and contribute to climate resilience through SUDs (sustainable urban drainage systems).

Again, to me this all argues for much more integrated thinking than is allowed by the strict divisions at local authority level of law enforcement, public health and highway design.

Positive contribution

Looking even more widely, there is an emerging field of academic literature and practice based on the concept of urban ‘soundscapes’. This approach considers not only the role played by both the elimination of sounds perceived as negative, but also the preservation or inclusion of sounds which are perceived as contributing positively to people’s experience of a place. Here, technology plays only one part in what is an interdisciplinary arena also embracing participatory urban design and planning, psychology, ecology and the environment, slow mobility, mobile and digital technology and sound art.

I’ve seen no discussion whatsoever of how this thinking might be incorporated into Cambridge’s development – there were only two passing references to ‘noise’ in the whole 372 pages of the recent Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service Local Plan First Proposals consultation document.

Building a community

And finally, there is the issue of how we all perceive our relationship with – and responsibilities to – the wider community. The phenomenon of noisy night-time motorbikes might indicate that their riders feel no sense of obligation to, or engagement with, their neighbours. Shouldn’t we be curious as to whether this is the case, how much more widely it extends, and how we might address it?

Or are we now mired in a mindset where we rely on technology to monitor and law enforcement to punish …rather than exploring ways of reducing alienation and building a more inclusive community?

More questions than answers this week. The casework is the simple part. It’s putting it all together that takes the effort.

Sam Davies


  • Greenlands Cambridge has had all sorts of excessive noise for a tiny 32 housed Estate that is a cul-de-sac. Motorbikes cut through at speed from Ninewells one end, Addenbrookes the other, scooters do the same coming down from the P&R, cycle path and through Addenbrooke’s some Voi but many illegal, cars/vans idle,wait and park on double yellow lines/pavements, supermarket vans were taking breaks on our road side as were Private Hire vehicles with pollution and noise at levels it impacted on health. 70% of staff work at the NHS and do both long and 24/7 shifts. Our Neighbourhood Watch Scheme have identified issues as they arise, aim to try to catch them before they become entrenched again in a way which could impact on the community (that did exist 2010-2020). Talked to every agency who can help so that no one gets disturbed especially as lots of people need to sleep daytime (that’s the hope and that they will say “no problems here” as they do not know all the work going on quietly in the background day in day out). Police, Council, Parking Control, Councillors etc. have been brilliant and have to say surprised Supermarkets and food delivery companies have been outstanding stopping the idling of their vehicles, speeding and cutting through illegally of mini and full sized motorbikes. Our immediate neighbouring Res Ass & their Neighbourhood Watch have been wonderful so that our problems are not pushed onto them and their issues with motorbikes and Voi parking sites does not push their issues on to us. Would agree with technological solutions that do not put the onus on individuals to put themselves at risk taking details of those behaving illegally and noisily. Seems the first stage is admitting there is an issue not denying them, then reach out to your own and neighbouring communities to work with the impacts of noise with those Agencies who have power, then maybe there can be effective change.

  • Hi Sam, so glad you’ve mentioned this. We live in a cul-de-sac, so those mufflers are just an annoying but distant sound – I can’t imagine what it’s like living on one of the roads that they race down (and so early in the morning sometimes!) It’s useful to know how to report it, thank you.