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Neighbours from hell

New legislation covering antisocial behaviour is in place to address the threat of nuisance from those living next door Addressing non-criminal issues through the courts has become a feature of legislative manoeuvres down the years, and is now, it seems, becoming one of the determining parts of UK construction policy.

Antisocial Behaviour Orders, it appears, are de rigeur.

Not only was the winner of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's (ODPM) award for Urban Renaissance a scheme which prided itself on turfing out nuisance neighbours from a Northampton estate; but housing associations and other social landlords can now initiate the application for an Antisocial Behaviour Order - previously the preserve of the local authority and police.

The Police Reform Act 2002, brought in at the start of 2003 (updating the Public Disorder Act 1998), gives magistrates authority to impose an order which prohibits the offender from doing anything described in the order. No criminal act needs to have been proven. Put simply, if the court considers that:

a) the offender has acted, at any time since the commencement date in an antisocial manner, that is to say in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as themself; and b) an order under this section is necessary to protect persons in any place in England and Wales from further antisocial acts by them; the court may make an order under this section whether or not an application has been made for such an order.

Defining antisocial acts will be the preserve of individual court cases, but will regularly feature the distress caused by 'insulting language' and 'excessive noise'.

Even the Building Regulations - that most staid statutory authority - has press released its revision to Part E (Resistance to the Passage of Sound) on the basis that it will curb the apparent threat from 'next door'.

In terms of noisy neighbours, Christopher Leslie MP, the minister responsible for Building Regulations, has said: 'Too many people experience noisy neighbours, whether late night parties or loud television. This can have a significant impact on quality of life At a time when we are encouraging the construction industry to build to greater densities, this issue is even more important.'

While living next door to the neighbour from hell can certainly be a pain, it is worth remembering the attitude of the Osbournes to their neighbour - laid-back, '50s balladeer Pat Boone.

Ozzy, it seems, is happy to stay put because Boone is the only neighbour not to have called the police.

Unfortunately, this seems like a sentiment from a bygone era, when neighbours learned to resolve their differences without resorting to the courts.

Transparent politics

How do you design democracy? Quite a difficult, abstract brief for architects keen to construct real, rather than philosophical representations, writes Dolan Short. Indeed, the resulting competition entrants have certainly struggled with overly literal interpretations of 'the problem'- from the current fad for glazing 'transparency' (geddit? ) to public 'accessibility' (geddit? ).

The shortlisted schemes for the Designs on Democracy competition (AJ 23.1.03), organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and currently on display at the RIBA, identify 'the problem'as a lack of political engagement and the need to reinvent civic pride. Recognising the boost to so-called 'engagement'engendered by iconic civic structures such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Tate Modern the intention is to replicate the formula, with more overtly 'political'structures. This, they argue, should be done through a rejuvenation of town halls: what they call the 'missing ingredient in democratic renewal the very embodiment of local government'.

But surely political disengagement is a political problem, not a technical one and certainly has nothing central to do with 'design'.

Are we really meant to believe that we have inconsequential turn-outs in local and national elections because of 'imposing facades, long corridors and dark meeting rooms', as the brief suggested?

Many entrants have included the ubiquitous leisure element to their designs, lest the public realise, God forbid, that they are, in fact, in a town hall. Political engagement, it seems, can be leisurely and even unconscious. Design entries for the new town halls include a 'museum'; a cinema, a library, IT cafes, and one even has a garden centre. Pop long to get a shrub, a coffee and maybe watch a debate.

More tea, vicar? Press the e-democracy button, granny, I'm pouring.

Matthew Taylor, director of the IPPR, was disappointed that the architects had not dealt with the issue of 'representation'. Perhaps he should have realised that they would take this element of the brief literally too. An amoebic plan form, for the evolutionary dawning of a new democratic age? Town Hall as supermarket - 'shopping for a bit of democracy'?

One of the shortlisted schemes includes 'mobile kit' to take democracy to people who don't like coffee and haven't got gardens, apparently. The idea that locals, denied access to the democratic process, would flock around the mobile town hall outreach wagon - as they do around an ice-cream van - is as surreal as it is vacuous.

In this degraded way, political activity is not even about participation;

it is about viewing galleries and overlooking council chambers - in reality, these expressions of passive engagement (a contradiction in terms) actually reinforce the disfranchisement of people from politics.

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