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Traffic noise case lives on as a sounding board for fair balance

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legal matters

When Geoffrey Andrews found that his home was badly affected by increased traffic noise, he decided to install sound insulation. It cost him about £4,200. As he believed the traffic noise had increased because of a traffic order made by Reading Borough Council, Andrews decided to claim the cost of the insulation back from Reading. He started proceedings against Reading in 2001 in the County Court. His claim has since been on something of a procedural odyssey, including via the Administrative Court, where the judge in fact dealt with it as though it was in the Queen's Bench Division. Although the matter is still not finally resolved, and looks as though it is heading back to the County Court, Andrews at least now has the benefit of a preliminary ruling in his favour (Andrews v Reading Borough Council 29.4.04).

All this procedural excitement, which needless to say has not come cheap, has arisen at least in part from the nature of Andrews' claim. Andrews says that the increased traffic noise has contravened his human rights. From Andrews' perspective, he only wants someone to pay for his sound insulation (and presumably now for his legal bill as well).However, it is easy to see that Reading's concern is the potential cost of implementing future traffic orders, hence its vigorous opposition to Andrews' claim. The recent judgment relates to Reading's attempt to persuade the court that the claim had no real prospect of success, and should therefore not continue to a full hearing.

If there had been any alteration to the location, or the width, or the level of the road, and that had resulted in the increased noise, then under the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 Andrews might well have been able to get a grant for noise insulation. But there was no change to the road that could trigger payment under the regulations.

The only clues from the judgment about what actually happened to the traffic is an order called 'Bus Lanes, Waiting Restrictions and Movement Control', the net result of which is said to have been improved bus journey times in Reading.That there is no regime that provides even the possibility of compensation for the adverse effect of such a traffic order was a key consideration in persuading the judge that the claim should be allowed to continue.

Andrews says that the increased noise contravenes his Article 8 rights. That Article protects an individual's rights to respect for their home. An adverse effect arising from noise or pollution can give rise to a breach of Article 8, as the government found out last year in the Heathrow Airport noise case at the European Court of Human Rights (Hatton v United Kingdom 8.7.03). Andrews' judge concluded that traffic noise could potentially breach Article 8;

whether it had or not would have to be dealt with in fuller evidence.

However, the Heathrow case also made it clear that Article 8 does not give residential homeowners absolute protection. There is a need to strike a fair balance between the adversely affected homeowner and everybody else; in this case presumably the bus-using public of Reading. So Reading tried to persuade the judge that even if Andrews proved that the increased noise was potentially in breach of Article 8, the benefits of the order so outweighed the adverse effect on Andrews that his claim had no real prospect of success.

But the judge decided that the absence of any grant scheme to pay for Andrews' insulation could go against Reading being able to justify the adverse effects of the traffic order on the basis of the general public good.Although the judge did not elaborate, it seems there may be doubts about a system that tries to reach a fair balance, but in which there is no balancing compensation to put into play against the increased traffic noise.

So the judge refused to dispose of Andrews' claim summarily, and he is able to fight on to try to recover his insulation costs in whatever court he is sent to next.

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