Not Saussure

January 12, 2007

Smoking at home and environmental health

Filed under: civil liberties, environment — notsaussure @ 7:48 pm

I’m not at all sure about this, which expands on a comment I made in reply to an excellent post by Longrider about the strange story of how Gwynedd Council is

investigating a complaint from a neighbour about a couple smoking in their own home.

A woman, who has not been named, has written to the council saying cigarette smoke from next door was “permeating into her living room”.

Gwynedd Council’s public protection service has said it has a duty to investigate.

My initial reaction was much the same as Longrider’s — and, I suspect, of most people; what on earth is the world coming to if these council snoops start making problems for you smoking in your own home?

Then I thought about it. The council reckon they have a duty to investigate all such complaints, which I reckon comes from a possibly over-zealous reading of The Environmental Protection Act 1990. It’s certainly the case that this act includes in its list of ‘statutory nuisances,’ that councils have to sort out if necessary, both smoke and ‘fumes or gases emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance’.

Now it may well be that no one in their right mind would think that the smoke, fumes or gases emitted by your next-door-neighbour’s smoking in his living room could possibly be prejudicial to health or a nuisance, and I’m rather puzzled as to how these noxious vapours manage to permeate a party wall in the first place. However, it is almost certainly the case that no one in their right mind would think to complain about it in the first place, so the council may well have formed the view, not unreasonably, that they’re dealing with a nutter. What do we do with nutters who’ve clearly got far too much time on their hands (other than encourage them to take up blogging, of course)?

Well, I suspect someone in the council may have formed the view — particularly if the complainant is in the habit of making a nuisance of himself with his local ward councillor, which I bet he is — that, rather than just bin the complaint, the safest course of action is to humour him to the extent of saying, ‘Well, we have looked into it with your neighbour, as a strict reading of the Act seems to suggest we should, and, as a result our investigations, we don’t really think there’s anything we can do to help. Dreadfully sorry, and were you aware the local library does classes in setting up your own blog and website?’

Obviously it’s backfired, since the recipient of the letter has (understandably) hit the roof and (perhaps less understandably) phoned The Sun newspaper instead of phoning the Environmental Health people to ask them if they’re taking the piss or what — which is what I’d do, only I’d be a bit more polite about it. However, as anyone who has any experience of disputes between neighbours when one of the neighbours is clearly a bit barking will doubtless confirm, playing it dead straight and by the book is generally by far the safest way to proceed unless you fancy spending ages tied up in the County Court dealing with a litigant in person; no need to give them an excuse to waste still more of the court’s time, and your time and money, with complaints you’ve failed to discharge your statutory responsibilities. The learned judge has to listen to their complaints, after all, before eventually telling them to get lost.

This got me thinking about the wider point. We’d most of us agree, I think, that it’s a fair principle that you should be able do what you want to so long as you don’t thus cause a nuisance to anyone else. The problem with this is that while I think my playing the bagpipes at dawn is a perfectly reasonable habit, my next-door-neighbour might not agree and, if we can’t settle the matter amicably between ourselves, we need to take it to some form of arbitration.

It’s not particularly unreasonable that councils should have the power to investigate and take action over real nuisances rather than make the individual who’s complaining about the nuisance go to law himself; if the complaint were about the vile smells coming from the next-door-neighbour’s attempts at recreating a medieval tannery in his cellar because he’s into historical re-enactments, then probably we’d have every sympathy with the complainant. But at what point do we let the town-hall bureaucrat say, ‘I’m not bothering even to investigate this complaint about someone interfering with my peaceful enjoyment of my property because it’s obviously too trivial’? I’m not sure.

Obviously the matter could, and should, have been far better handled — possibly by sending someone out to have a sniff round the complainant’s living room and then saying, ‘well, I’m sorry, but I can’t smell anything’, though that, of course, wastes considerably more staff time than does sending a letter (which certainly should, I suspect, have been preceded by a phone call telling the smoker not to worry too much about the letter they were about to receive).

But I just wonder if my initial reaction of ‘what on earth do they think they’re playing at?’ wasn’t a bit premature. Anyone got any views?

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  1. As I responded on my blog – I think you may have a point here. Of course, the answer to your question “at which point…?” should be driven by common sense – a commodity noted by its uncommon rarity.

    Comment by Longrider — January 12, 2007 @ 8:08 pm

  2. Does this tell us something about the building standards in local authority houses?

    I speak as a former housing advice worker who once had to take up the case of a number of residents in new build housing who could actually hear their neighbours cough in the next house. After months of the council fobbing them off we were successful in having the house surveyed. At which point it was discovered the building regulations had been “skimped on” and the walls were indeed far too thin.

    Comment by puddlejumper — January 12, 2007 @ 8:35 pm

  3. I wondered about the state of the houses’ repair, Puddlejumper, though it’s not clear from the report (at least the BBC one) if they’re council properties or not. From the picture, it looks like quite an old semi.

    Longrider, I agree it ought to be driven by common sense, and that this is a commodity in all too short supply. I wasn’t getting at you; I just started to wonder (partly because I use the rule of thumb that The Sun can be relied upon to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, usually intentionally) if there wasn’t another side to it.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 12, 2007 @ 10:57 pm

  4. I wasn’t getting at you

    I didn’t think for one moment that you were.

    Comment by Longrider — January 13, 2007 @ 9:59 am

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