It’s my dream to live in a noise pollution-free neighbourhood. I’d like to be able to walk about without having my thoughts or conversations drowned out by traffic noise or extra-loud music spilling out from bars and cafés. It’s the reason I always wear noise-cancelling headphones when I’m wandering in a city. Unless there is plenty of pedestrianisation, and cafés and shops keep their sound output low, I have to isolate myself from the sensory bombardment of unwanted noise.
This morning I wanted to go for a walk into Leicester city centre. I fancied a stroll around the shops, and then do my usual thing and go for a coffee. It should have been a pleasant and relaxing experience, however, like many city centres, my time in Leicester city centre is becoming increasingly unpleasant and discomforting.
The problem is the widespread use of amplifiers and electronic public address systems by buskers, preachers and protestors. I don’t mind people busking, preaching or protesting, but can they please do it simply by talking or singing acoustically, and by projecting their own voice naturally, without amplification? I find amplification is too much of an assault on my senses, and despite my efforts to walk in a different direction to avoid it, the sounds follow me for longer than anyone should have to expect.
Leicester’s Clock Tower is regarded by many people as the central hub of the city centre, and it forms a natural interaction point where people circulate from each direction through the shopping streets. The Clock Tower area attracts its fair share of pop-up stands, preachers, protestors and buskers. And this gives the space a sense that it is a vital meeting point. However, the problem is not that people are using this space to do this kind of thing, but that the volume at which they do it is becoming increasingly stress-inducing and disturbing.
I measured the volume of one group today, using a volume meter on my phone. They were peaking at 95db. To put this in context, it is the sound an articulated truck makes when it is moving around, or that a food processor makes when it is switched on. Noise above 85db is harmful. Persistent noise at this level, without good reason for generating it, is therefore considered to be a public nuisance.
So, why is nothing being done about this recurring problem? Why are the police and the city wardens not intervening to protect the health and wellbeing of people who wish to casually walking through our city centres? Noise pollution of this type is becoming increasingly common and widespread, as high-powered amplifiers are now available, that are powered by batteries, and can be used almost anywhere. They are portable and easy to connect with microphones, and they generate sound at a vastly greater level than equipment of this kind used to be able to do.
I believe in free speech. I believe in the right to protest and preach, but I can’t reconcile the effect of the volume levels that are now being projected in this way, and how they are causing discomfort and distress. It’s the classic liberal dilemma. When does one person’s freedom become someone else’s oppression? Should my freedom to live free from harmful and stressful pollution, be overridden by someone else’s willingness to impose their views on anyone and everyone, regardless of their desire to engage with them?
I did look for a police officer or a warden to raise the issue with them and to make a formal complaint, but there were none about. I suppose the best thing I can do is avoid the city centre, and advise other people not to visit unless they are prepared to be assaulted in this way.