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Church limits clock chimes after one complaint

Monday, 25 March 2024 10:10

By local democracy reporter, Alison Stephenson

Saint John the Baptist Church in Witheridge. (Image: Google Street View)

It now dings hourly

Noise nuisance is a rare thing in North Devon – and a complaint about a church clock chiming every 15 minutes through the night in Witheridge was one of only three complaints last year which ended with a notice served on the owners.

The tiny village was thrown into the spotlight when the clock that had been chiming day and night for 150 years  – except for a few critical years when someone new moved in – was silenced.

An investigation by the district council’s environmental protection officers concluded the noise was enough to disturb residents.

So they slapped an abatement notice on the parish council ordering that the Saint John the Baptist church clock should only chime between 7am and 11pm.

But the move upset local residents who said chimes were part of the village’s history, original used to call people home from their work in the fields.

Witheridge Parish Council has since paid £2,000 for the mechanism to be adjusted so it now only rings hourly during the day.

Lead environmental protection officer Darren Hale said noise abatement notices are always “a last resort” but there appeared to be “no middle ground” with this issue and he appreciated the parish council was between “a rock and a hard place.”

He said district councils must look into complaints about noise that could be “a statutory nuisance” under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but they can also identify problems themselves when out and about and could serve notices even if complaints are not forthcoming. Officers always prefer to talk to owners to try to reach a compromise.

Mr Hale said 98 per cent of complaints relating to statutory nuisances such as smoke, fumes or gases emitting from premises or light, noise, dust, steam, smells or insects are dealt with without any formal investigation.

Last year in North Devon, a complaint about barking dogs and a noisy extractor from a restaurant affecting neighbours were the subject of noise abatement notices. If people don’t comply, they can be fined or prosecuted.

Mr Hale said noise complaints in Devon are rare and that annoyance is different to nuisance. In the case of the Witheridge church clock, the person who complained moved to the village at a time when it wasn’t working – before last July 2023 it had been silent for three years  – but money was raised locally to get it up and running again.

He said the officers made their  judgement based on the difference between the background noise and the nuisance being reported.

“The background noise at night in Witheridge is dead silence. The noise from the church clock was like a jackhammer in comparison.

“Ten decibels above the background noise is a problem, but this was much, much higher. Our judgement was that it was enough to disturb sleep; that it was an unreasonable interference.”

A Witheridge resident said it was “disappointing” that long time traditions were being eroded.

More than 300 people signed an online petition asking North Devon Council to reconsider the noise abatement order.

“The church clock is more than just a timekeeper; it is an audible symbol of our shared heritage and community spirit,” they said.

A similar petition was started in Beith in Scotland last year after round-the-clock chiming was stopped following a single noise complaint.

North Devon councillor for Witheridge Peter Jones (Ind) said he understood the community’s frustrations and the outcome “was clearly against the opinions of the majority”.

He continued: “As soon as the individual raised their concerns, national guidance took over from community opinion or old-school compromise. The chimes were silenced, or the parish council could face criminal prosecution.

“The council got quite a lot of anger directed at them, but the reality is they had little choice. Bizarrely, the complainant only had an issue with the quarterly chimes through the night, but the notice forced them silent from 11pm to 7am.

“It’s hoped that logic does kick in and a compromise can be reached. It does open the question: if somebody complains about sheep baaing or birds singing, would the animals be baffled and the morning chorus silenced?”

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