Photo of a crowd of protesters in front of Manchester Town Hall, with the caption Make Some Noise

Make Some Noise – Can Protests Be Silenced?

 Please note – the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was enacted in 2022. You can read it here. I have added some commentary within this article to include notes on what actually made it into law.

You’d be forgiven if, at the moment, you’re trying to avoid the news. It’s all pretty grim reading. But today’s headlines include things such as “Government defends plans for noise limits at protests”, and “Silencing Black Lives Matter”, and that feels like a good moment for us to have a look at how any such restrictions could work acoustically – if they can work at all!

I promise, we’ll try to keep it light-hearted and not too political, but I will include links to the relevant background information for anyone who wants to delve a little more deeply into it.

Here’s what the amended legislation actually will say, and how I’d interpret it;

This all comes from Part 3 of the recently published Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which proposes amendments to existing legislation which I’ve attempted to summarise from a noise perspective here;

  • If the senior officer believes that protest noise will disrupt the activities of an organisation or may have a ‘relevant impact’ on persons nearby which may be ‘significant’, they can change the route of the procession or prohibit access to public space to prevent this.
  • A ‘relevant impact’ occurs if the noise may result in the intimidation or harassment of people in the area, or might cause serious unease, alarm or distress.

The conditions apply to protest marches, assemblies, and even “one-person protests”.

The legislation does provide a little bit of objective guidance to be taken into account when considering whether noise has a significant impact;

  • The likely number of people who may be impacted.
  • The duration of the impact.
  • The intensity of that impact.

(Update: This became Section 78 and Section 79 of the legislation.) 

 

What’s the Problem?

Well, apart from the potential issues with free speech and civil liberties, I’m concerned that such woolly, subjective guidance genuinely means that the legislation may be unenforceable, or certainly subject to challenge in court from protestors and those organising protests.

In noise terms, how do we know whether a disturbance has occurred? How on earth do you define the ‘intensity’ of that impact? And where’s the line – is it ok to impact 9 people but not 10? Is it fine to protest for two hours but not for three? What about the time of day the protest occurs?

Can noise itself cause unease, alarm and distress? Perhaps it can, if you’re letting off explosions or the noise is otherwise startling. But the unease caused by what people are shouting, for example, arguably isn’t a noise issue.

As and when cases arising from the use of this part of the new legislation come to court, and I’m certain they will, finding a way to quantifiably assess noise impact is going to be crucial.

(Update: The definition of a significant impact remains subjective…)

How Can We Assess Protest Noise?

There are already well-established noise standards which we use to assess how noise will impact both on peoples’ ability to carry out their jobs in various environments, and on peoples’ ability to rest and relax in their homes and gardens. These are based on various studies which look at productivity as well as physical and mental health impacts of noise, and we use them as a basis when we are designing homes or workplaces. These can be used as a baseline, but of course temporary level increases and changes in the nature of noise are tolerable – for example when there are roadworks or construction works, or for a few days when a music festival takes place.

We also need to consider where the noise impact is assessed; a protest in Parliament Square may be incredibly noisy on the ground but it’s not likely to be clearly audible or disruptive to people working behind the sealed, toughened glass of Portcullis House or any other modern office building.

Noise can only really be considered to ‘disrupt the activities of an organisation’ if it is at a level which stops it going about its normal business – so perhaps at a level where speech and telephone communication is significantly impaired, or if you’re protesting outside a hospital and the noise levels could disrupt patients’ rest, for example. Here the duration of the impact matters too – disrupting a corporation for a couple of hours is of course the point of a protest. Disrupting the rest of hospital patients would be unacceptable to most of us.

Some Simple Suggestions

If you’re planning a protest, some suggestions to mitigate noise issues include;

  • Limiting protest to the ‘daytime’ hours under noise legislation of 7am-11pm.
  • Shout, chant, but don’t blast music or cause sudden startling noises (e.g. firecrackers) which could be considered ‘alarming’.
  • Make sure any amplified sound is under the control of the event organisers – ask people not to bring loudhailers or their own music.
  • Carry out a noise ‘risk assessment’ – could your protest cause noise disturbance to anyone who isn’t involved, and who might be particularly affected, such as a nearby care home or school? If so, can you find another location to mitigate this?

Putting Theory into Practice – Are You Planning A Protest?

This is an evolving issue, and whilst noise isn’t the only concern, the current lack of clarity around how this legislation will be used and implemented is something which we think needs to be challenged so that our lawful right to protest is protected. Ways in which dBx Acoustics might be able to help include;

  • Predicting noise impacts based on the proposed location and anticipated size of the demonstration.
  • Considering noise from any amplified sources e.g. music or stage/speakers.
  • Suggesting simple ways in which noise might be controlled without being silenced.
  • Measuring noise levels during protests.
  • Providing evidence based on existing noise guidance as to whether a ‘significant impact’ is likely to occur – either before a protest occurs, or based on measurements at events.
  • Liaising between protest organisers and police during event planning to discuss noise issues and agree any reasonable restrictions.

We at dBx Acoustics are genuinely interested in how this might pan out, so if you are planning a lawful and Covid-safe protest in the Manchester or London area and wouldn’t mind someone coming along as an observer to measure noise levels (no charge!), please do contact us. Or if you’re interested in commissioning us to assess your proposals or support your legal case, we’ll be extending our charitable discount rates to working on these issues anywhere in the UK.


dBx Case Studies - Education

There is a proven link between acoustic conditions in schools and educational outcomes. Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) mandates minimum standards in primary and secondary schools for noise levels and room acoustics, as well as acoustic separation between teaching spaces.

The dBx Acoustics team can help you comply with BB93, but our expertise goes even further. We have extensive experience designing environments for pupils with additional needs, including autism and hearing loss, as well as higher education and noisier, practical workshop spaces.

New and refurbished school buildings must comply with Building Regulation E4 and the acoustic performance standards of Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) ‘Acoustic Design of Schools’. Whilst BB93 is not mandatory for higher education establishments, it typically forms the basis of the initial design for such establishments, with modifications as appropriate to allow for specific HE uses. Where projects are being designed with BREEAM in mind, credits HEA05 and POL05 are also relevant.

There are a number of different acoustic aspects which come together to ensure that acoustic conditions in schools are appropriate to support learning, and it’s so important to get it right – studies have shown that educational attainment can be directly correlated to acoustic conditions.

Our involvement often begins at the planning stage with an environmental noise survey, which allows us to advise on ventilation and glazing requirements to control noise ingress to the building. If mechanical ventilation is proposed, if there is an external MUGA, or if community use is proposed, the noise survey also allows noise emission limits to be set to ensure that existing neighbours are not adversely affected by noise.

Internal ambient noise levels in teaching spaces are also affected by mechanical ventilation, and we work with the M&E consultant to specify appropriate noise control measures, such as silencers.
When it comes to the design of the building itself, BB93 requires us to specify partitions and floors to control airborne and impact sound transmission between teaching spaces, based on their relative sensitivity and noise generation characteristics. The detailing of junctions and sealing of any services penetrations is critical in maintaining acoustic separation between adjacent rooms.

Having provided a suitably quiet teaching environment which won’t be adversely affected by activity in other classrooms, our focus moves to room acoustics and control of reverberation. Often this is as simple as specifying the acoustic performance of a suspended ceiling, but for large spaces such as Assembly Halls and Sports Halls, we undertake acoustic modelling to optimise the specification and placement of acoustic finishes. Where an exposed soffit is preferred, we calculate the specification and quantity of finishes, such as acoustic rafts and wall panels to control room acoustic conditions.

Finally, we carry out pre-completion acoustic testing on-site to ensure that all of the acoustic criteria for the project have been complied with on-site.

The dBx Acoustics team also have a particular interest in acoustic design for SEN schools, particularly schools catering to neurodiverse pupils. BB93 specifies design criteria for “children with special hearing and communication needs”, which is intended to include autism, ADHD and auditory processing difficulties, and assists in providing an environment in which speech transmission is clear and effective. The standard does not, however, consider the other acoustic aspects of school life which affect such pupils, including auditory sensitivities and the need to provide spaces to allow a retreat from the noise and bustle of daily school life. Our team’s direct and personal experiences of neurodiversity, both as parents and as individuals, helps us to understand the requirements of individual educational clients, and help guide the design of educational buildings to provide an acoustically diverse and appropriate environment.

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