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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 16th October 2009
If we could see noise, would we be more aware of the problems it causes? Asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

One of the most famous works by the avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died in 2007, was a string quartet in which each members played from their own hovering helicopter. To many people it was the epitome of ‘noise’ – not only the noise of the engines and rotors of the aircraft, but also the music that Stockhausen wrote for the quartet were considered shocking.

So it perhaps comes as a surprise that Stockhausen was known to complain about the ambient noise that is all around us. He made the telling point that if we could see sound visually, in the same way that we see colour and shape, we should soon begin to complain about the assault on our eyes from all the rubbish that accumulates.

In 2006 the Campaign to Protect Rural England published detailed maps of England and its regions, and a report, ‘Mapping Tranquillity: defining and assessing a valuable resource’ to go with them. In some ways the results did not come as surprise. Cities are the noisiest. Mountainous areas are the least polluted by sound. Main roads are seen as ribbons of noise – many of them several miles wide – across the rather more tranquil countryside.

The North Yorkshire map shows that the largest area of noise – so the least tranquil area – is York. The Harrogate and Knaresborough area comes next in size, with Scarborough not far behind. And Ripon? Ripon is surprisingly noisy – more noisy than Catterick garrison, for example, despite its lower population.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFRA) is currently consulting on ways of protecting quiet spaces in built up areas – or as it calls them ‘agglomerations’ – in England. The consultation ends on 4 November; it covers 'unwanted or harmful outdoor sound created by human activities, including noise emitted by means of transport, road traffic, rail traffic, air traffic, and noise from sites of industrial activity’. It is specifically intended to provide protection for open spaces – not just formal parks, but other informal areas that local people value for their quiet recreation. The proposal is that such spaces will be identified and that highway authorities and others will take steps to minimise any possible noise pollution that could affect them.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Next time you walk around the streets of Ripon, make a conscious effort to notice the noise around you. Traffic noise will account for a great deal of it – the sound of engines, of tyres on roads. Cars create some of it – lorries much more. And the tractors that sometimes travel through the city (why?) are particularly noisy.

Eventually we may have electrically-driven vehicles, and that will cut down the amount of engine noise (though there will probably be demands to have added artificial noise to warn people as vehicles approach, just as we’ve added an artificial smell to natural gas). Until that happens, there are steps that could be taken to cut down the noise pollution. Among them are the restriction of delivery times by large vehicles in the city centre, as is done in many towns throughout England, better-planned and strictly-enforced routes for through traffic.

And then there is pollution from recorded music. Too many cars and vans power their way through the streets with their sound systems on full volume, heavy beats and loud singing spilling from their open windows. Some shops, too, allow their music into the streets. Music inside shops, whether it is on disc or from the radio, needs a licence from the Performing Rights Society – and it also needs some common sense in ensuring that it is of a suitable volume. It is no defence to argue that ‘the staff like it’ – quite a lot of the customers and passers-by don’t.

The campaigning group PipeDown was formed to fight ‘muzak, muzac, acoustic wallpaper, elevator music or canned music, piped music’. As it points out ‘silence – in shop, restaurant, railway station, swimming bath or other public place – seems to be anathema’ and they seek to stop such aural pollution in public places. This is fine – but we need to go further. We should not tolerate unnecessary sound of any kind in our streets. There are ways of tackling this problem; national and local authorities have a part to play, but so do we as individuals. We should make our voices heard (but perhaps not in the streets!) and try to make Ripon a quieter place.

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