The Value of Silence


published on February 7, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo



Sound can be pleasant or annoying depending on personal preferences and moods. It becomes noise, acoustic pollution or maybe even sonic violence when it breaches the individual threshold of tolerance.

Through the Environmental Management Construction Site Regulations of 2007, an attempt has been made to regulate sound emanating from construction sites. While this was a step in the right direction it is to be pointed out that these regulations have not yet been rigorously applied.

The European Union, through Directive 2002/49 known as the Environmental Noise Directive (END), dealing with the “assessment and management of environmental noise”, went one step further: It established common criteria to assess and manage noise throughout the EU. It seeks to establish common criteria relative to the assessment of noise generated by main airports, roads carrying more than six million vehicle passages per year, urban areas having a population exceeding 250,000 and railways. The criteria relative to roads are clearly applicable; those relative to major airports would be applicable when flight movements at Malta International Airport exceed 50,000 per annum (29,972 flight movements in 2008), while the other criteria are obviously inapplicable.

The aim of END is three-fold. Firstly, to define a common approach in noise mapping by EU member states and, thus, to determine exposure to environmental noise through common methods of assessment. Secondly, to ensure that information on environmental noise and its effects is made available to the public. Thirdly, subject to public consultation, to adopt action plans on the basis of the noise-mapping results. These aims had to be attained by specific dates, all of which have now expired.

At AD’s request last week, the Meusac core group was informed by the director of Environment Protection, that Mepa does not have the know-how to implement END and that it intends to issue a tender to farm out the technical expertise required. This decision could easily have been taken more than four years ago such that Malta would now be in the phase of implementation. It seems, however, that this is still far away as the tender is yet to be issued!

When END is finally implemented, various noise sources would still be unregulated. Other jurisdictions have tackled such noise sources as the leisure industry, industrial activity that lies close to residential areas as well as the impacts of noise sources within residential areas themselves.

A court report in The Times some days ago highlighted the impacts which noise, generated by air-conditioning units used by a bank in Sliema, has on overlying residences. This particular case highlighted the friction generated within areas wherein commercial and residential use intermingles. Similar friction exists in residential areas due to the fixing of air-conditioning units servicing ground-floor tenements in such a manner as to be a nuisance to residents of overlying tenements. There is no easy solution to this problem if the point of departure is not the seeking of good neighbourly relations.

In September 2008, the Irish government, faced with similar problems, published a Noise Issues Consultation Paper. This was an initiative taken by John Gormley, Green minister for the Environment in the Irish coalition government. Through specific legislation it was proposed to regulate infrastructural, planning, construction, commercial, industrial, recreational and anti-social noise.

Infrastructural noise would be that related to road traffic as well as low-flying aircraft. Regulating noise from planning/construction does not only concern construction sites but also the noise resulting from the use of a property (say, air conditioners). The regulation of noise emanating from commercial and industrial establishments would address the use of equipment in these establishments, noise resulting from clients of bars, nightclubs and discos both when the premises is in use as well as when exiting.

Noise relative to industrial installations, especially those situated close to residential areas, is another area needing to be tackled! Recreational noise would address for example the sonic impact of jet-skis and festa fireworks while anti-social noise would include continual and persistent sounding of alarms (car and house/shop alarms), noise from neighbourhood parties, animal noise in residential areas, in particular the persistent barking of dogs, as well as noise generated by large groups loitering in residential areas late into the night.

Not all of these issues are regulated in Malta. Enabling powers are spread in various laws, which generally authorise the Commissioner of Police to take the necessary action. The police, however, at times are powerless when they consider that a sonic nuisance brought to their attention could not fall within their competence, the issue of air conditioners being a case in point.

This points to the need to consolidate and update Maltese legislation regulating acoustic pollution such that an immediate administrative remedy is available to ensure that the value of silence, where appropriate, is appreciated by all.

One comment on “The Value of Silence

  1. We citizens strongly object to the fact that the Environmental Management Site Regulations 2007 are not being rigorously enforced. Why legislate if no proper enforcement is carried out? Third Parties across the political divide living close to construction sites often have to put up with ear-splitting noise from about 7am (sometimes earlier) to late afternoon – hardly acceptable. The P.M. needs to act on this issue please. Insufficient or non-existing legislation has to be modernised / created.
    Perit Cacopardo again shows how professional and well-meaning he is. It is people like him who the authorities need to listen to (and possibly consult) if they are committed to proceed in the right direction. Only then can the administration’s slogan ”when we act together everything is possible” be really attainable. I sincerely trust our political and administrative leaders begin showing concretely that they mean what they have declared. Why don’t we Maltese do what Barack Obama is trying to do in the U.S.A. – reaching out across party lines to obtain the best possible advice / implementation in the interests of the nation? I sincerely hope that the P.M. will consider this suggestion very seriously. Now…before further serious damage is done.

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