And when they finally contact source, he has no idea of the trouble he’s causing and immediately agrees to buy headphones. The first in a new SB series: Camden’s Finest Hour.
In a tale of twists and turns punctuated by acts of almost inconceivable incompetence, from the lowest Camden ranks to the very top, a three year saga has finally concluded after Camden managed to work out the address of one of its tenants causing a significant noise nuisance in Bloomsbury. And when after years of suffering this nuisance every week, Camden finally make contact, the tenant has no idea of the nuisance he was causing and immediately agrees to buy headphones.
The noise nuisance began to trouble me personally in the summer of 2017. Every few days or so I would hear a very loud, but a very bland and odd kind of music resounding down Hastings Street, where I have a window. Unfortunately it was the kind of music common in this day and age, reliant upon very deep and punctual bass. This bass could sometimes be heard all throughout my flat, and for quite some distance around.
At first this didn’t trouble me too greatly. I began to use Camden’s online noise reporting tool and hoped it would get the problem fixed.
This tool requires you to log in to a ‘Camden account’ and record exactly when the nuisance is happening and what kind of nuisance it is – a so-called ‘noise diary’. Camden forces you to record at least 5 occurrences of the nuisance before being able to press the ‘submit’ button.
Quite hi-tech I thought. In Birmingham where I used to live, it was necessary to call out an officer to your address when the noise was happening, a very archaic procedure that essentially never worked.
So I dutifully filled out the forms, and pressed submit after a few weeks of recording said nuisance. These reports promptly disappeared into the abyss commonly known as the ‘crack of doom’ between Camden’s website and its actual officers.
I didn’t ever hear back about my complaint.
After some weeks of not hearing back I checked the website and found my complaint had quite literally disappeared from my account. An innocent mistake, I thought, so I began to fill out the forms again. Once again I filled out the mandatory five reports, described the nuisance and its location, and then sent off the complaint as requested.
A quote popularly misattributed to Albert Einstein states: ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results’. Well, perhaps as predicted, this second report also quickly disappeared into the crack of doom. I didn’t ever hear back about that complaint either.
By now it had been about half a year since I had begun reporting the nuisance. Every week for six months my flat had been invaded by music of the worst kind, and what’s worse it was steadily getting louder.
So we took a different course of action. My partner and I began to use Camden’s noise reporting number when the nuisance was happening, to try to get an officer out to witness the nuisance.
Every time the nuisance was particularly loud we would call the number and ask for an officer to come out to the address. We would be reassured that an officer would get in touch with us to arrange a visit.
But after about a year of calling the number when the nuisance was particularly bad, of the roughly 20 phone calls about 10 were never returned. Of the remaining 10 attempts, we would receive a call back on average 2-4 hours later, when the nuisance had stopped, meaning an officer couldn’t come to the address.
By now about 18 months had passed with absolutely no progress in addressing the noise nuisance.
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about this problem was that the noise nuisance was coming from a Camden-owned property, Hastings House. We knew exactly the window from which the noise was coming, but as the property was locked it was impossible for us to know the address of the offender. A number of times we had tried to explain this on the phone and asked if an officer could come out to help us actually work out which address it was, to no avail.
Camden’s first line of attack to address noise nuisances is to send a letter to the address in question, so working out the address was the number one priority for resolving the nuisance.
Little did I know that at this point, at the end of 2018, it would take a further two years for Camden to even work out the address.
Beginning in 2019 I upped the ante in trying to get this problem resolved. It had become so loud that despite having perfectly fitting solid shutters in my living room (the room facing the nuisance maker’s street), with my shutters closed and my own music on, I could often still hear the noise nuisance in my living room. In fact the nuisance had become so pervasive that I more or less just stopped using the living room altogether, meaning half of my flat was out of bounds. I even needed to keep the door of the living room closed to try and stop the music invading the rest of the flat.
My partner and I recognised that the only thing that would get this fixed would be to make a nuisance of ourselves. In the same degree to which the noise-maker nuisance’d us, we would nuisance the council, or even more so.
So I began firing off emails to councillors, making a complaint to the complaints department, and making a nuisance of myself to the Environmental Health department, the department tasked with investigating noise nuisances. ‘It has been almost two years,’ I would say, ‘and you have achieved nothing’.
Despite it being an unpleasant affair, over time I have realised this is essentially the only way to actually get things done with Camden. Make yourself a thorn in their side and they will eventually recognise their lives are a lot easier if they just sort out your complaint.
I took a photo of the building and circled the window where the address was coming from, sending that to a number of people. Eventually the housing officer for Hastings House actually came and met us on the street with the aim of working out the address. We pointed out the window, and she marched off into the building to pin point the nuisance.
Stephanie Marsh-Aldis, her name was, if you ever come by her. She also managed to disappear into the crack of doom. Despite us chasing her with multiple emails, she didn’t ever respond, and after filing a further complaint, it was found she had moved to a different department and just couldn’t be arsed to respond to us with the information we so desired.
By now it was the summer of 2019, two years since the nuisance had begun. But we were making progress.
Most will remember that that summer was a particularly hot one. Almost everyone living on Hastings Street needed to have their windows open all the time for at least a month or so. The street itself is home to two of Bloomsbury’s largest housing blocks – meaning the street has at least 200 or so windows facing onto it. The heat was quite unbearable.
Unfortunately for Hastings Street, that meant the nuisance-maker also kept his window open all the time.
One evening I was sitting on the sofa reading a book, with my window open, and the noise was blasting all the way down the street. The music was quite odd – it would go on for ten minutes straight, hardly changing at all, and then just suddenly stop for 10 seconds or so, then start again. Every time it stopped we would hear people screaming out their windows: ‘fuck off!’ ‘turn your fucking music off!’ ‘fuck off you wanker!’ before the music would start again, drowning out the voices. My partner joined in, literally screaming out the window every time the music stopped: ‘turn off your fucking music you shit!’ This went on until about 11pm, when the music usually abated.
This sort of thing happened a number of times throughout that summer.
Eventually, despite us not actually knowing the address of the offender, Environmental Health stated that ‘as it has been established that the nuisance is coming from a Camden property… it resides with the Housing department…. and we will now close your case’.
One of the very worst things with Camden is when a complaint potentially spans two or more different departments. Camden’s departments, despite being part of the same local authority, more or less operate independently from each other, with very little communication between them, and very often a great deal of antipathy between each other. Environment Services dislikes Highways because Highways always leaves highways equipment on the road and doesn’t remove it in time. Housing dislikes Environment Services because it expects Environment Services to clean up their property when it is rightly the Housing department’s responsibility to clean up Camden’s housing. So when a complaint spans two or more of these independent bubbles, expect to be sidelined as responsibility is dodged and you are ping-ponged between different officers of different departments, all of whom are blaming and complaining about each other.
This is one of the reasons that Camden’s street environment is generally so disgusting. Environment Services looks after the streets so long as it is waste-related and on public land. But Environmental Health looks after waste-related problems on private land, even if it’s in the public realm. Also if that waste happens to be litter on soft park areas rather than hard park areas, it is looked after by idVerde rather than Veolia. Inappropriate and illegal signage and shop-related clutter is looked after by Planning Enforcement. But if that clutter lies on public rather than private land it is the responsibility of Street Works. And if that clutter happens to be an A-board, it is looked after by Licensing Enforcement. Damaged street furniture and abandoned highways equipment is looked after by Highways. And even within Environment Services, commercial fly-tipping is investigated by Camden’s officers, while residential fly-tipping is investigated by Veolia. None of this is some contrived exaggeration – it is all perfectly true to fact as of Autumn 2020. None of these departments work together – they simply look for any opportunity to offload casework to the nearest department – perhaps with the exception of Environment Services, who often try to bridge divides.
But back to the story, my noise nuisance was now officially under Housing, a department notorious for a ‘toxic’ work culture, slated by previous employees who have managed to cross the bridge into different departments.
My first act was to write up a letter to every person on the nuisance-maker’s staircase complaining about the nuisance and advising about how to report noise nuisances. I thought it would have the twofold effect of letting the nuisance-maker know that he was causing trouble and also encourage neighbours to inform on him. Cllr Georgie Robertson, who had been assigned to the case, said that it was a ‘good idea’ and advised the housing officer in charge to let me in to the building.
But the housing officer refused to let me in, saying that it was ‘too dangerous,’ and that ‘the health and safety of myself and the residents of Hastings House is of paramount importance’.
Undeterred, I tried to get a resident of Hastings House to let me in so that I could deliver the letters myself. But to my astonishment, the housing officer had actually set the caretaker on guard at the entrance so that I couldn’t get in. He refused me entry to the building.
So I just sent the letters first class instead. Cllr Georgie Robertson also promptly disappeared into the crack of doom, refusing to answer any of my emails. She must be just about the most ineffective councillor this place has ever seen. But then again, she does live in Swiss Cottage.
A few weeks later I also managed to get into the building myself, and thought that I had worked out the number of the flat. I relayed this number to the housing department.
But somehow the housing officer confused the number I sent for a different one, and went and interrogated a poor resident from a completely different flat down the road. The resident was apparently ‘shocked’ at the allegation, and ‘there was no evidence of any kind of speaker in the flat’.
The officer simply advised me to call Environmental Health instead. At this point, 2 years into the nuisance, with noise nuisances happening almost daily, I considered all sorts of things. Perhaps I should practise my throwing, attach a letter to a cricket ball, then throw that ball across Hastings Street and through the window of the offender. I genuinely considered this as the nuisance-maker often had their window wide open. Or easier, I could purchase an air rifle and open fire on the window to get the message across. But that might have legal ramifications.
In the end I decided just to meet with the housing officer and his manager at 5 Pancras Square.
The officer was about half an hour late but the manager, Olivier Goma, and I had a good chat. He was firmly of the opinion that everything was under control and I just needed to comply with the established mechanisms: call the noise nuisance number and report online. But I kept coming back to the point that I had tried that for 2 years and nothing had been achieved. ‘But if that department can’t do what they’re supposed to do, that’s their problem, not ours,’ he said. The finger-pointing game had begun. ‘But they have said that it’s your responsibility because it’s a Camden tenant’ I said. ‘Yes but anything to do with noise falls to them rather than us, we can’t take action’. ‘Then why have they referred the case to you?’ ‘I don’t know, but it’s not our fault if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do’. ‘Well it is your fault if it’s your responsibility to resolve this problem and you’re not doing it’. ‘But it’s not our fault if Environmental Health don’t do what we’re asking!’
I could see Olivier beginning to get quite angry about this situation. Across the empty room he was sitting on a swivelly chair, next to a desk, with body tensed up and perspiration beginning to appear on his bald head. ‘No!’ he said, through gritted teeth, and brought his fist down on the desk, ‘It’s not our fault!’ But before things got any worse the housing officer finally arrived: ‘Sorry for being late,’ he said, pulling up a chair: ‘I think I know who it is’.
He began to quiz me on the type of music I was hearing. ‘No vocals, exceedingly bland, and lots of bass. Every now and again it restarts but sounds slightly different, but always more or less the same… it’s almost like disco music… not quite disco but…’ ‘DJ music?’ he interjected. ‘Yes… DJ music.’ ‘I know a DJ in Hastings House in the area you have indicated.’
A breakthrough! After two years we were closer than we had ever been to even locating the noise maker. But there was a catch: ‘In order to progress this matter, you need to call our Housing Patrol service when the nuisance is happening, so that they can pin point the address and confirm that it is the DJ and nobody else’.
So I went home a happy man, and the same evening called this new number. To my amazement, the Housing Patrol service appeared within minutes, in a brand spanking new car.
‘Where is it?’ they said. I pointed to the window and told them I was 90% sure it was coming from there. One of them went into the nearest staircase to investigate. ‘No it’s not in that one’, I said, ‘you can’t get to that flat from that staircase.’ ‘Oh,‘, he said, and went into the staircase anyway, while the other stood with arms akimbo watching me.
About ten minutes later he came out the door. ‘I couldn’t get to the flat on this staircase,’ he said, ‘I don’t think there’s any nuisance here.’ ‘You have to go up that staircase there to get to the flat.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, and went up the correct staircase.
Then about a minute later the music stopped, perhaps for the first time in 2 years.
Five minutes later he came out the door. ‘I located the noise nuisance and told him to turn it down. Is that better?’ ‘Yes, it certainly is,’ I said, ‘but do you know which number it is?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it will all be filed on an official report and sent to the housing officer.’ ‘Excellent, would you be able to let me know so that I can use it for future reference?’ ‘No, we aren’t allowed to do that.’
So off they went in their shiny car. Then half an hour later the music came back on.
I complained to the housing officer that the music had come back on, but said we had finally gotten the address of the nuisance-maker. ‘Just call back the patrol service if the nuisance occurs again.’ I did, and they didn’t come back. The nuisance continued.
A week later I asked the housing officer if he had gotten hold of the report and knew the address, but he didn’t respond.
The nuisance continued, and the officer ignoring my other emails about the address, told me just to call the housing patrol again.
Then eventually he too disappeared into the crack of doom and was never heard from again. The report of the address of the noisy tenant had been lost.
Whether or not the officer made contact with the tenant I still do not know. But perhaps following the intrusion of the Housing Patrol, he became much more conservative with his noise making, and despite frequently being able to hear it, it was never as loud as it had been. With my windows and shutters closed, and perhaps with some music on myself, I was unable to hear the nuisance. So I just got on with it. Somewhat shamefully for Camden, it was somehow easier to ignore the nuisance than actually get them to act.
But then came lockdown, and the nuisance began becoming increasingly loud once again.
One morning during the summer it was so loud that it could be clearly heard all throughout my flat.
At this point, 3 years had passed.
This is totally unacceptable, I thought.
So I wrote up a very long complaint detailing all that had happened over the past 3 years, how Camden had singularly failed to effect any sort of lasting change, how the address of the tenant had been known and then immediately lost, and that even now, the advice was simply to call the Environmental Health number – the one that over 3 years had failed to even send out a single officer to the address.
Then I looked up Camden’s executive team and sent it directly to the relevant executive director for the complaint, pretending I had been referred to her by a different individual in Camden.
This is a very good technique for having a complaint properly investigated – at least by Camden’s standards. Emails right to the top – to the chief executive – are completely useless, as they no doubt come in so thick and fast that they are sent right back down to the bottom. But send an email to just below the top, the board of executive directors just below the chief executive, and miracles can be performed.
Most of the time, anyway.
I did some research on noise nuisance complaints to the LGO (the body overseeing complaints to local authorities) and found that Camden had been ordered to pay a resident £200 in compensation for their singular failure to deal with a noise nuisance two years ago, and had also been ordered to review their noise nuisance procedures. In a similar way, it had taken Camden 3 years to achieve essentially nothing, and they had also lost many of the complainant’s reports of the noise in the first instance, exactly as had happened to me.
So I also asked for compensation if service failings were found. Why not, I thought, it could go to a charity for the correction of chronically incompetent council officers.
The Executive Director was away so it was passed down to the Director for Community Services. After a lengthy investigation it was concluded that ‘there were no service failings whatsoever’ and that I should ‘call the Environmental Health number in the future as previously advised.’
But the director had gotten the investigation of the complaint completely wrong. She didn’t realise that the housing service had been involved in the procedure and despite interviewing Environmental Health, didn’t realise that they had decided to close my case and refused to further investigate it… furthermore I was told that according to records I had actually only reported the noise nuisance a handful of times, beginning only in 2019, and to add insult to injury, the cheeky buggers at Environmental Health had recorded that they had visited my address within minutes on every call, despite never actually doing so!
The result was that the erroneous records painted me as a vexatious individual who had decided to complain despite the angelic Environmental Health officers actually responding to my calls at emergency speeds – and that I had only made two or three reports during this whole time.
One of the problems was that a great deal of the reporting was done by my partner so that it wasn’t in my name… while of course my first ten or so reports were wiped from living memory thanks to Camden’s crack of doom.
So I wrote an even more substantial complaint detailing every single error that had been made and demanded again compensation for my troubles.
Weeks passed. It was now September 2020, only a month ago. The noise nuisance had officially passed the 3 year mark.
Then I received a phone call from a certain Lee Perella in Environmental Health. He had liaised with the new housing officer for Hastings House, and lo and behold, the DJ had been located, the address was known, and contact had been made with the nuisance-maker.
Flat ** Hastings House is now the subject of the complaint.
It took 3 years to get this far – but – hallelujah!
And what’s more, the DJ had had no idea he was causing a nuisance, and had immediately agreed to buy wireless headphones. I said that if he couldn’t make up the money I would pay for them – perhaps out of that compensation money.
I am now considering whether to buy a box of chocolates for this Lee Perella and the housing officer who finally managed to achieve the impossible and locate one of their own tenants.
But the story did not quite end there. I then received a formal response to my complaint to the Executive Director. It was reiterated again that: ‘no service failings had been found,’ and that: ‘I cannot discuss reports made from your partner because this would be in breach of data protection. If you wish to involve these reports in your complaint then she should make a separate subject access request.’ What a load of absolute bollocks.
So there ends the story of a 3 year nuisance… for now. Whatever next for Camden Council? 2 years to remove a pile of rubbish? (Oh wait… that did actually happen, on Calthorpe Street). 8 years to remove a planning notice? (Oh wait… that did actually happen, on Store Street). There are many inglorious events vying for the title of Camden’s finest hour, but this surely has to be the victor.
Camden’s Finest Hour: This is the first of a series of articles highlighting stories of Camden’s sometimes ludicrous incompetence.