Cllr Johnny Thalassites is the Cabinet Member for Planning, Place and the Environment on Kensington and Chelsea Council.
Every summer some of our streets are turned into “race tracks” as noisy vehicles roar around our borough. But, now, new technology is helping us to end the misery of people who have to live with the deafening din of revving race cars. “Silence of the lambos”, we might even call it…
Kensington and Chelsea Council has piloted a new generation of “acoustic cameras” on Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, the first in Britain, that identifies – and deters – drivers of noisy vehicles. Two cameras trialled for three months have resulted in more than 150 fines – and zero repeat offenders – leading to calls for us to roll the project out across our network.
The problem has historically been most acute in summer and in Knightsbridge, but increasingly we hear complaints from residents about noise year-round and borough-wide. The situation has reached crisis point – my mailbag fills up with constituents kept awake by mopeds and motorbikes – and that is why we have taken a pragmatic and innovative step to tackle the problem.
Using acoustic cameras – and working under the framework of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in Knightsbridge – we have been issuing Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) of up to £100. The acoustic cameras mean we can enforce against vehicles that surpass 74 dB – the legal noise limit on our streets, where previous assessments had been subjective.
Residents were unsurprised that the cameras identified cars surpassing 100 dB, the average sound level of a chainsaw or a rock concert. Meanwhile, although £100 may not sound like a lot of money – especially in central London – local people say the new kit has hit some of the worst offenders. I also hope that whilst waste and street scene officers had been manually watching ‘triggers’ and totting up offences during the trial, we can automate some of those processes and bring down costs over time.
Next month, I hope we will be able to adopt a borough-wide PSPO – so that we can become the first place to pilot acoustic cameras across our highway network. This comes after about 95 per cent of residents supported the move in a recent consultation. Anyone with experience in local Government will know just how rare it is for a new idea to win 95 per cent support in the first round of a consultation. All this amounts to a pragmatic solution because, like most Conservatives, I am instinctively hostile to fines. I think incentives generally work better. I believe people should be able to get around town in the mode of transport they want (and, all the better if that is a sustainable mode). But we have put people first – it is little consolation for a Council to stick true to principles if those principles mean your newborn can’t get to sleep.
In Kensington and Chelsea, we have funded acoustic cameras using the Community Infrastructure Levy, a development charge related to the additional residential floorspace produced in new buildings. We are fortunate to have sufficient monies to invest in a pilot that we didn’t know would work. But to realise the potential of this technology – and to make it practical for authorities across the land to tackle the scourge of nuisance driving – there is a case for legislative change.
A change to the FPN tariff could make deploying acoustic cameras a realistic option for councils of all stripes. A night-time fee – say, a larger fine for noisy vehicles during evenings, when the disturbance is likely to be most unwelcome – or a central London levy – to reflect the higher average vehicle values in the capital – may win support.
This cost-recovery element could make the practice viable for other boroughs, some of whom must receive similar numbers to the thousands of emails we have had. It can’t be right that FPNs can charge as much as £400 for fly-tipping in some London boroughs – and yet, noise pollution offences are capped at one-quarter of that.
In the past year, we have had approaches from different layers of Government at home and abroad. There is clearly an appetite to do something about noisy vehicles. Politicians in Europe and America are interested in how Britain can lead in tackling a global problem. It turns out that revving race cars are a menace beyond Dover.
I know that the Department for Transport has started piloting noise-detecting cameras. I was also pleased to see Westminster City Council set out plans to trial acoustic cameras earlier this year. Maybe that work could lead to a central London zone that starts to prevent nuisance driving in the heart of the capital.
We have an opportunity in London to lead on an issue that – though not a traditional front-page splash – affects a large number of people and reverberates around the globe.
Powerful cars need careful handling – and acoustic cameras have given us a powerful new tool to catch the worst offenders.