As another ground closes due to noise complaints, James Simon discovers the issue of shooting noise is more complicated than you might think
The issue of shooting noise is more complicated than you might think
Picture the rolling hills of the Trannon Valley in the heart of mid-wales. This is a soft, rural landscape where little troubles the sheep and dairy herds that thrive here. A patchwork of ancient pasture, ribboned by woodland and criss-crossed by a latticework of streams, it really is slap-bang in the middle of nowhere. Or more accurately, slap in the middle of nowhere now that the bangs have been silenced.
Earlier this year, the Mid Wales Shooting Centre, one of the country’s best-known grounds, shut up shop for good after noise complaints, and the ensuing restrictions made business untenable. If a ground in such a remote location can come under fire, what hope is there for shooting complexes in more populated neighbourhoods?
Mid Wales Shooting Centre was a thriving ground that shouldn’t have succumbed to potential operating difficulties. A popular employer in the area, every year the ground hosted the Krieghoff Classic, as well as a multitude of national and international championships. Although the local population is small – the closest village, Trefeglwys (population 910) is half a mile away – the centre was a huge draw for tourists, and a welcome source of income for the Welsh economy. So where did it all go wrong? “Although the Centre had been operating for 30 years, and brought in about £3 million for the local economy,” said Jonathan Williams, owner of the centre, “complaints from a small minority of residents were relentless. We took every step that we could to mitigate noise levels, but the more we gave in, the more restrictions they demanded.
“It was very disheartening to see our business being destroyed, but in the end it just wasn’t worth continuing.”
Jonathan and his team fell foul of what many consider sketchy legal guidance. Under the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, a local authority is required to investigate whenever a complaint of statutory nuisance is made. A statutory nuisance is rather imprecisely defined to include ‘noise emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance’.
For direction on what constitutes a nuisance, councils rely on the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health paper Clay Target Shooting: Guidance on the Control of Noise that was published nearly 20 years ago.
“Generally, this is a well-researched document,” said Jonathan, “But the figures councils are making judgements on are so low.
It states that: ‘Annoyance is less likely to occur at a mean shooting noise level below 55DB(A), and highly likely to occur at a mean shooting noise level above 65DB(A)’. To put that into perspective, a normal conversation is about 60DB(A).”
Drive 200 miles east of Trefeglwys, and in flattest, most rural Lincolnshire you’ll find Aaron Heading’s ground, The Priory Clay Target Centre. Just like the Mid Wales Shooting Centre was, Aaron found himself targeted by a small minority, this time comprising of neighbours who had recently moved into the area.
“Unfortunately, it seems common for people to move in without realising that there’s a clay ground nearby,” said Aaron. “Humans are very sensitive to sudden noises because we interpret them as potential threats. So a constant wash of sound from an A road may be louder, but individual shots from a distant ground may give the impression of being higher in volume.
“It can also get very personal. Our complainants whipped up hysteria by posting flyers through neighbouring letterboxes urging the whole town to complain. On a lighter note, the flyers proved to be quite an effective advertising campaign for us!”
The Priory is situated on an old RAF base that, ironically, was used for shooting practice by Spitfires in WWII. It became a shooting ground in the 1950s, and Aaron moved in six years ago. He inherited planning permission to shoot 24/7, but decided to restrict the hours from 9.30am to 4pm on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in deference to the neighbouring town of Sutton Bridge, which lies half a mile away.
“When the complaints started we decided to work closely with our local councillor,” said
Aaron. “As soon as he recognised the trade that the ground brought into the area he was very supportive. After all, shooters book hotels, restaurants and purchase from local shops and businesses.
“In the end the local council completed extensive tests and discovered that the noise from our ground was indiscernible above the ambient road noise emitted from the A17. During testing we had council and CPSA representatives at both the ground and at the complainant’s house. Laughably, after we let off the first five shots, we had a message over the walkie-talking asking us when we were going to start shooting.”
Aaron successfully fought off the potential noise abatement order, but still wants to remain on good terms with the residents of Sutton Bridge.
“Soil bunds have been installed and we will continue to improve these as and when we can afford to do so. We have also banned all game loads, which are considerably louder. As the ground becomes more popular it’s only right that we keep noise to an appropriate level.
“My advice to any ground facing complaints is to build a business case that shows your worth in the community, and to work closely with your local councillor. Don’t back down. The Priory is my family’s livelihood and it seemed unreasonable that newcomers could take that away from us. Never restrict your business to the extent it can no longer function.”
But it’s always been here!
Does it seem right that a new neighbour can shut down a long-standing ground? We can learn from two other leisure pursuits that have frequently found themselves in the dock – motorsport and live music. Coventry
“It’s my family’s livelihood, and it seemed unreasonable that newcomers could take that away from us”
vs. Lawrence (2014) UKSC 13 concerned a claimant who bought a house that was close to a motorsport stadium 31 years after it first opened, and some 14 years after a motocross course was constructed on adjacent land.
During an appeal, the Supreme Court clarified that the motorsport facility could have established a prescriptive right to commit a nuisance by noise if it had continued for 20 years or more. However, the stadium owners lost the case because the motocross course had only been in existence for 14 years and, although the stadium had been noisy for more than 20 years, it couldn’t be established that it had created a noise nuisance for that time. The defendants had to show that the noise caused by their activities was created ‘as of right’ and not merely ‘of right’.
Fortunately, there’s positive news from the world of pubs, clubs and music venues. As the pressure for housing increases, more residential developments are being built, which often brings them into conflict with existing live venues. Clay grounds are facing similar pressures as housing estates push deeper into the countryside. In July 2018, after much campaigning by the Music Venue Trust, the UK Government updated its National Planning Policy Framework in favour of any existing venues.
Paragraph 182 states: ‘Planning policies and decisions should ensure that new development can be integrated effectively with existing businesses and community facilities (such as places of worship, pubs, music venues and sports clubs).’
Essentially, this should end the practice of new house owners shutting down neighbouring music venues and clay clubs.
Prevention better than cure
Richard Worthington, marketing & development manager at the CPSA, would be surprised if there’s a ground in the country that hasn’t suffered a noise complaint at some stage. “There’s no getting away from the fact that we are a noisy sport,” said Richard. “More often than not, it is from a new person moving into a neighbouring area.”
Richard echoes Aaron’s advice. “Established grounds will often be well-regarded by their local council and considered an important source of employment and income for the area. Only rarely will they want to see them shut-down by the actions of one complainant.
“Our advice is to work with the council closely and avoid being confrontational or aggressive. I am not suggesting a ground should immediately capitulate, but do try to explore alternative solutions. If you are a Sporting ground can you rearrange your layout so you are not shooting in the direction of the complainant? Can you enclose your stands, or build earth bunds to absorb sound?
“Owls Lodge is a good example of a ground that has bunds that almost encircle it. John Bidwell has made good use of bunds at High Lodge too, and has covered stands. If a ground can show that it has made every effort to mitigate noise, then the council should look on it more favourably.”
“The more we gave in, the more restrictions they demanded”
In Richard’s experience, if a complaint is upheld then the most likely outcome is that heavier loads will be banned, hours will be restricted and modifications to the ground may be imposed. Very occasionally, councils will insist on the use of subsonic cartridges too.
“Grounds are far better off adopting noise-reducing measures early on so that complaints can be avoided in the first place. Sadly, as we have seen with grounds such as Mid Wales Shooting Centre, and White Water Shooting Ground near Doncaster, any imposed restrictions can be so onerous that business becomes impossible.”
There’s no one size fits all fix for the issue of noise complaints
Even the most remote clay ground can come under fire
Thankfully, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to mitigate noise
Aaron Heading has experienced complaints from locals before
Shooting is a naturally noisy sport and we need to be sure we aren’t disturbing anyone