Strike the right note in battle against noise
One of the downsides of life in any big city is the incessant noise that makes even a moment's peace difficult to find. In Hong Kong, however, the problem is a particularly difficult one to resolve.
In this bustling, energetic and crowded city, the assault on our ears comes from a bewildering variety of sources, from deafening jackhammers to the roar of traffic and the clutter of mahjong tiles.
The resulting din is accepted by many as a nuisance to be tolerated, a price to be paid for living in a dynamic urban environment like Hong Kong. However, noise pollution, like any other hazard, poses a threat to health. It must be kept within reasonable limits.
A sensible balance needs to be struck between the interests of those who make the noise when going about their daily business and those who find themselves on the receiving end of an ear-bashing.
A court ruling on Friday provides a good example of how difficult it can sometimes be to get this balance right.
A popular bar in Tsim Sha Tsui challenged a late-night noise ban imposed by the Noise Control Authority, which had received complaints from residents living above the premises. The bar was ordered to ensure that after 11pm it maintained a noise level which was 'not audible'.
This is a common problem in Hong Kong where it is difficult to locate nightclubs, bars and restaurants in places that are at some distance from residential buildings. Very often residents live right on top of an entertainment venue.
Clearly there is a need to ensure that in such situations residents are able to enjoy a decent night's sleep. But it also is important that the bar concerned is still able to function and that any restrictions placed upon it are reasonable.
The court ruling in favour of the bar would therefore seem to be a decision based on common sense. The discretion given the authority to impose limitations is broad and the requirement to ensure noise levels that are 'not audible' vague. The restriction is difficult to comply with and the consequences of breaching it - criminal liability - are severe. A limitation based on a decibel limit would be much clearer - and fairer.
There are times when our city's approach to noise appears to be inconsistent. Despite changes to noise control laws last year, construction companies are not easily deterred. A significant number seem happy to pay what - compared to their income - are miniscule fines.
Entertainment does not fare so well. Several rock stars have had to cancel concerts at Hong Kong Stadium because of tough noise limits. Even the PLA was prevented from holding a 7am rehearsal for National Day celebrations in 1999.
The court ruling, if allowed to stand, will require a change in procedures. But a wider review may be needed in order to ensure the right balance is struck in the battle to keep down the noise.