Living next door doesn't mean you'll always get on, but nobody wants a stressful fall-out. By Luke Rix-Standing.
Neighbours often rank up there with the in-laws on the list of people it’s really useful to get on with.
You live literally side-by-side – but just as with the in-laws, that doesn’t mean you automatically get on.
So what are neighbours battling over, and how should you handle a dispute with a tricky neighbour, whether it’s across the garden fence or in the courtroom? We talked to Dr Mike Talbot, CEO of conflict resolution experts UK Mediation, for his thoughts on the matter…
Causes of concern
Noise complaints frequently rank among the most common cause of neighbour irritation, particularly during summer with children off school, outdoor DIY projects, sizzling barbecues, and long evenings out on the patio all taking place.
Boundary issues involving shared spaces or fences also commonly cause consternation. “Plants come up quite a lot,” says Dr Talbot. “If my neighbour’s plant is growing through my fence, and I cut it off or lay down weedkiller, in their eyes I might have killed their plant.”
Party walls are as contentious as they ever were, and there’s even a designated organisation – The Faculty Of Party Wall Surveyors (fpws.org.uk) – devoted to the complexities they pose.
The hardest issues to resolve involve lifestyle – fundamental behaviours that residents are unwilling to change. “Cooking smells can be contentious,” says Talbot. “Plus late-night parties, drinking or smoking cannabis in the garden – especially when the neighbours are of a more conservative disposition. Things can get quite heated.”
If required, remember that your local council has a duty to investigate so-called ‘statutory nuisances’ – any disturbances that could be damaging to a citizen’s health. These include noise pollution, light pollution, and conventional pollution like dust, smoke, or a build-up of rubbish.
Build a relationship
Without meaning to sound flippant, the easiest way to make up with your neighbour is to not fall out in the first place, and in order to have a good relationship with them it helps if you know who they are.
“We’re less inclined to know our neighbours these days,” says Talbot, “so sometimes your first conversation with your neighbour is when you’ve got a dispute.” Even an occasional ‘hello’ in the driveway helps build some sort of rapport, which can give you invaluable credit when you need to raise an issue.
Not knowing your neighbour also means you’re less likely to pipe up when you first have a problem, which allows resentment to build and fester. Talbot says it’s the number one problem he encounters: “If you wait ’til you’re really annoyed, you can’t disguise your anger. The other person will then feel attacked and lash back, and that’s when things can go to a really bad place.”
So loving thy neighbour may be a big ask, but let’s start by at least knowing their name.
Mind your manners
When you do need to go knocking, pick an appropriate time, and, without meaning to patronise, play nice. “Don’t go round at 10 o’clock when you’ve had a can of something,” says Talbot, “and be prepared to take a conciliatory approach.”
If you’re really nervous, you could write your neighbour a note, or where appropriate go through their landlord – but it’s generally best to at least start with face-to-face communication.
“I always say listen first,” continues Talbot. “Speak to your neighbour and see what their take is – there’s often a good reason and you want to let them know you’re taking that into account before putting across your perspective. Collaborate with your neighbour to take on the problem, rather that taking on your neighbour ‘as’ the problem.”
Be particularly cautious when discussing the behaviour of unruly children, as even an implied slight on someone’s parenting will generally go down like a pint of warm beer.
“It complicates things massively,” says Talbot, “as you tend to get clashes of values. One neighbour might be happy to let their kids come home at two in the morning, while the other might be disturbed by the noise, but also by the values. When people start calling each other bad parents, it takes on a new dimension.”
You’re trying to come to a consensus, so however stuck-up/irresponsible you consider your neighbour to be, try to keep value judgements to yourself.
The letter of the law
We were going to run through the legal specs you might need for different situations, but it’s complex, scenario-specific, and generally not something you want to get involved in if you can help it. Talbot recalls one case in which mediation was called in after a two-year stretch of litigation, in which the two parties had already incurred £30,000 in legal fees apiece.
It also might not work. While informal methods like mediation emphasise compromise, in law there’s often a winner and a loser, and formal settlements will show on the deeds to your house as and when you decide to sell.
The courts are well aware of these difficulties, and sometimes won’t even hear the case unless forced. “These days, judges will ask: ‘How have you tried to resolve this?’ And they don’t want to hear you’ve gone straight to litigation. They’ve even sent cases away.”
If you do decide to explore your legal rights, don’t make the classic mistake of using Google. “Thanks to the internet, people selectively find articles that give them the version of their rights they want to hear,” says Talbot, “and interpret legislation for their own ends.” If people actually want to know their rights, says Talbot, speak to Citizens Advice, or book in a consultation with a lawyer.