01:07, July 07 44 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-07 01:07:05
First they came for the hoodlums. Now they’re after you

It’s been a bad week to be a neighbour. Overhanging or virulent plants, party walls, building noise, pets, milk on doorsteps, territorial events related to recycling bins – these were once all personal and domestic skirmishes, intimate wars that could occupy the full emotional range of the busy executive precisely because they would never be adjudicated on from the outside. Now the court of appeal has ruled in favour of knotweed victims, labelling the plant “pernicious” – which will have implications for sloppy gardeners nationwide.

This follows hard on the heels of a ruling against the Jacklins, a couple who had spent over 20 years in their East Sussex seaside home. When new neighbours arrived from London, disputes began. It all started with building work, then deteriorated into allegations of snooping, swearing and intrusiveness of an indeterminate nature, and finished up in a community protection warning letter banning the Jacklins from looking in the windows of a house that is – whichever way you slice it – directly opposite their own.

It’s like that ancient cartoon about a bad marriage: “Stop making that noise.” “What noise?” “That breathing noise.” “Well, you stop making that face.” “What face?” “That ugly face.” Those close but hostile to one another can reach a pitch of irritability for which no reasonable solution can be found. But what you don’t expect is for the law to step in on anybody’s side. At the very most, you would expect justice to tell everyone to stop being so silly.

This absurd situation – in which, by order of Rother district council, two people have to walk with downcast eyes just to get to the beach – was made possible by the scotching of the antisocial behaviour order legislation, and its replacement in 2015 with the community protection notice. This is designed to be easier to impose than an asbo, and so it has transpired: no evidence of the offending behaviour is required, and a magistrate need get involved only if the subject of the CPN appeals within 21 days. It is an elegant distillation of all that was wrong with the original legislation, which went against the very principle of jurisprudence, designed not so much to address a new crime as define a new class of Bad Person.

The asbo, introduced in 1998, was a generalised response to a perception of moral and social decline, meant explicitly to deal with rowdy youngsters and “problem” families. It took a zero-tolerance approach, in which all harmful acts are individual choices, and the rational individual will desist from poor choices if they see that the consequences outweigh the benefits; and it catapulted a load of young scallywags straight into prison. Crime was found in some places to go down, but in retrospect this should have been balanced against the great moral crime of saddling a teenager with a criminal record for having been caught three times drinking White Lightning in a built-up area.

What they were never intended for, of course, was to trip up a couple in their fifties who were just trying to go for a walk on the beach. But because asbos were never explicit about their target – it would have been hard to be, without admitting outright class warfare – when it came to the remodel, the purpose was lost. Suddenly you didn’t have to be an annoying teenager: it was enough just to be annoying.

Under a community protection notice, my neighbour could stiff me because my dog escapes, and I could get him because he plays loud music; but we have elected not to mind each other, indeed, to be allies, because of our many common enemies (the man who leaves his trousers on the street when he’s tired of them, which is all the time; the surly woman; a fox).

The threat to sue over something petty was always the stuff of sitcoms – grumpy old men making empty threats and using words like “pernicious” and “intolerable” about plant life, to the amused eyebrows of their wives. It is curiously fitting for the times that obstreperousness, previously ignored, has forced its way into law.

It is actually impossible to legislate for neighbourliness, which relies on a thousand miniature decisions a day: to mind or not to mind, to scowl or not to scowl. These can build up to the most epic discord – but under the microscope of a higher authority, they disintegrate right back down to the level of looking through a window.

First they came for the hoodlums, and we did not speak up, because teenagers get on everyone’s nerves. But next they’re coming for you, with your party-wall dispute. And your only defence will be: “But he started it.”

Zoe Williams is a regular contributor to the Guardian

Topics