An independent review into the Upper Hutt City Council’s handling of noise complaints shows it acted too slowly, too softly and that its processes weren’t up to scratch.
“Abysmal”, “absolute debacle”, “a bit slimy”, and “appalling” – just some of the words used by residents to describe the council’s handling of their complaints.
Logan McLean and his family were among the first to complain in March 2020. The country had entered level four lockdown and Farrah’s had just set up shop on Kiln Street in Silverstream, Upper Hutt.
“We were waking up to this low hum and people were just walking around the neighbourhood at night-time trying to figure out where it was coming from, before we realised that it was Farrah’s,” said McLean.
“It really was particularly debilitating for us. We were being kept awake for hours and hours each night, we moved out of our bedroom into one of the other bedrooms on the other side of the house to try and get further away from the factory. But we’re still being kept awake regularly, and it was really having a noticeable impact on our moods.”
The noise was caused by the factory’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system which ran 24 hours a day five days a week.
He said emails to Farrah’s in the early stages were ignored and then complaints from residents to the council in later months did not appear to be taken seriously.
“That’s the most frustrating thing is that all the way through the residents have done nothing wrong, but we are the ones who have ended up suffering. We’re the ones who have done all the work and put all the effort in. Farrah’s and the council have just dragged their feet.”
In total, 417 separate complaints were laid for noise.
An independent review commissioned by the council on request from then councillor Angela McLeod found some council staff understood the seriousness of the complaints, but they were overridden by senior staff who were removed from the reality of the situation.
Just two months after the initial complaint, 26 separate properties had then complained, and the council admitted Farrah’s was breaching its District Plan with the noise its factory was creating.
But noise levels remained unchanged throughout 2021, and in July the Medical Officer of Health told council the noise was a serious risk to health.
More complaints landed with the council as it debated whether it should come down with a heavy hand on Farrah’s with some staff, including the council’s chief executive, concerned the business – a success story for Upper Hutt – may lay off staff in retaliation.
The review found there were no grounds for this concern, and it was given undue weight to the path of action council took.
“Senior staff appear to have convinced themselves that an abatement notice instructing Farrah’s to stop the noise would have led to immediate job losses at the factory.
“There is no evidence the factory owners threatened such a thing and in fact in April 2022 when the (stronger) abatement notice was issued the owners simply complied – no litigation was filed, no workers were laid off.”
The review also criticised the dynamic that unfolded as the complaints came in – the council appeared to work alongside Farrah’s rather than as a regulator.
“Council’s preferred approach was to work with the local company. It valued having a growing, successful business in the area. It recognised Farrah’s was a major employer and, as noted above, Council staff did not want to take any action that would put jobs at risk. One staff member noted, ‘you have got quite a significant business’ which they had to consider.”
Another said, “they are going to be here for a long time and we need to keep those relationships”.
McLean said the dynamics at play were evident early on .
“From the early stages we were very cognisant of who the battle should be with and so one of the reasons we didn’t take court action early on, even though it was discussed often, is that we didn’t want to push Farrah’s and the council closer together.”
The independent review from law firm Dentons Kensington Swan recommended the council issue a formal apology.
“To those residents who made a complaint, for the time taken to resolve the matter, and for the way in which it communicated with them.”
Five or so residents are still affected and the review recommends the council work with them.
“In correspondence with the Medical Officer of Health, he has indicated to Council that these residents have become ‘over-sensitised’ to the noise issue, such that they cannot ‘unhear’ it, despite the substantial effort that has gone in to mitigating the volume.
“This small group of residents should be offered further help in the form of a contribution towards de-sensitisation training or some other service to be determined by agreement between the resident and Council.”
Angela McLeod, who at the time was a city councillor, said Farrah’s had a responsibility to the community, which it had failed on.
“I think when you’re an organisation that employs a lot of people and has such success, there’s also some kind of community responsibility that goes along with it and that was disturbing to me.
“There were residents that contacted Farrah’s and said ‘hey, let’s work this out’, but there was no response.”
She said she hoped the council would take onboard the feedback from the review and issue an apology to residents.
In a statement issued by the council, its mayor, Wayne Guppy, said it empathised with the fact residents have suffered from the noise.
“While we had a process to follow with our compliance investigation, this review is intended to highlight areas we can improve on, especially regarding the speed of the process.
“We will be working through the report now which includes the findings, and recommendations.”
Council will discuss the report at its meeting on March 8.
Logan McLean wants an apology, and then to move on.
“Does it fix the noise issue for those people that are still suffering? No. Does it give us back the last three years? No. But do we want to move on? 100 percent.”