Nuisance smells: how councils deal with complaints

How councils assess and deal with nuisance odours from industrial, trade and business premises.

Applies to England

Councils must look into complaints about smells from industrial, trade and business premises that could be a ‘statutory nuisance’ (covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990).

For the smell to count as a statutory nuisance it must do one of the following:

  • unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises
  • injure health or be likely to injure health

If they agree that a statutory nuisance is happening, has happened or will happen in the future, councils must serve an abatement notice. This requires whoever’s responsible to stop or restrict the smell. The notice will usually be served on the person responsible but can also be served on the owner or occupier of the premises.

Statutory nuisance laws don’t apply to smells from residential properties.

What can cause nuisance smells

Nuisance smells can be caused by problems with:

  • agricultural practices like spreading slurry or sludge onto land
  • sewage handling facilities (including sewage treatment works, sewage pumping stations, sludge treatment centres, and storm water storage tanks)
  • food processors and commercial kitchens (for example, if the extraction system is poor)
  • animals, livestock and poultry
  • slaughter houses, abattoirs and animal by-product rendering plants like pet food factories
  • paints and solvents from garages or workshops (for example, if vents are poorly positioned)
  • unplanned spills (for example, from vehicle accidents)

Smells can escape from buildings by:

  • emissions from a stack or extractor
  • leaks from the building structure (for example, around poorly sealed doors)

How nuisance smells are assessed

To work out whether smells are a statutory nuisance, councils can consider one or more of the following:

  • where the smell is coming from
  • the character of the area
  • the number of people affected nearby
  • if the smell interferes with the quality of life of people nearby (for example, if they avoid using their gardens)
  • how often the smell is present
  • the characteristics of the smell

Assessing smells can be difficult because people respond differently to them.

Councils usually use at least 2 human ‘sniffers’ to work out:

  • the strength of the smell
  • how often it’s detectable and for how long
  • when it’s recognisable
  • its offensiveness
  • its character (using descriptions like ‘fruity’ or ‘fishy’)
  • the emission rate

Wind direction and weather conditions should be taken into account as this can cause variations in smells.

Councils can also ask people to keep smell diaries, recording their perception of the smell and the effect it has on them.

Smells from industrial, trade or business premises: special rules

If an abatement notice for smells is served on industrial, trade or business premises and they’ve used the best practicable means to stop or reduce the smell, they may be able to use this as one of the following:

  • grounds for appeal against the abatement notice
  • a defence, if prosecuted for not complying with the abatement notice

Environmental permits

The Environment Agency (EA) controls some potential smell nuisances with environmental permits as part of pollution control.

Councils need to work closely with EA to make sure that people aren’t penalised twice for the same activity. If a facility has an environmental permit councils must get the Secretary of State’s permission before prosecuting for breach of an abatement notice.

Published 7 April 2015