Unspontaneous protest

Press freedom in Sri Lanka, mace-wielding John McDonnell, the return of Wegg-Prosser - and much more

A Heath Row

I travel everywhere by organic dow, but don't necessarily expect others to live up to my absurdly high ethical standards, least not the masses of under-sunned Brits for whom the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport will provide yet more exciting opportunities to flay themselves on Mediterranean beaches.

Not everyone is delighted by this prospect though, and among the political classes a surprisingly broad consensus has emerged against the plan. Green Queen Caroline Lucas compared plans for peaceful protests against the development to those of the suffragettes (er, didn't they throw an axe at the prime minister?), explaining that a new runway: "..would lead to spiralling carbon dioxide emissions, unacceptable noise pollution for millions living in London and the South East and worsening air quality." Other groups joining the 'Climate Rush' include the pleasant Christians at Ekklesia, whose co-director Simon Barrow recently wrote for newstatesman.com's Faith Column about the need to use our wealth for the common good – which presumably doesn't include holidays in Malta.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics felt that supporters of the runway had failed to articulate a plausible case, positing that more efficient airport management could solve many of Heathrow's current troubles. He argued that improved rail networks could help cut the number of flights in and out – obviating the need for the new runway and cutting carbon emissions.

Speculating over the fallout from the pending decision, Iain Dale predicted trouble ahead for Hilary "not a Bennite" Benn. He wrote:

"It's difficult to see how Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband could defend it, but he won't go. The one Minister I can see resigning is Hilary Benn, who has already made his position very clear.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, top celebs like Emma Thompson and TV's Alistair McGowan joined megabucks Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith (the only PPC I've ever seen with an art nouveau font on his website) in buying up tracts of earmarked land to thwart the developers. Will it work? Probably not, but worth a shot.

Thursday saw the project given government approval, provoking the ire of, amongst others, left-winger John McDonnell MP, who reached for the mace in what Iain Dale described as an “unspontaneous protest”…

What have we learned this week?

Terrific news: one of this blog's favourites, Ben Wegg-Prosser has been given a new platform! Labour List, the new enterprise of Derek Draper (unkindly monikered "Dolly" by bloggers of the right) promises posts from Benjamin, though the Moscow-based former Number 10 weblord has yet to contribute. The inevitable tussle between Labour List and the longer-established Labour Home to become the primary online base for activists is "absolutely on" sources behind the project whisper – so it may be worth keeping an eye on.

Around the World

Concerns over the state of press freedom in Sri Lanka peaked this week, with the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a highly respected journalist who had consistently campaigned to expose corruption and human rights abuses. Chit Chat ran images from the scene, while London-based Rine mourned both his death and the state of government on the island, angrily asking:

"Who do we have at this moment who will fight against the injustice that is a corrupt government terrorising its own people under the veil
of a war?"

Lakimba was less gracious. Acknowledging that: "It is indeed sad news when a human being has been killed prior to their time," he added the caveat, "...even when a person with a twisted mind and a strong anti-Sri Lankan agenda like Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga".

Videos of the Week

Following President Bush's melancholy and almost ruminative final press conference, numerous YouTubers decided to stitch together retrospectives. This is a rather beautiful look back on his eight baffling years in office.

Back in Britain, the Tories have launched a series of new ads highlighting the scale of the national debt, including this one, in which an adorable infant is born into a life of burdened misery thanks to the prime minister.

Quote of the Week

"Has some charmer organised a denial of service attack on LabourList just as it was being featured live on Channel 4 News? Bit of a coincidence that it should "go down" at the precise moment if there was no mischief afoot. Very strange."

A somewhat paranoid Chris Paul fears online sabotage.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.