Coca Cola decides to pay their Olympic taxes

Coca Cola takes a lead from McDonald's.

Internet petitions have, for once, proved effective, as Olympic sponsor Coca Cola have joined McDonald's in announcing they will not be partaking in their allowed tax break during the Games. Since HMRC pronounced Stratford the latest haven in tax dodging, the internet has exploded with complaints that corporations sponsoring London 2012 such as Lloyds TSB, Visa and Adidas should not partake in the tax exemption they are offered. The legislation not only forgives sponsors from paying tax on the fortunes they will earn during the Games, but also any foreign nationals working in the UK for the purpose; this includes journalists, judges and the athletes themselves. While the amounts the individuals will rake in from three weeks of income and UK corporation tax concessions may not be huge, it will cost the UK tens of millions of pounds to lose, as estimated by Richard Murphy from the Tax Justice Network.

The petition was started on the 38 Degrees website and has now over 160 000 signatures. On Wednesday McDonald's bowed to furious online petitioners, saying that the revenue from the games would only make up 0.1 per cent of annual sales in the UK. Hours later, Coca Cola also conceded and made a statement on their website to pay their fair share of tax during the Games. Perhaps this is the first of many escape routes from the somewhat Orwellian laws of copyright the Olympics have influenced in this country. I refer to the legislation that vendors within 100 metres of Olympic venues are forbidden from violating sponsorship agreements, by which I mean selling chips. Except in the joyful loophole that fish with chips is allowed, selling chips alone which are not McDonald's branded will result in a hefty fine. Likewise with soft drinks other than Coca Cola and beer other than Heineken. Considering this it is less surprising that McDonald's and Coca Cola don't mind paying their taxes as it will hardly compromise the billions of pounds they will be earning. However, the decision to ignore the tax exemption still shows the corporations in a good light, and until the other sponsors back down the petition at 38 Degrees will continue to go strong to break them, or die in the attempt.

To the taxpayer the decision to pay the usual requirement of taxes seems only fair; the UK has already been proven to be riddled with tax evaders, with the Barclays scandal still hanging stagnant in the air along with dozens of other bankers' tax avoidance accusations. However, tax exemption is far from unknown in the Olympic world; in fact, such legislations have long since been endemic to the Games for years. Usain Bolt is just one of the big-name athletes who has pushed tax exemption rules to be adopted by hosting countries. So is tax just seen as something optional to be dropped when it comes to big publicity situations? No, it's worse than that; “tax” has become a poisonous word that evokes feelings of horror and misery the moment it's spat off the tongue. In a world where dropping tax is seen as a reward (though why big names should be rewarded for having logos on the side of the stadium needs further explanation) and paying tax is a punishment, how can we expect so much of large corporations? We seem to be forgetting the purpose of tax: to help people who can't help themselves, and provide the public with those mildly useful luxuries we occasionally need, such as hospitals and schools. Sometimes our tax isn't used very wisely by the government, no. But shockingly enough, it is a democracy that we live in, and we can use our power to vote or to sign petitions online towards the hope that whoever is in charge will make a loose majority of decent choices. Organisations like the Olympics promote the idea that only the losers pay tax and the winners, be they competing athletes or corporations that get brownie points for monopolising industries, are lucky enough to get out of helping their country function. As long as we keep this mentality it's inevitable that McDonald's and Coca Cola deciding to pay tax will be something of a shock to us. Thankfully, the fact that they have done so can contribute to a new mentality. It might even promote the aim to do good over earn money. One can only hope.

Olympic sponsor Coca Cola presents the torch relay in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.