Privatisation slows down worldwide

Has the money lost heart, or is it the bureaucrats?

Via Richard Murphy comes this Financial Times piece (£), suggesting that privatisation may be declining globally:

The pace of privatisation around the world has slowed sharply, with an unprecedented number of asset sales delayed or cancelled amid volatile markets and political uncertainty.

Despite governments across the globe continuing to hoist for-sale signs over state-owned enterprises ranging from airports to electricity networks, the number of completed deals last year was less than half the 2010 figure, according to the Privatisation Barometer, a joint project between KPMG and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, a Milan-based research institute.

The report (pdf) offers the explanation that last year was one of "global financial retrenchment", prompted by the Eurozone crisis and the fight in the US over the debt ceiling. It offers, as a "dramatic" example of the former:

The Spanish government['s] forced cancellation, literally days before execution, of what would have been 2011’s largest privatization — the October sale of 30% of the national lottery, Loterias y Apuerto del Estado, which would have raised over €7 billion ($9.7 billion) — and the near-coincident delayed (not yet renewed) sale of the Madrid and Barcelona airports that could have raised more than €5 billion ($6.9 billion).

The explanation leaves something to be lacking, however. If, as the report argues, the Eurozone crisis was one of sovereign debt, then it ought to have led to more, not fewer, privatisations, given that they are one of the most effective ways for a nation to raise in a short period of time the amount of cash necessary pay down debt.

Similarly, the big economic story of the last year has been the flight to safety, which has led to the reverse-sovereign-debt-crisis being experienced across much of the world, as well as little quirks like RORO. That too ought to lead to greater, not lesser, privatisation, since taking control of an established monopoly is a pretty safe investment. So long as a company doesn't completely misjudge how much it can make from a utility (looking your way, GNER), it's hard to fail when buying out the state (hard to fail, that is, from a financial point of view. Very easy to fail when it comes to actually providing services).

I think the best explanation is that privatisation is becoming uncool, not for economic reasons, but for political ones. States simply don't want to take the unpopular move of handing over control of their services to the private sector. Whether this is good or bad depends on the specific circumstances (as with Matt Yglesias, I think a well-thought-out mutualisation of the US Postal Service could do wonders, but the sale of Madrid and Barcelona airports risks creating the nation's own version of BAA), but Murphy thinks there is something to celebrate anyway:

Let’s hope that there might also be a realisation implicit in this that people now realise that it’s not just banks that can be too big to fail, but that much else that we depend upon is also too big to fail, and needs to be state run to ensure it survives as a result.

Barcelona airport, following a protest by cleaners. The airport was due to be privatised this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.