Will Cameron U-turn on charity tax relief?

The PM looks increasingly certain to revise Osborne's plan to cap tax relief on charitable donations

Three weeks on from the Budget, David Cameron could be forgiven for hoping that the political strife was over. But even 8,000 miles away in Asia [the PM flew from Indonesia to Malaysia earlier this morning], Cameron can't escape the aftershocks of George Osborne's statement. The outcry over the Chancellor's decision to impose a cap of £50,000 on tax relief for charitable donors is reaching a crescendo and Cameron has already hinted at a U-turn. Speaking in Jakarta yesterday, he said:

George Osborne said in the budget very carefully we would look at the effect on charitable donations because we want to encourage charitable giving... We'll look very sympathetically at these concerns

He has every reason to be sympathetic. A move intended to limit tax avoidance could end up strangling the PM's cherished "big society". A survey by the Charities Aid Foundation shows that nine out of 10 charities fear the plans will result in a drop in donations. The foundation's John Low speaks of "widespread alarm and despair" among charities. 88 per cent of the 120 charity executives surveyed believe that the cap will have a "negative impact on the value of donations" from major donors, while 56 per cent fear donations will fall by some 20 per cent.

In addition, there is pressure from Fleet Street and a significant number of Tory MPs to think again. Mark Pritchard, the secretary of the backbench 1922 Committee, commented: “This appears to be going in the opposite direction of encouraging philanthropy and major giving to charity.”

However, with the new rules not due to come into place until April 2013, there is time for a compromise. The Times (£) reports that one idea under consideration is to exempt high-value, “once in a lifetime” legacies from the new cap. Another option would be to limit the cap to donations to foreign charities, some of which do little or no charitable work.  Low's warning that a measure intended to hit the rich could end up hurting the most vulnerable is a cogent one.

Politically, the cap on charity tax relief is yet another example [cf. "the granny tax" and "the pasty tax"] of a measure the government has struggled to both explain and to defend. There are plausible arguments for all three taxes [ensuring the elderly contribute to deficit reduction, removing an anomaly that favours large traders over small ones, reducing tax avoidance by the wealthy] but Cameron and Osborne only seem to make them once it's already too late. The Daily Mail's caustic observation that the pair may now regret that they "swanned off to America" the week before the Budget will hurt because it is true.

David Cameron talks to sudents at The Al Azhar University on April 12, 2012 in Jakarta. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.