What David Miliband's latest intervention means

The politics behind the Labour MP's New Statesman leader.

David Miliband's leader in this week's New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, is his most significant political intervention since his much-discussed attack on "Reassurance Labour" in the NS earlier this year. In an echo of that piece, the former foreign secretary mounts a critique of "defensive social democracy", an explicit rebuke to those in Labour who believe the party should simply ride the wave of discontent over austerity. He writes:

[I]f defensive social democracy delivers a win - and it is a big if- the problem will be with governing.

Miliband acknowledges that Labour has a bold economic narrative - "that Britain needs fundamental change in its market structure and culture to compete in the modern world." But he is clear that far more detail is needed for the party to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative to the coalition. In a significant overture to the Liberal Democrats, he suggests that the party should take Vince Cable's 2012 Budget submission to George Osborne, lamenting the lack of a "compelling vision" beyond austerity, and "promise to implement it." It is a statement that some in Labour will see as a snub to the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, who has set out his own five-point plan for growth.

Rather than simply renew commitments to "tax and spend", Miliband writes, Labour needs to make "switch spends". He highlights a proposal by IPPR, the think-tank where he worked before becoming Tony Blair's Head of Policy, to use a ten-year freeze on child benefit to pay for universal affordable childcare. It is a call for Labour to move beyond the dualistic approach of either supporting or opposing the coalition's cuts.

Miliband's fear is that Labour will "confuse being a better opposition with becoming a potential government". His praise for Jon Cruddas, the MP now leading the party's policy review, who Miliband notes is "not a policy wonk - a great advantage", is a sign that he believes Labour will avoid this trap. But his closing assertion that the Labour "cannot be conservative" is a warning to his brother not to appease the party's status quo faction.

David Miliband warns against "defensive social democracy" in his leader in this week's New Statesman. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.