Balls tries to show that you can trust Labour with your money

The shadow chancellor's pledge to justify "every penny" makes political and economic sense.

"Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again?", asked Nick Clegg in his conference speech. The announcement by Ed Balls that Labour, if elected, would hold a "zero-based spending review" is an admission that he still needs to convince voters that they can answer "yes". The record £159bn deficit may have been a consequence, rather than a cause, of the economic crisis but Balls rightly recognises that Labour didn't always spend wisely in office.

A zero-based review (an idea proposed last December by In The Black Labour) differs from others in that it requires every item of spending to be approved, rather than merely changes to a pre-determined baseline. In other words, nothing is off the table. As Balls says in his interview with the Guardian:

The public want to know that we are going to be ruthless and disciplined in how we go about public spending. For a Labour government in 2015, it is quite right, and the public I think would expect this, to have a proper zero-based spending review where we say we have to justify every penny and make sure we are spending in the right way.

He goes on to add that the review will be subject to three qualifications. First, that Labour will commit to protecting spending in certain areas, such as international development and possibly health, based on its priorities of fairness and growth; second, that it will examine whether "cuts now would lead to higher costs in the future" (for instance, by cutting public health and other preventative budgets); and third, that Labour will seek to achieve a cross-party consensus before the election in specific areas, such as social care and children in care, which may then be excluded from the zero budgeting process. Elsewhere, in an interview with the Mirror, Balls states that Labour will use private firms to run public services if it believes they will offer the taxpayer better value for money. The New Labour mantra of "whatever works" lives on. And rightly so. There is no reasonable objection to any of the above.

But the interview is also notable for what Balls doesn't say. With George Osborne due to announce spending plans for 2015-16 (the first post-election year) in next year's Spending Review, recent speculation has suggested that Balls, in an echo of Labour's 1997 strategy, could pledge to match them. In an interview with the Spectator, however, Harriet Harman poured cold water on this proposal, declaring that there was no chance of Labour "signing up to doing the very thing we think is hurting the economy".

Labour aides have since suggested that she was referring to this spending period, rather than the next one. But, offered the chance to settle the matter, Balls declined. And who can blame him? With Osborne's growth and borrowing forecasts changing so rapidly (and not for the better), few can say what situation Labour would inherit. For now, the priority remains to push for an economic strategy that would, at least, limit the damage.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would have to "justify every penny". 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.