How to interpret the UK "ban minarets" poll

Read this before you open tomorrow's newspapers

According to a new survey published by Angus Reid Public Opinion today, "Britain would vote to ban minarets" if the Swiss referendum were repeated here. This contrasts with the United States, where the vote would be evenly split, and Canada, where the proposal would be rejected.

You can find the full results of the three-country polling here -- and I would advise you to do so, particularly if this survey is picked up as a news story in tomorrow's papers. For, if they present the results as I have done above (merely repeating the way Angus Reid has done in its missive), the effect will be to focus on their most negative interpretation -- not to mention the unwelcome suggestion that we in the UK are more illiberal than Americans. (Canadians we can just about get: but the people who elected Dubya? More Islamophile than us?)

I would be the last to pretend that many British people do not have a very real problem with Islam, and that includes many left-liberals, secularists and feminists whose opposition is principled, if, in my opinion, wrong. Actually calling for minarets to be banned, however, is to step beyond principle and full square into the territory of prejudice.

So I am relieved to report that there is a much more hopeful interpretation to be put on the survey's findings.

Firstly, a majority of respondents in all three countries agreed, either "strongly" or "moderately" with the proponents of the ban. But in each case this majority was under 50 per cent (44 per cent in Britain, 37 per cent in Canada and only 30 per cent in the USA). Secondly, although majorities in Britain and the USA would vote "yes" in a referendum on a ban, these too were not absolute majorities -- 37 per cent in the UK, and a mere 21 per cent in America.

True, these figures are larger than those who would vote against (UK: 25 per cent; USA : 19 per cent). But the real story for me in this survey is that, faced with this questionnaire, majorities in all three countries refused to say "yes" when asked if they would vote in favour of a ban.

Forgive me if that sounds a little convoluted (I've had to use a double negative because I can't formally say majorities actually oppose the ban). What the survey showed was that vast numbers of people either wouldn't vote or weren't sure -- around 40 per cent in Britain and Canada and over 60 per cent in the USA.

I find that a great cause for cheer, because it makes clear that, when asked to come to a closed-minded, prejudiced judgement on whether members of one of the world's major religions should be allowed to erect thin, elegant structures to adorn their places of worship -- this is all minarets are -- majorities in all three countries will not do so. They will either oppose such a ruling, or not feel strongly about it, or they will think about it.

During a referendum you have time to explain your case. Given that I think the argument against a ban has common sense, decency and toleration on its side, after reading this survey I feel confident that victory would go to those who would oppose a ban.

And that, I think, is the real message from this poll.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to 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.