Taxation without representation: Lib Dems have to go for the fourth Great Reform Act

Clegg’s “significant programme of empowerment” is a velvet glove for proper electoral reform.

"It is impossible that the whisper of a faction should prevail against the voice of a nation." So wrote John, Earl Russell, in a letter about the rejection of the Reform Bill in 1831. The allocation of parliamentary seats that has its distant origins in the administrative shires of medieval England is still, arguably, a thorn in the side of modern democracy.

Locked up in the Representation of the People Acts is the whole machinery of election, constituencies and "first-past-the-post" that the Lib Dems rightly wish to overhaul. The only likelihood is that, even with Labour support, the referendum on AV will get fudged by the Conservatives, or misworded in the demonic convolutions favoured by pollsters such as YouGov.

The Lib Dems need to take up their own dark arts, and quickly. Of all options available, "too many MPs" is the best long-term opportunity for electoral reform. It has, probably to the intense annoyance of the Conservatives, the advantage of working in complement with devolution of power to local level.

There are seasoned practitioners. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, returns just 545 members to the Lok Sabha (lower house) and 250 members to the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and manages the bulk of government administration through state and provincial assemblies.

In reality, parliamentary reform shows every sign of being as difficult this time round as it first was in the early 1820s, when snail-like progress was made against Tory headwinds in both the reform of constituency and franchise, or entitlement to vote.

John Russell had first championed a redistribution of seats and voting franchise in 1822. Just 2 per cent, or approximately half a million males of the populace, were able to vote. By 1830 the reform movement had the backing of Lord Grey and the Whig ministry.

The Tories were fiercely opposed because more than 200 of their seats were in rotten or "pocket" ("in your pocket") boroughs. It was something that neither the great nor the good sought to rise above. William Wilberforce in 1780 bought his Hull seat for £9,000. Most famously, Old Sarum had just 13 voters and Dulwich had 32. The Duke of Norfolk owned 11 rotten boroughs; the Earl of Lonsdale, nine.

Nor was the Reform Act of 1832 the miracle it might have been heralded to be, because although it redistributed seats on a slightly more equitable basis, it increased the electorate to just over 800,000: a rise of 3 per cent.

The 1867 Reform Act increased the share of urban centres and extended the franchise to all male ratepayers in the boroughs. The electorate reached 2.5 million or 8 per cent of the population. The third Reform Act (1884) extended the franchise to 16 per cent of the population, about 5.6 million.

There was further redistribution of parliamentary seats in 1885, and a tinkering that continued from universal suffrage in 1928, through the establishment of the Boundary Commission in 1948, up to the present day.

The Liberals, renamed from the aristocratic Whigs in the 1840s, in the 19th century increasingly became the party of progressive industrialists, free traders, freethinkers and an emergent middle class. Much of what they stood for would today be seen as pleasantly Fabian ideals with a touch of realpolitik, particularly in foreign affairs.

They pushed for universal elementary education, old-age pensions, national insurance (income tax had been brought in by Pitt the Younger to fund the Napoleonic wars), economic liberalisation and, famously and controversially under Gladstone, for Irish Home Rule. The sufferings of ordinary people during the First and Second World Wars and proper enfranchisement after centuries of disenfranchisement swayed the majority share of their vote towards the newly formed Labour Party.

It's imperative that the Lib Dems, presented with a heroic opportunity to represent the social welfare of the people in a flawed Conservative coalition, snatch it back.

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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.