The coalition's boundary changes threaten electoral reform

The boundary changes and the AV referendum should be split into two separate bills.

Almost everyone can find something to dislike about the coalition's proposed boundary changes. The plan to equalise constituency sizes will disrupt traditional boundaries and historic communities without correcting the electoral bias towards Labour (which is not due to unequal constituencies). In addition, the redrawn boundaries will take no account of the 3.5 million people not on the electoral register, producing a skewed electoral map that ignores millions of eligible voters.

Meanwhile, the accompanying 10 per cent reduction in the number of MPs will not be matched by a commensurate reduction in the number of ministers, further reducing parliamentary accountability and swelling the payroll vote. Aware of all these objections, the coalition is still planning to abolish public inquiries into boundary changes -- an extraordinary act of non-consultation.

There remains one last outpost of resistance -- the House of Lords. Today, peers will vote on a Labour motion to refer the bill to a parliamentary select committee local appeals process, something that could delay the legislation for months and halt the planned referendum on the Alternative Vote. Charles Falconer, who is tabling the motion, argues that the bill can be declared "hybird" because it singles out two constituencies -- Shetland and the Western Isles -- for special treatment.

There is no such exemption for the Isle of Wight, which with 110,000 voters is too big to fit the prescribed 76,000 limit, but too small for two MPs. The extra 34,000 constituents will be bolted onto a constituency in Hampshire -- an absurd solution that will require the MP to travel back and forth between the mainland and the island. Like an old colonial bureaucrat, Cameron is planning to draw lines on the map that take no account of geography, history and identity.

The solution is clear: to split the legislation into two separate bills by decoupling the boundary changes from the referendum. This would allow pro-AV Labour MPs to unambiguously support the bill while maintaining their opposition to the rest of the reforms. Conversely, Conservative MPs could vote against electoral reform without fear of jeopardising the coalition's boundary changes. It may not make much political sense to David Cameron (the referendum was a quid pro quo for the boundary changes) but it would make a lot of parliamentary sense.

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.