Osborne’s plan, big in the Eighties

Echoes of the Long Good Friday as the coalition goes back to the Eighties.

It was supposed to be the great idea that would show the UK's beleaguered business people that the government has a plan for something other than balancing the books.

Central to the Chancellor George Osborne's set-piece crowd-pleaser at the Conservative Party's spring conference was the announcement that about ten regional enterprise zones are to be created to develop the economy outside London.

It is a reheating of a very old idea that encountered serious problems the first time around. Violent gangsters used the big one, London's Docklands, as a way of getting very rich by laundering proceeds of crime.

To get an idea, rent a copy of The Long Good Friday, starring Bob Hoskins as the gangster Harry Shand, who tries to get the Mafia to invest in the Docklands boom. Sadly it's a true story copied by robbers, drug dealers, people smugglers and terrorists.

A repeat of the 1980s is now a possibility because of the decision to axe the regional development agencies (RDAs) among the quangos that are to be burned on that coalition bonfire.

RDAs weren't perfect, but, given that central government money and local people were involved, there was at least a level of scrutiny. The job of the RDAs was to attract inward investment. Regional planning, which is critical to investment, was dovetailed with local plans so that everyone was "on the same page".

The Chancellor's zones will be located outside London and will involve local enterprise partnerships, coalitions between businesses and local authorities. Critics say that compared to the multimillion-pound budgets of the RDAs, the local enterprise partnerships lack funds. The cash void, ministers hope, will be filled by private investors.

The model is the Docklands redevelopment, which included the creation of Canary Wharf.

On a superficial level, Docklands worked even though the Canary Wharf developer went bust. The City has relocated there and it has created jobs. But the local community was either locked out or shipped out. But behind the glass and chrome lies a dirty little secret: some of the Docklands regeneration money was seriously crooked.

A sizable amount of cash from the notorious Brinks Mat bullion robbery was invested in the Docklands redevelopment in the 1980s. Exactly how much, no one knows, but the return made the crooks involved even richer.

The idea was copied by several of Liverpool's crime families a decade later when they wanted to clean drug money. They simply bought in to the redevelopment opportunities created on their doorstep as part of the drive towards the City of Culture bid. Ever wondered why there are so many blocks of flats in regeneration?

And the IRA did something similar by investing in business properties in Greater Manchester. Rumours are that Northern Ireland will become a single enterprise zone. A frightening prospect.

The basics of it are simple: set up an offshore bank account in the name of an investment company and get some UK residents as directors, ideally a lawyer or two, to act as investors. They then bring the cash into the enterprise areas and either sell up on completion or stay as long-term investors. Either way, the cash is cleaned, and earns interest.

Standing in the way will be a group of broke councils with minimal scrutiny skills doing oversight of deals already signed, usually in the planning committee. And yes, there is the potential for bribery. Besides, who would dare to stand in the way of job creation and investment?

That committee votes the development through. Under the Chancellor's plan, there will also be sweeteners such as tax breaks or reduced developer fees, such as the Section 106 agreements that pay for local infrastructure.

Questions have been asked before about Britain's lazy approach to international money-laundering, particularly with the influx of Russian cash.

Chris Smith is a former lobby correspondent.

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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.