Operation Target Ed Balls

The key question is why these documents were leaked now.

If, to borrow Harold Wilson's dictum, a week is a long time in politics, it's not hard to see why some in Labour are dismissing today's Telegraph splash ("Ed Balls's 'brutal' plot to overthrow Tony Blair") as "ancient history". But the story deserves more scrutiny than that.The paper has obtained a cache of 36 leaked documents outlining how Ed Balls and Ed Miliband fought to get Gordon Brown into Number 10 within weeks of the 2005 general election. The private papers, which belong to Balls, contain no single, startling revelation and will be of interest to few other than Westminster Kremlinologists. But there is no doubt that they are damaging to the shadow chancellor. They contradict his public insistence that he never sought to undermine Blair (just a year ago he dismissed claims that he was disloyal to the former PM as "balderdash") and will hinder his attempts to detoxify his brand.

Then there's the question of why, six years on, these documents have come to light now. Balls says he last saw the papers in a file on his desk at the education department shortly before the 2010 election. The shadow chancellor is not a man short of enemies in either Labour or the Conservative Party and the documents are almost certain to have been leaked by a political opponent. Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, has already sanctioned an investigation into the loss of the papers. At a time when the government's economic strategy is under increasingy scrutiny, partly thanks to Balls's efforts as shadow chancellor, the leak is highly convenient, to say the least.

In devoting so much attention to this story the Telegraph is aiming to use Balls and Miliband's past to damage their present. Whether it will succeed is another matter. The documents might fascinate the Westminster village but they will be of little concern to the public, most of whom long ago lost interest in the TB-GB psychodrama. The Damian McBride scandal inflicted considerable damage on Labour's poll rating but other revelations, such as those of Gordon Brown's "bullying", failed to do so. The Tories, however, who pointedly refer to Balls as a "man with a past" will still welcome these papers as political gold.

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.