How Osborne could squeeze benefits again

No. 10 suggests benefits and pensions might not be uprated in line with latest inflation figures.

The higher-than-expected inflation numbers were bad news for George Osborne, not least because the September figures are traditionally used to determine how benefits and pensions are uprated the following April. At the Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that CPI inflation would be 4.3 per cent but it turned out to be a whopping 5.2 per cent. As a result, as the ippr's Tony Dolphin notes, government spending on welfare will be £1.2 billion higher next year than previously thought. With government borrowing already set to be £44.4bn higher-than-expected across the parliament (thanks to lower growth and higher unemployment), this is money that Osborne can ill afford to spend.

But there's every sign that the he is prepared to change the rules. At this morning's lobby briefing (see Paul Waugh's blog for a full account), the Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters:

The process on this is that the September figures are usually used for uprating benefits, but the final decision on that is something that happens in the autumn statement ... It is standard procedure [to use the September figure] but it is also standard procedure that the decision is taken at the pre-budget report, under the previous government, or in the autumn statement under this government.

In other words, Osborne could simply choose to use a lower set of inflation figures in order to avoid spending more. It offers him a way out but at the cost of further antagonising pensioners and others reliant on state benefits. Osborne's decision to uprate benefits in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than the (generally higher) Retail Price Index has already cost some families hundreds of pounds a year (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut").

But the Chancellor is likely to come under significant pressure from the Tory right to act. As the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan notes, economists wonder what "those whose private sector wages are not keeping up with inflation will make of seeing benefits increased by September's whacking CPI figure." But at a time when pensioners are seeing the value of their savings eroded every day by inflation, it would be a brave Chancellor who picked this moment to tighten the squeeze.

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.