GDP figures offer little relief for Osborne

Growth of 0.5 per cent in Q3 was less than half of what Osborne needed to meet the OBR's forecasts.

The number crunchers at the ONS have just announced that the economy grew by 0.5 per cent in the third quarter, a better-than-expected figure but still a sluggish one. In the last 12 months, the economy has grown by just 0.5 (-0.5 per cent in Q4, 0.4 per cent in Q1, 0.1 per cent in Q2 and 0.5 per cent in Q3) and Osborne has no hope of meeting the OBR's forecast for 2011 growth (1.7 per cent), with deleterious consequences for his borrowing targets. Over the same period, the US grew by 1.6 per cent. Britain is still in the growth slow lane.

In political terms, today's figures will change little. George Osborne will continue to stand by his deficit reduction plan and Labour will (rightly) continue to argue that the government is cutting "too far, too fast". In the last year, 240,000 public-sector jobs have been lost and 264,000 private-sector jobs have been created, a net increase of just 24,000. Worse, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has predicted that 610,000 public-sector jobs will be lost by 2016, 210,000 more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Attention will now move swiftly to 29 November and the Chancellor's autumn statement (the equivalent of the old pre-Budget report). In some respects, the government has already adopted a plan B in the form of credit easing, accelerated deregulation and more quantitative easing by the Bank of England (described by Osborne in 2009 as "the last resort of desperate governments when all other policies have failed"). The question remains whether it will change course again by temporarily slowing the cuts or offering further fiscal stimulus (a plan C, if you like). Today's figure was not bad enough to force a change of direction but nor was it good enough to offer any hope that Osborne will meet his deficit reduction targets. The government has already been forced to announce £44.5bn of extra borrowing due to lower growth and higher unemployment. Expect Osborne to announce billions more when he delivers his statement later this month.

And there's every reason to fear that the fourth quarter will be worse. The most recent Bank of England minutes revealed that the Monetary Policy Committee believes growth will be close to zero in the final three months of the year. But so managed have our expectations become that some growth, any growth will be welcomed.

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.