Nationalisation nostalgists should be careful what they wish for – they might just get it

Russell Brand and Paris Lees are too young to remember what Nationalised industry was like - but I do.

In a BBC Newsnight interview Russell Brand said that no corporation should make a profit. The multi-millionaire professional anarcho-syndicalist presumably didn’t include Hewlett-Packard (profit, last year, $28bn even after the hefty fee paid to one Russell Brand for promoting their products). Meanwhile Paris Lees, presenter, journalist and transgender activist, on BBC Question Time declared that all things of daily use should be nationalised. In many respects the people saying these things aren’t terribly relevant – but the response is. There has been much whooping and applauding in praise of these ideas.

Brand (born 1975) and Lees (born 1987) have no knowledge of what it is like to live in a world of nationalised industries that make no profits. But I do.

In 1977 as a sixteen year-old, when Russell Brand was 2 years old and Paris Lees was twelve years away from conception, I stood at the gates of South Bank Steelworks just outside of Middlesbrough for my first day of work. I was, essentially, a child about to enter one of the most dangerous working environments imaginable. The only really famous son that the town would produce was the magician Paul Daniels, whose catchphrase, "Not a lot", summed up how much any human being with two brain cells to rub together would like to stay in the steel works any longer than they were compelled to. The three blast furnaces belched out noxious fumes 24 hours a day, covering the whole town with a layer of dust. Washing on the line left out too long had to be re-washed to make it wearable.

Apprenticed to be a laboratory technician, I was at the intellectual end of the employment spectrum in British Steel. Even so, we weren’t above reading the night-shift log to remind ourselves of the place where we worked. Electricians, welders and fitters were routinely saved from being fed into the blast furnace by process operatives who occasionally looked up from their copies of the Sun to see hapless individuals who had accidently fallen into the buckets that fed the furnaces with limestone, iron ore and coke, waving to them on the surveillance cameras as they trundled towards the feeding mechanism that would deposit them into 1,800°C of furnace.

There was a red button to stop that happening. Sometimes things went wrong, as on the day two apprentices weren’t spotted. Also there was the time when a squad of bricklayers who were lining what were known as "torpedoes" with refractory bricks and had their Radio 1 listening interrupted by the contents of a blast furnace being poured over them. If they had been extracted it would have taken fifty men to carry each one of their coffins. As it was, the carbon content of a batch of pig-iron was slightly higher than expected.

Steel-making is inherently dangerous and it is an activity for which people should be paid well. Nationalisation doesn’t make it dangerous. What made nationalisation dangerous was the unions. I was once handed a pay packet containing a pay rise back-dated two years. I had only been there six months. When I asked how this could be right, since I was fourteen when the pay rise was instigated, I was told to shut up because it would spoil it for everybody else.

There were also constant micro-strikes. We were told to suspend what we were doing whilst the union officials negotiated something or other for us. The gains were tiny and incremental, even imperceptible, often things that could have been accomplished by appealing to reason not aggression. One day someone worked out that I wasn’t actually a member of the union and I said I didn’t want to join. This also caused a strike – it brought the coke ovens to a standstill – even though it should have been a matter for personal choice.

And so it went on, and on, until on the 4 December 2009, having passed through various hands, the mill’s latest owner, Tata Steel, pulled the plug, with the loss of 1,700 jobs. Britain could no longer produce steel at a price that the world economy would buy it at, but the seeds of destruction could have been seen 30 years previously.

It’s not that unions are bad per se, it’s that they have such terrible attitudes within their leadership. They have been schooled in the idea that their only reason for existing is to perpetuate a sense of class war. They simply don’t know when to stop. The INEOS Grangemouth debacle was a case in point. Your average German union representative who sits on the main board of a company to work with management for the common good, would be swivel-eyed in disbelief at the idea of worker representatives essentially flipping a coin which, on one side, contained the words "close the entire plant".

The debilitating sense of working in a place where one was constantly in a state of seething conflict combined with the idea that if you wanted to bust out of the mould and cross the line into "management" you would automatically become "the enemy", created a claustrophobic atmosphere that only served to reinforce the idea that I really didn’t belong there. The union officials that pretty much ran the place were as intent on keeping me in my place as any cartoon capitalist who would want torobotise me to satisfy their cravings for champagne and caviar. The two of them didn’t look terribly different to me.

And so it was with a sense of urgency and glee that I went to night school while working, obtained university entrance, and by the time I was 26 had a doctorate from Oxford University and was a research fellow there. It was nine years between sweeping the floors in a north eastern steel-works to sitting at high table at an Oxford college. This was such a rare event back then the Northern Echo ran a one-inch piece on me entitled "Man of Steel". The story has been repeatedly used as its size allows editors to fill in blank areas of pages. Friends who remain in the north east habitually send it to me. I have gone to university on at least a dozen occasions in the past 30 years. Overall, you could say I’ve seen a lot on that journey.

So if you want to believe the theorizing of Agitprop populists, those who spend their time festering the idea of a 1970s nationalised Nirvana that never existed, then go ahead and vote for the party that promises to deliver that. But from past history, from the documented time that it existed, nationalisation caused nothing more than intermittent services, inflation and conflict.

In reality, the redistribution of wealth, globally, will not occur by increased state intervention - it will occur by changes in population. Over time Africa and the Far East will dominate the world and with it will come economic growth, raising more and more people out of true poverty. In Europe and North America our populations will stay roughly stable and we will have to share a planet with people who are competing for rarer and rarer resources. We will have to use those resources more efficiently just to stay where we are economically. No nationalised or unionised structure that insists on living in a constant state of conflict, that cannot innovate or compromise will be fit for purpose in a world like that.

You really do have to be careful for what you wish for – you might just get it.

The beach at Redcar in 2008 - before the sale of Tata Steel. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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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.