Osborne speaks sense on gay marriage

Gay marriage is right and we must support it if we want to win, Chancellor tells the Tories.

George Osborne has always sat on the socially liberal wing of the Conservative Party, so it is no surprise that he is a strong supporter of gay marriage. But given the extent of opposition to the policy within Tory ranks (it is reportedly the top reason for members resigning from the party), it's still notable that he uses an op-ed (£) in today's Times to signal that the government will press ahead with plans to introduce it.

With an eye to Obama's victory last week, the Chancellor rightly concludes that social liberalism is the only electorally viable position. He notes that the Republicans "lost swathes of voters who were on their side of the economic argument" because of their stances on abortion and equal marriage, adding that he wouldn't change "the current abortion laws" (as his voting record indicates) and that he supports gay marriage "on principle".

But, as ever, Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist, also has psephological considerations in mind. He believes the Tories should support gay marriage not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will help them win in the future. Osborne slightly overstates his case by writing that a "clear majority of the public support gay marriage" (the polling evidence is more mixed, although polls generally show at least a plurality in favour) but his wider point - that support for gay marriage is only likely to grow with time - is spot-on. In an echo of Tony Blair, who Osborne refers to as "the master" for his election-winning abilities, he writes that "Successful political parties reflect the modern societies they aspire to lead". To this end, the Chancellor confirms that the government will "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage."

Already, however, his comments have prompted a backlash from Conservatives. Stewart Jackson MP tweets that the Chancellor "should focus less on social liberal obsessions like gay marriage & more on outside M25 priorities like jobs, taxes & growth". It is, of course, possible to do both. What Tories like Jackson really mean when they say the government should "focus" on other issues is that they don't want it to ever introduce gay marriage. So long as the Conservative Party continues to boast such figures in its ranks, many socially liberal Britons will feel unable to vote for it.

George Osborne said the government would "introduce a Bill to allow gay marriage". Photograph: Getty Images.

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.