Why Labour should be wary of attacking Osborne over borrowing

By repeatedly criticising the Chancellor for missing his deficit targets, the party risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always an economic ill.

George Osborne is fond of boasting that the deficit has fallen "each and every year" under the coalition, so it was unfortunate for the Chancellor when revisions made by the ONS last week meant that borrowing was officially higher in 2012-13 (£118.8bn) than in 2011-12 (£118.5bn).

At today's Treasury questions, Ed Balls and the rest of Labour's hit squad repeatedly attempted to force the Chancellor to concede as much, but Osborne gave no ground. He (correctly) pointed out that borrowing was only higher last year (2012-13) because the ONS had revised the 2011-12 figure down (by £2.4bn), "which was actually good news", and that, in GDP terms, the deficit fell from 7.8 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Along the way, the vampiric Osborne suggested that taking lessons from Balls on how to balance the books was like "getting a lesson from Dracula on how to look after a blood bank". 

Still, the facts are the facts: on the measure traditionally favoured by the Chancellor, borrowing rose last year. In a final attempt to force the truth out of him, Balls raised a point of order with the Speaker, warning that Osborne may have "inadvertently misled the House", but Bercow brushed it aside.

In so doing, he may have done the shadow chancellor a favour. Balls might be right when he points out that Osborne has borrowed billions more than expected but this line of attack is less convincing when Labour's Keynesian strategy is explicitly based on borrowing even more. The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the cost of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). But while this might be a coherent economic position, politically, it's a tough sell. 

Rather than becoming trapped in a technical debate about the deficit, Labour would be wiser to focus on living standards and growth, but if it wants to continue to attack Osborne on this territory it will need a much better explanation of its own approach. Without clearly setting out how and why it would borrow for growth, the party merely reinforces the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere an economic ill. And that only strengthens Osborne's hand. 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.