Commons Confidential: Grousing about Boy George

Plus: an apology to Paul Flynn MP.

Scribblers and telly hacks in the lobby plan to ape US journalists with a British version of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The unholy trinity of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband will attend the inaugural annual shindig on 16 January next year.

Holding a Westminster correspondents’ dinner inevitably invites accusations of self-aggrandisement and cosiness with the political class. British reporters sneer at their US counterparts for standing when a president enters the room; remaining seated as a prime minister walks in is an act of passive defiance. The event may be enlivened by a bunfight, with only 70 places available for hacks plus partners, though there are close on 300 journalists with passes to the Mock-Gothic Fun Palace. Your columnist shall be otherwise engaged.

Oh dear. Two lawyers wrote to Diane Abbott asking their local MP to attend a backbench debate on the destruction of legal aid as we know it by the In-Justice Secretary, Chris “the Jackal” Grayling. The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington told the first that she was unable to attend “due to prior commitments in my constituency”. The second was informed: “My son graduates that day from Trinity College, Cambridge . . . and I will be with him for most of the day.” You wouldn’t need to be Rumpole of the Bailey to spot the contradiction.

Sticking with Abbott, I hear she’s sounding out trade union support for a potential tilt at the London mayoralty. Tottenham’s David Lammy, who thought he’d secured Abbott’s backing, is unimpressed. With Alan Johnson, Sadiq Khan and Tessa Jowell also mentioned in despatches, soon we may reach the point where it would be easier to ask which Londonborn Labour MPs aren’t interested in the City Hall job.

How the other 1 per cent lives: George Osborne’s baronetcy, his Buller past and the fee-charging schools of his children would, by the standards of most Britons, mark him out as “posh”, no matter how many times he might recite the untruthful mantra “we’re all in this together”. But not, it transpires, in the eyes of his father-in-law. A snout recounted a conversation in which Baron Howell of Guildford, a one-time minister under the Thatcher and Cameron regimes, sprang to the defence of Osborne: “He’s not posh – he lives in Notting Hill.” By the noble lord’s reckoning, perhaps, to be posh in today’s Con Party one needs to own a grouse moor and country pile.

Many apologies to the thrifty MP Paul Flynn, who informs me that when he went to Strasbourg on Council of Europe business he would drive, and never went first class by train as I was wrongly told. I’m delighted to set the record straight and regret upsetting Paul last week in a tale about the Labour frontbenchers Sadiq Khan and Wayne David. I salute Flynn for his integrity and his refusal to let a disability, which he says makes it difficult to travel by train or plane, get in the way of his duties.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Montage: Dan Murrell/NS

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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.