An English Defence League protest against Ukip in Gateshead, 23 April 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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The Guardian's claim that racism is "on the rise in Britain" is a little bit misleading

The longer-term average is slightly more hopeful than the initial statistics may appear.

Staffers over at the Guardian could be forgiven for seeing Ukip's election gains as evidence that Britain is indeed in the middle of a transformation into the rainy fascism island is has always threatened to become - yet the stats behind its pearl-clutching front cover splash today are a bit odd. Based on the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey from think-tank NatCen, the paper leads with this:

The proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium, raising concerns that growing hostility to immigrants and widespread Islamophobia are setting community relations back 20 years. 

New data from NatCen’s authoritative British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, obtained by the Guardian, shows that after years of increasing tolerance, the percentage of people who describe themselves as prejudiced against those of other races has risen overall since 2001."

NatCen has been running its survey since 1983 (although only annually since 1998), giving us a wealth of information about the British public and its attitudes towards other races, nationalities and sexualities. The nationwide trend in people self-declaring prejudice comes from this graph:

This a chart specifically of self-reported prejudice, with people being asked the following question: "How would you describe yourself … as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all?" Answers of either "very" or "little" are grouped together to give the value used in the above graph. The sample size was 2,149 people, which, given that the most recent ONS estimate for the population of the UK is 63,705,000 for mid-2012, means that we know this survey has a margin of error of (roughly) +/-2 per cent. That's relatively standard for a national poll.

The Guardian argues that, after a slow but steady fall over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the story of the last decade (or at least, post-9/11) was an equally-paced reversal, with one exception: the massive drop from 34 per cent to 24 per cent in 2012, which is attributed to the feel-good factor of the Olympics. The rise back to 30 per cent is a reversion to the overall trend.

But the thing is, that graph above is one the Guardian did itself. The graph that's in the actual report looks like this:

(Thanks to @danbarker for tweeting this).

The purple line is the same as the red line in the Guardian's graph - and the light blue line is the five-year average of annual results. An average like this is important for a survey like this, as we're most interested in the long-term trend and less interested in occassional strange results that might give a misleading impression (like, for example, the Olympics, or 9/11).

It's immediately obvious that the Guardian is right to say that the trend over the 1980s and 1990s was downwards, and over the 2000s upwards - but it should also be clear that this graph is a lot less alarming than the one without the averages. Not only did self-identifying prejudice peak at a lower level than it started in the 1980s, it looks like it's started going down again since 2009 or 2010. It makes the headline claim - that "racism is on the rise in Britain" - misleading, going by the BSA survey.

The survey is still interesting and useful, though, because it includes breakdowns of regional and demographic attitudes between 2014 and 2001. London has scored lower for levels of prejudice, while there is a clear trend where increased distance from the capital correlates with larger increases in prejudice score (Scotland and Wales having had double-digit increases). Men are more prejudiced than women; manual labourers and semi-skilled service workers have become more prejudiced since 1991, while white collar professionals have become less so. There's much here that chimes with analysis of Ukip's rise as being driven by the disenchantment of groups that feel they've been left behind by "metropolitan elites".

But perhaps the most interesting question should be: what does it mean to consider oneself "prejudiced"? We don't know if the numbers of people considering themselves "very" prejudiced has decreased while "a little" prejudiced has increased the same amount. It's also worth asking if the meaning of the word prejudice, and the word racism, has changed over the last 30 years. Racism is much more complicated, and manifests in many, many institutional ways, that aren't reflected in the BSA survey.

I'm a mole, innit.

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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.