George Osborne delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The OBR shows why welfare cuts won't control spending

Inadequate wages and extortionate rents are pushing up the housing benefit bill. 

George Osborne prides himself on his commitment to bear down on welfare spending, but today's report from the OBR (handily commissioned by the Chancellor) shows how he's struggling. It warns that the new cap imposed on expenditure is in danger of being breached due to the botched implementation of disability benefit reforms and the surging housing benefit bill. 

Between March 2011 and March 2014, forecast spending on incapacity benefits for 2015–16 has been revised up by £3.5bn (34 per cent) due to a higher than expected caseload, slower than expected transfer from incapacity benefit to the new employment and support allowance, and a lower than expected number being found "fit for work" (and therefore ineligible for full support). 

In addition, forecast spending on housing benefit (or, as you might call it, landlord subsidy) has been revised up by £2.5bn (11 per cent) since the expected number of renters and the level of rents relative to earnings have increased at a faster rate than predicted. As wages have continued to lag behind inflation, the number forced to rely on welfare to remain in their homes has surged. The government is now forecast to spend more than £27bn on housing benefit by 2018-19, accounting for more than 11 per cent of welfare expenditure. 

As the OBR notes, one of the main causes of higher spending has been the shift from public to private rented housing. In 2012-13, the number of private renters exceeded the nunber of social renters for the first time in nearly 50 years. Since private rents are usually higher than social rents, the housing benefit bill has risen accordingly. The OBR also notes that "rents have risen faster than earnings and inflation over the past decade." 

What all of this shows is the limits of an approach that focuses on salami slicing the welfare budget (through measures such as the benefit cap and the "bedroom tax"), rather than addressing the structural drivers of higher spending. Unless problems such as inadequate wages and extortionate rents are tackled (through a significantly higher minimum wage, greater use of the living wage, more affordable housing and limits on rent increases, as proposed by Labour) then it will become ever harder to control expenditure. 

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.