George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour could end cuts next year and still meet deficit targets, says IFS

Ed Balls's less stringent plans mean a dramatic gap with the Tories.  

It's often written that Labour and the Tories are committed to near-identical levels of austerity after the election. The Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all argue that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have embraced the Osborneite consensus. Commentators question how a Labour-led government would survive while imposing further cuts. 

But, as I've noted before, these points belie the fiscal chasm between the two parties. Unlike the Tories, Labour is not committed to achieving an absolute budget surplus by the end of the next parliament (pledging only to balance the current account deficit), has left room to borrow to invest and would impose some tax rises to reduce borrowing (Osborne has pledged to use cuts alone). Even after the Chancellor scaled back austerity in yesterday's Budget, Balls would still have around £39bn more to play with than Osborne by 2019-20.

The true scale of the gap between Labour and the Tories has been further revealed by the IFS, whose director Paul Johnson said at today's post-Budget briefing: "Our latest estimates suggest that Labour would be able to meet its fiscal targets with no cuts at all after 2015-16". Balls has pledged to match the coalition's spending plans in that financial year (which starts next month) but will be free to determine his own path after that point. Among other things, he hopes to increase the growth potential of the economy through new supply-side measures and greater infrastructure investment. Today's IFS assessment suggests that could mean an earlier than expected end to the cuts. Should Labour be denied a majority at the election and find itself required to win over left-leaning backbenchers and, potentially, the SNP, that wriggle room could prove valuable indeed.

The political question is the extent to which Labour is prepared to highlight this flexibility before the election. Mindful of its profligate image, the party is wary of explicitly declaring that it would spend more than the Tories. But some on the Labour left would like nothing more than to be able to promise an end to the cuts in just one year's time. 

A spokesman for Balls told me: "We've been clear there will need to be sensible spending cuts and that we want to balance the books as soon as possible in the next parliament."

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.