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How the government's industrial strategy could steal your job

The industrial strategy aims to boost productivity and spread growth. But this is not the same as a well-paid job.  

Not long ago, a musician friend of mine told me about a lucrative gig. Instrumentalists were being paid to come to a recording studio, and simply play every note of a scale. The pay was good. There was only one thing that made my friend uneasy – once the project was done, the man behind it would have a recording of every orchestral instrument playing every note. And thanks to the wonders of digital technology, he’d never need to hire a live musician again. 

The government’s industrial strategy is one of the great hopes of Brexit. Pumping money into infrastructure, research, and business support has stoked dreams of reindustrialisation. The Labour donor and industrialist John Mills, who has long investigated the decline in British manufacturing, is calling for further action. He believes a further devaluation in the pound, to around $1.05, could tip the balance in favour of the home grown makers. 

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the government will prioritise controls over immigration in the Brexit negotiations. Those who believe that unskilled immigrants have pushed down wages (the evidence is mixed) can expect any new jobs created to go to British workers.

But here is the question that still needs answered. What is the definition of industrial strategy success?

According to the government’s green paper, it is launching the strategy in order to enable “stronger productivity and more balanced growth”. These are laudable aims. Put simply, productivity is the ratio of what you get out compared to what you put in, and Britain isn’t good at it. But I am yet to come across an example of a struggling, northern, small-town Labour voter who said they voted Leave because of "the value added per employee". The Brexit post-mortem has revealed deep fears about employment security, the quality of jobs and the way culture and industry overlap. Productivity is not the same thing. 

Britain’s manufacturing heritage is told through faded photos of workers on assembly lines, or operating basic tools. But that was the 1970s, and in the 21st century, a factory has a lot more robots. Using robots raises productivity by 0.37 per cent, according to a recent LSE/Uppsala study, and we are still in the early stages of development. Surely any 21st century, productive, British entrepreneur worth his or her salt would embrace automation?

Whether or not robots and other automated processes steal jobs is up for debate – just as immigration is. The Bank of England’s chief economist believes robots will replace nearly half of all British workers in the next two decades. (Mills, for his part, argues that robots can never replace humans in certain sectors, like caring). What we do know, is that Foxconn, which makes Apple and Samsung components in China, replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots in 2016.

Conversely, one of the explanations for Britain’s “productivity puzzle” is that since the recession, firms have tried to avoid making good employees redundant. In other words, they have chosen humans over machines. “Firms have had incentives to substitute cheaper workers for more expensive machinery and buildings,” is how the Royal Economic Society put it in 2014. Silicon Roundabout’s “disrupters” may wince at such disregard for progress. But since unemployment leads to the erosion of skills, reliance on public services and the disintegration of the community, it’s worth putting productivity in context. 

The industrial strategy may well stimulate local economies, inspire entrepreneurs in forgotten small towns and provide some backbone in the uncertain Brexit negotiations ahead. But it will not be a return to the past. And with freedom of movement scrapped, if the workers of post-industrial Britain find they are still lacking quality manufacturing jobs, they won’t have immigrants to blame. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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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.