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The "Big Society" is alive and well in David Cameron's latest speech

The Prime Minister is creating a new public service.

What was most interesting in the Prime Minister's speech on Monday was his discussion of the importance of social networks in influencing life chances.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister focuses on the value of strong families and a good education, both of which are strongly associated with a lower likelihood of being in poverty. But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that having not just strong but also diverse social networks can have a small but significant effect on life outcomes.

In the United States, for instance, the Equality of Opportunity project has shown that children from disadvantaged ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience higher social mobility if they live in mixed socio-economic backgrounds. Here in the UK, academics have found that people who have relationships with people from different neighbourhoods, ethnic backgrounds and employment are less likely to live in poverty.

As Bright Blue's recent report argued, the focus for policymakers should be building universal institutions where adults and children from different socio-economic backgrounds can come together to forge relationships: Children's Centres, nurseries and schools, for example. There is a particular opportunity for those on the centre-right here. It is common for those on the political left to argue that universality in taxpaying and benefit recipiency is crucial to forging social solidarity. But it is through relationships not transactions that a sense of commonality with others is formed. And institutions, sites of human interaction, have long been prized in conservative thinking.

It is interesting that the government is investing substantially more in the National Citizen Service, a programme introduced by the Coalition that provides opportunities for 16 and 17 year olds to volunteer for 30 hours. One of its main missions is to ensure young people interact with their peers from different social backgrounds. There is some early evidence on the benefits of NCS - both to the individual and wider society: for example, improvements in participant’s social skills and propensity to vote. Now the Government is extending it so, by 2021, nearly 60% of teenagers will be able to benefit from it. Slowly, National Citizen Service is maturing into a universal public service and a lasting legacy of Cameron's 'Big Society' vision.

It does seem that this trajectory for National Citizen Service has some similarities with the growth of other relatively new public services. Take formal childcare. From the mid-1990s, government responded to the evidence of the value of quality childcare to children’s long-term educational attainment and maternal employment. So the journey began of government subsidising formal childcare. Sir John Major’s Government took the first step by announcing vouchers for parents of 4 year olds. The New Labour government then injected a substantial amount of money – what the OECD described as “an unprecedented effort” – to ensure childcare became what Tony Blair called “the new frontier of the welfare state”. Now, parents can access an array of financial support - the childcare tax credit, the Early Years Free Entitlement and Tax Free Childcare.

Today, formal childcare is a mature and modern public service: with universality, competition and transparency. Nearly all 3 and 4 year olds access some form of formal childcare for at least 15 hours per week. Providers are inspected by Ofsted to ensure parents are given information to make informed choices about which childcare setting to send their child to. And there is real diversity of provision: the market is dominated by small private and voluntary organisations, and ranges from child-minders to large nursery schools.

It does strike me that the National Citizen Service is being built up by this government as the next major public service. Government subsidy is increasing to ensure a majority of teenagers can participate. In future, just with other public services, policymakers will then have to find ways of ensuring greater contestability between – and more accountability of - different providers of the National Citizen Service.

Today’s teenagers are experiencing the birth of a new public service, of a new universal institution to strengthen and diversify social networks.  

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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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.