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Programme highlights Monday, 15 January, 2001, 17:53 GMT
Blair tackles deprived estates
The aim is to reduce poverty on inner city estates
Deprived urban areas will get a cash boost
The Labour Party's efforts to persuade voters that it is committed to the battle against poverty brought a top team of ministers to a depressed housing estate in Stepney.

The residents of the East End of London had hardly ever seen anything like it.

Tony Blair was flanked by his deputy, John Prescott, the Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlem and the Social Security Secretary, Alistair Darling, and his colleague at Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers - among others - as he launched a new drive for Neighbourhood Renewal.

The Prime Minister was unveiling the fruit of the labours of the Social Exclusion Unit, set up with a great fanfare in August 1997.

The Unit has devised an elaborate system of funds for community projects, based on the principle of local involvement. Mr Blair named three schemes in particular offering a total of 131 million.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair pledges new era of prosperity
Mr Blair insisted, however, that renewal of inner-city areas could not be a top-down exercise. It depended crucially on communities accepting their own responsibilities: 'The National Neighbourhood Renewal Fund will be conditional on genuine joint working and community involvement.'

Departments to work together

He reiterated the need for Government departments to recognise their inter-dependence. The Social Exclusion Unit was designed to work across conventional Whitehall lines.

Opposition parties were not impressed. The Tories dismissed the presentation as a re-hashing of previous announcements with nothing new to say about tackling poverty.

The Liberal Democrats agreed: their spokesman, Don Foster, said, 'The endless recycling of news stories, renewal programmes and cash can't hide the truth that, under new Labour, the rich have got richer and the poor poorer.'

But can it work?

Even groups more inclined to be friendly to the Government were doubtful about how much difference Neighbourhood Renewal would make.

The fact is that, according to figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published last month, the number of very poor people in Britain has increased since May 1997. So has the number operating below the official poverty level.

Dr Ruth Levitas, Reader in Sociology at Bristol University and author of 'Social Exclusion and New Labour', argued on the World at One that current policies are back to front.

Only by addressing poverty itself, through a system of redistribution, could social exclusion be reduced. Asked whether the government's understanding of social exclusion blamed the poor for their poverty, she replied "In a way the policies do impute fault because they see the issue as one of changing the behaviour of the poor rather than being a major issue of redistribution of resources".

The programme also heard from Tristram Hunt, a Research Fellow at the IPPR - the Institute for Public Policy Research. He is a supporter of the Social Exclusion Unit, but believes it has not been able to break down the boundaries between departments.

As long as each department was compelled - as its first objective - to meet the Public Service Agreements set by the Treasury, it would be impossible to achieve 'joined-up' government.

Mr Hunt suggested the creation of a new Ministry devoted to the subject, perhaps from a re-formed Department of Social Security. Only when projects had their own sponsoring minister were they likely to be successful.

Criticisms are outdated

Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong
The Government says they're cutting poverty
Responding to these points, the Minister with responsibility for regeneration, Hilary Armstrong, rejected the arguments of Dr Levitas as being a relic of the past - something she might have embraced as 'a community worker in the 1970s'.

Departments, she said, did now recognise that crime, health, education and other problems could not be tackled in isolation. She accepted that there was much to be done to achieve a break-through on poverty, but insisted that real progress was being made.

Dr Ruth Levitas: Poverty solutions are about redistribution not behaviour
Tristram Hunt: Need for radical thought on departmental structures
Hilary Armstrong: "We are tackling poverty"
Links to more Programme highlights stories are at the foot of the page.

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