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Tuesday, September 15, 1998 Published at 01:08 GMT 02:08 UK


The long battle against social exclusion

On some housing estates, poor upkeep is the least of residents' problems

Tackling social exclusion was launched as a key government priority in August 1997, when a unit encompassing a range of departments was set up to deal with poverty-stricken people and areas.

Its latest report on the UK's poorest neighbourhoods and "worst estates" aims to get right to the heart of the problem.

As the unit itself says, social exclusion is a combination of "linked problems, such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown."

[ image: Chancellor Gordon Brown blamed unemployment when he launched the New Deal]
Chancellor Gordon Brown blamed unemployment when he launched the New Deal
In February this year, Chancellor Gordon Brown identified "Britain's 20 worst housing estates", work on which, he said, would be carried out by the Social Exclusion Unit.

On all of these estates, single-parent families, high unemployment and crime were, and in many cases still are, commonplace.

Among those on the high priority list are the Blackbirdlees Estate in Oxford, where rioting took place in 1991, Medow Well in Wallsend, Newcastle, Holly Street in Hackney, Ordsall Estate in Salford, Manchester, Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow and North Prospect Estate in Plymouth.

[ image: Inner city estates are high on the unit's priority list]
Inner city estates are high on the unit's priority list
On the Blackbirdlees Estate, one in 10 women are single mothers and unemployment is twice that of Oxford as a whole.

One of the largest estates, Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow with 44,000 residents, has been plagued with drug problems, gang rivalry and violent crime. In one weekend in 1995, there were seven murders on the estate.

The loss of 55,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1970s in the area around the Thorntree Estate in Middlesbrough has meant a male unemployment rate of 35%, and out of 141 students who left the estate's school, only 28 had one or more GCSEs.

But in recent years, some housing estates have come under regeneration programmes. In some cases they have been carried out by the residents themselves, who have organised community meetings, support groups and ways to improve the estate's look.

Estates like Holly Street in Hackney have also benefited from multi-million pound government refurbishment programmes, resulting in fewer cases of racial tension, graffiti, vandalism and muggings.

But as the government says, the Social Exclusion Unit is not just about fighting social ills, it is also about creating better services for the individual and the community as a whole.

Joint effort

The unit's report will help identify what is going wrong on some housing estates, and it can make recommendations on what action is needed.

But the unit itself has no power, nor does it have any money of its own to carry out its plans. Instead it has the resources of existing departments.

Pronounced as the government's "think tank" on poverty, the unit's wide expertise means it is expected to come up with innovative ideas that cut across the different departments.

In its first year the Social Exclusion Unit has produced two other reports: on truancy and homelessness.

Its report on truancy made the headlines when one of its recommendations suggested that parents carried pagers so that they could be warned if their children had not turned up for school.

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