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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 13:11 GMT
Social exclusion and urban renewal

All parties say they recognise the need to tackle urban and inner-city problems. But do they have the policies to do the job?


BACKGROUND

In January this year, Tony Blair gave a kick-start to Labour's New Year re-election campaign with a tour around an east London housing estate and a raft of spending announcements on urban renewal.

While the Tories attacked the plans as rehashed re-announcements of old money, the Labour leader said the tour was focusing on one of his goals on coming to office: tackling dire inner-city problems and social exclusion.

Social exclusion has long been a New Labour buzzword. The phrase has came into the political lexicon as policy-makers sought for a broader definition of modern problems in society than just poverty.

Improving social exclusion indicators (medium term)
Employment/claimant rate
GCSE passes at 16
Pensioners without a phone
Homes without central heating
Mortgage arrears
Source: NPI
The government's definition of social exclusion is "linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown".

For instance, policy-makers cite the example of the decline of a council housing estate as embodying all the faces of social exclusion.

They say that for more than 20 years communities have fragmented amid economic change, lowering educational expectations and achievement, rising crime and social problems and loss of local authority services and other community cornerstones such as banks.

Those who can get out, do, and the resulting climate is one where the remaining population becomes "socially excluded", facing structural, social and economic barriers to full participation in society.



URBAN ILLS

For the past three years the New Policy Institute (NPI), a left-leaning think tank, has been working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to compile annual statistics to measure the level of social exclusion in the UK.

Its 2000 report, found that:

  • Approximately two million children live in families where no adult is in paid work
  • 14 million adults live in households with less than half the average income - double the number in the early 1980s
  • Eight million adults have less than 40% of the national average in disposable income
  • One million pensioners have no income other than the state pension or other benefits
  • One in six of the poorest households have no bank account, compared to one in 20 households with average income.

    The report found that the educational picture was improving.

    The proportion of 11-year-olds who failed to achieve the national expected standard in literacy and numeracy fell by a quarter between 1996 and 1999.

    One continuing area of concern to policy-makers has been school exclusions - figures show that 72% of excluded school pupils have admitted committing offences.

    The NPI says that school exclusions are now falling - including a greater drop among children from ethnic minorities, who have tended to be more likely to be excluded.

    In health, while the premature death rates are falling, there are widening regional variations, the NPI says.

    Health inequalities appear to be the most prevalent across social classes - with, for example, girls from traditional working-class areas five times more likely to become teenage mothers than those from families in non-manual work.



    SOCIAL EXCLUSION UNIT

    Back in 1997, it was the social evidence of these kind of statistics that Labour said was the driving force behind its establishment of a team at the heart of Whitehall to think up new ways of dealing with the ills of society.

    Shortly after taking power, Labour announced the creation of the government's Social Exclusion Unit.

    Worsening social exclusion indicators (medium term)
    Numbers in young offenders institutions
    Problem drug use
    Obesity
    Pensioners without private income
    No of temporarily housed people
    Source: NPI
    The unit has no power to put policy into practice but aims to act as an in-house think tank finding answers that will bring together different Whitehall departments, local authorities, other agencies and the private sector to make a change.

    Tony Blair's argument was that governments of all hues had failed to tackle inner-city problems because they failed to think about the long term.

    Labour, he said, had always relied on a top-down approach of throwing money at a problem. The Conservatives, he claimed, had been largely "indifferent" to social problems during their 18 years in office.

    The Social Exclusion Unit, comprising key ministers and experts, went off to do its thinking and in November 2000 the Labour government published its first paper on urban renewal.

    While opposition parties said the delay showed it wasn't putting its money where its mouth was, Labour insisted that its legislation covering education, employment and crime was aimed precisely at tackling the most crucial elements of social exclusion.

    The urban white paper, said the party, would help match what it regarded as the success of schemes such as New Deal for the unemployed with 1bn of cash over five years for urban renewal.

    This includes the creation of 12 regeneration companies for the hardest hit areas and five "millennium communities" along the lines of the Greenwich millennium village scheme.

    But, the party said, the most important aspect would be three years of real-term increases in public spending on health, education, transport, housing, criminal justice, culture, leisure and sport.

    The second plank of policy was the unveiling of a "neighbourhood renewal strategy".

    Its key target that within 10 to 20 years no one should be "seriously disadvantaged" by where they lived - something the opposition dismissed as vague waffle.

    But Labour said new policies would concentrate on five areas:

  • Opportunities for work and enterprise
  • Urban crime reduction
  • Improving basic education and skills
  • Improving standards of health
  • Improving housing and the physical environment

    While Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats said that these were no different to anything they would do, Labour said that its proposed "neighbourhood managers" would provide communities with the official clout to focus resources and draw in support for renewal from businesses and other agencies.


    OPPOSITION CRITICISMS

    The opposition parties have remained unimpressed.

    Conservative environment spokesman Archie Norman said that Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine started inner-city regeneration and that the next Conservative government would finish it.

    The party also advocates a cross-departmental approach and the establishment of regeneration companies, under a regeneration minister.

    But Conservatives say their policies differ from Labour's because the Tories will focus on crime reduction while knocking down the worst tower blocks to produce quicker environmental improvements.

    The party also believes that policies to reverse urban-to-rural migration (running at an estimated 1,700 people a week) will also help stop north-south migration.

    Labour says that the Conservatives' plans are simply not properly costed and would never see the light of day in terms of action.

    The Liberal Democrats have criticised both parties. They say that Labour's regeneration efforts waste money in a complicated bidding process.

    They want a single regeneration grant with competition limited to the biggest projects.

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