Inner Cities

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 25th March 1994.

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Photo of George Mudie George Mudie , Leeds East 12:59 pm, 25th March 1994

Since coming to the House two years ago, I have attempted to make speeches on inner-city policies and life in inner cities. I had the disadvantage of trying to make those speeches when you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair and you usually drew my attention to the fact that they were on the wrong issue. It is a relief therefore to stand up and know that I shall make the speech that I want to make on the issue and be perfectly in order. I have my fingers crossed.

I appreciate the fact that the Government have found time for the debate. However, it is soured somewhat by the fact that it may have something to do with the elections taking place in May, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) said. I hope that that cynicism is misplaced.

The debate was not helped by the 66 minutes of gloating by the Minister when he read a list of schemes and agencies in his long peroration on things that are happening in the inner cities. If the Minister got that brief from his civil servants—he read it well and with humour; he did the best that he could with it—I hope that he does not believe it. I know that he is intelligent; I am sure that he was not the author of his speech and that he does not believe it.

The Minister spoke for 66 minutes about the wonderful work that has taken place in inner cities over the past 15 years. Sadly, the bitter tone of the exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and several Tory Members may have taken attention away from the facts and figures spelt out by my right hon. Friend. If that happened, it would be a pity. If the Minister believes his brief, and if he believes that, after 15 years, the Government's policies are having an effect and doing the job, that is sad for our constituents.

Inner cities are desperate places. If we had more time, and if the debate were held on another day, hon. Members from urban areas could show that the problem is not isolated. Unfortunately, the problems of deprivation, poverty and insubstantial resources—I do not challenge the substantial amounts that have gone in through inner-city programmes and inner-city agencies—are not isolated in small parts of cities such as Leeds; they are widespread. Sadly, the Minister does not understand that inner-city programmes are not working.

At the heart of any urban policy debate must be the knowledge that many constituents in our major cities suffer from constant poverty. When I talk about constant poverty, I do not mean people who exist on a constant overdraft. Most of my constituents do not have that luxury. When the gas bill or the electricity bill comes in, when the kids need new shoes, when it is time to find dinner money or when a domestic crisis happens, that is a major disaster for the family. People cannot get out of poverty by using an overdraft because they do not have a bank account; they would not be given a bank account. They have no escape from grinding poverty day in and day out. Every day, people are one step away from disaster.

I beg the Minister, the Government and the House to understand that that is not an exaggeration; it is a fact of life in all of our major cities. People struggle to bring up families in those circumstances. Such circumstances ensure—this is the key point—that children grow up facing the same experience; thus, the cycle of deprivation is sustained. That is what is so heartbreaking. I have represented families in my constituency, both as a local councillor and as a Member of Parliament, and I now represent the sons and daughters of those families. I see that cycle of deprivation not only continue but get worse.

If Minister thinks that his policies have been successful, he will accept—he made the point himself—that, at the heart of the policies, are the economic issues of unemployment and putting people into work so that they can get money to enable them to look after their houses and families.

My constituency does not have the 10 per cent. average unemployment level which is enjoyed nationally. It is 14.9 per cent., but that figure hides obscene variations. There are four wards in my constituency, one of which has mainly owner-occupied properties and a male unemployment rate of 8 per cent. That is an unhappy rate, but it is livable with and is better than the national average.

Among the other three wards, there is 26 per cent. male unemployment in Burmantofts, and in Seacroft—the ward which I represented for more than 20 years—it is 28 per cent. The saddest thing, in view of our discussions, is that Harehills—with 7,500 people of an ethnic minority background, mainly Bangladeshi and Pakistani—has a male unemployment level of 30 per cent., or three times the national average. That is after 15 years of the Government's policies.

The Minister firmly believes that the policies are working. Living day in, day out in that area for more than 20 years, I say that they are not working. I do not say that glee, but with sadness because I see friends and neighbours having a sad life. Theirs is not a life which either the Minister or I would welcome.

Why are we in this position? The fact that the Government set off under Baroness Thatcher in 1980 rubbishing local councils played a major part. Instead of accepting that national Government do not have the necessary local knowledge of the varied needs of local communities in each city, and that local councils are in a far better position to have that local knowledge and would make ideal partners, the Government disdained that approach. The suspicion arises that that was because the big city councils were mainly Labour controlled. If that is a fact, it is a sad one.

For whatever reason, the Government threw away an opportunity to unite with councils in a common attack on poverty. The Government also continued to be amazed that communities and councils were less than grateful for the funds that were injected through the inner-city programme. The Government failed to realise that the marginal amounts of money that were put in under the urban aid programme were dwarfed by the cuts in rate support grants and in borrowing allocations to the mainstream budgets of councils.

Those two points together—the lack of genuine partnership and the severe cuts in the mainstream budgets —sum up the reasons why the first phase of the urban programme failed. Throughout the 1980s, there was no significant beneficial effect in economic terms in many communities. The Government should have worked with local councils, local people, businesses, police, health authorities, colleges and training and enterprise councils, using their influence and resources.

. This is not a cry for more spending. It is a cry for the Government to use the inner city programme to help those organisations to prioritise their mainstream budgets to an agreed and strategic objective which is reviewed and refined each year. Instead, the Government used in it a patronising and marginal way. It did some good, and they started some fine initiatives and some fresh thinking. However, it meant that the majority of the budgets of all those organisations were spent without reference to the objectives of the urban programme. Only the Government have the power, influence and authority to act as a catalyst. Sadly, the vision, anger and hunger to carry out that task were missing.

The policy has moved on, but if lessons have been learnt, the results have not shown that. We have moved to the age of city challenge, in which 57 authorities compete for funds. All 57 use valuable staff and spend valuable money in working on vast schemes for which to obtain money. They raise expectations in communities. There are many losers and few winners.

The Minister did not respond to the sedentary observations that only 31 of the 57 partnership areas have schemes. He did not respond to the fact that, after the second year, no new authorities will be put into the programme. The grand city challenge took 11 areas one year, 20 areas the second year and came to the buffers when the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to save some money.