It's easier to knock things down than to rebuild them

We should always be instinctively wary of the idea that problems can be solved with bulldozers
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The Independent Culture
I ONCE had to spend two weeks on an East German council estate, the sort of place that TV film crews go to show you how grim things were in the defunct workers' and peasants' state. The uniformity was soul-destroying, the walls too thin and the apartments designed for midgets. But there were flowers in the window boxes and the lift smelt of disinfectant, not urine. Neighbours talked to each other. Prams and bicycles left in the hall were still there the next morning. Having gone to write about the awfulness of the place, I could not shake off the unsettling feeling that the atmosphere was a lot more civilized than on some of the housing estates I had visited at home.

Shortly afterwards, an independent minded East German reporter, dispatched after unification to compare life in Manchester's Moss Side with his native Alley of the Cosmonauts high-rise, wrote that he would rather have lived on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall with the repressive old Communists in charge, than in the worst parts of Manchester in freedom. Philosophically, I know that the journalist is wrong. Practically, I find it hard to discount his conclusion that the amount of freedom and opportunity actually enjoyed by someone born into a sink estate is pitifully, shamefully small, unless they have Herculean powers of self-improvement.

Bad housing estates, with the hopelessness and acceptance of failure they embody, are one of the great failures of wealthy modern democracies. They are wholly at odds with the Whiggish notion of steady social progress, that unites the modern centre-left and the reformist Liberal tradition. The Government's decision to tear down the worst of these urban Gomorras is a physical manifestation of what we all know already: that in collective residential life, as in personal life, there are points of no return; stages when things become intolerable and irredeemable. In tearing down the worst of these monuments to failure, Mr Blair has acknowledged that this point has been reached.

Nor should this dramatic gesture distract Labour minds from an unforgiving analysis of what went wrong. The electoral calculation that lay behind the policy of building Labour into the inner-cities, creating cramped urban ghettos, is one of the most shameful and cynical in the party's history. It must never be repeated.

We should be instinctively wary of the idea that problems can be solved with bulldozers. Any fool can destroy buildings. It is rebuilding people that is the difficult part.

The Byker Wall is a fantastic piece of architecture, but the continuing decline of the West End of Newcastle has long swept away the planners' dream that well-designed living would produce more worthwhile lives. Under the Tories, Michael Heseltine's attachment to regeneration as a corporatist undertaking left great gaps when the recessions came and the garden shows were over.

The great European Social Democratic building programmes, such as those in Vienna, which replaced the slum tenements of the 19th century, worked because they were shored up by robust institutions: from social clubs and churches, to corner shops and friendly societies. The most award-winning architecture and planning is no substitute for the endless, all-important task of preserving the infrastructure of civic society.

Tony Blair's personal association with the crusade against social exclusion is heartening, precisely because a prime minister who began his premiership with a speech on an estate in Peckham cannot afford to back out of, or postpone, his glowing promises to alleviate the worst divisions in society. Lady Thatcher's brass-necked parody of St Francis's prayer was never forgotten or forgiven. Those who preach the alleviation of discord and poverty are judged on their record, and hers was found sorely wanting.

How much more pressing for a leader of the centre-left, whose core message was that he will leave Britain a less fractured society than when he found it. If Mr Blair is seen to have failed in this mission, he will become the focus of the very disillusionment he sought to dispel.

Poverty, ill-health, unemployment, bad schooling, crime: the sheer concentration of ills in the worst areas of communal housing is their defining and depressing feature. The very names of estates become local code-words for fear and distrust. For too long, public policy has effectively been that of containment - as long as the inhabitants of such places did not present themselves, it was deemed a regrettable, but tolerable, fact of life.

But of course, it isn't like that. Crime spreads out from its breeding ground to affect the more prosperous. The workless need to live, and the social security budgets expand. The working population pays for this, but begrudges it, and blames governments for spending too much. The ill- educated pass on low expectations to their children. The wheel of misery turns again.

And yet, in the very concentration of their miseries, sink estates offer a key to improvement. For a start, we know, at the cost of millions of pounds worth of hitherto wasted money, that the existing activity of competing state agencies has failed to make the difference. If ever an area cried out for joined-up thinking, and the input of small business and social entrepreneurs besides local authorities, it is this one. But there is still one great omission from the Government's social exclusion programme and that, despite all the protestations to the contrary, is education. The stubborn adherence to the principle that all schools should be run in the same way, regardless of the varying social and ethnic circumstances of those who attend them, does not bode well.

Mr Blair is happy to preside over the demolition of bad council estates, but not - or at least, not yet - over an equally ruthless review of how we organize and deliver schooling to the many children for whom education provides the sole route out of the dungeon of low-expectation. Accepting that our present system fails most grievously those who need it most, is the really brave step forwards. Tear down the modern slums, by all means. But rebuild education. It needs it.