Leading Article: It's no good making grand claims on the UK rich-poor divide

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The Independent Culture
THE WIDENING North-South divide in Britain was one of the bitterest legacies of the Thatcher years. Its causes are still working to pull the country in different directions, if less virulently than before. Our understanding of the causes of widening inequality has also moved beyond the simple North-South dichotomy. In a special analysis on page 19, we examine the way in which poverty is increasingly concentrated in pockets within all the main urban areas of the country, North and South. The economic forces that tilted wealth towards London are changing and increasingly working to widen the gap between rich and poor in each city. To the growth of global trade and the decline of manufacturing must now be added the expansion of information technology. Leeds, Glasgow and Belfast, for example, have become market leaders of the call centre "industry", already employing 1 per cent of the nation's workforce. These battery farms of phone operators may look soulless, but, compared to the manual drudgery of the old economy, they are progress.

They are also highly efficient: one consequences of the increasingly fast, flexible and responsive forms of computerised capitalism is it reinforces a "winner-takes-all" pattern of economic growth, with successful industries and districts thriving on success. The corollary is that unsuccessful districts are left behind while their failure reinforces their decline. Crime, drugs, litter, graffiti and metal grilles on corner shops: we know what these places look like.

We also know much of what needs to be done to try to break the spiral of decline, and Alistair Darling, who has held the Social Security brief for a whole year now, should be cautiously praised for how he set about it. He has stressed his desire to avoid being remembered as "another Secretary of State who tinkered with the system, patched and mended it before handing it on to somebody else to do the same". It is a laudable aim, but a forlorn one. There are no final victories in the war against poverty, no great welfare reforms, so rhetorically strained for by the Prime Minister, that do not cause worse problems than they solve. The best we can hope for is a more coherent approach to tinkering, patching and mending than before.

So far, the evidence of Mr Darling's first year (after Harriet Harman's false start the year before) is mixed. The emphasis on getting people into work is right. The multi-disciplinary approach to the multiple problems of deprived estates is welcome. The targeting of benefits on children is sensible. The help for pensioners, though morally inadequate, is more generous than the previous government's.

But too little has actually happened yet on the ground. The Working Families Tax Credit, the jewel in Gordon Brown's anti-poverty crown, does not start until October, and shows every sign of being a bureaucratic and unwieldy way of meeting its aims. The Social Exclusion Unit has written some reports, but getting the Government's act together across several departments is going to take time.

Mr Darling risks falling into the gap between this Government's two main styles of rhetoric - on one hand promising that in the radical, new young country poverty will be abolished, while saying soberly and realistically that such deep-seated problems cannot be dealt with overnight. Of course the Government should have a vision to guide it, and aiming to ensure children grow up in families on more than half average income isn't a bad one. But the more the Prime Minister and Mr Darling talk as if they are going to tear up the whole benefit system and start again from scratch, the less prospect there is of real change in the broken-glass-strewn stairwells of the urban poor. Welfare reform is a huge job, but it can only be achieved in small steps, by getting the nuts and bolts of "what works" right.

Mr Darling should take pride in his tinkering and patching - and avoid making grand claims.

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