10bn pounds wasted on failed inner city policy

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The Independent Online
ONE of the Government's flagship policies, rebuilding the inner cities, has failed in its objectives and has swallowed pounds 10bn of taxpayers' money that could otherwise have been better spent.

That is the damning verdict of an official report, commissioned by the Government and completed 18 months ago, which Ministers have kept secret.

The 400-page document, Evaluating Government Urban Policy, was commissioned by the Department of the Environment from an independent group of senior academics at the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Led by Professor Brian Robson, of Manchester's Centre for Urban Policy Studies, and Professor Michael Parkinson, of the European Institute for Urban Affairs at Liverpool's John Moores University, they finished their work at the end of 1992 and agreed the report's final wording with officials last summer.

It was always intended the report be published; when asked last night what was behind the delay, one of the authors said he could not possibly comment, but added: 'You will have to ask our political lords and masters.'

The report, or 'impact assessment' as it is technically termed, makes the stark finding that the drive to improve the inner cities - famously launched by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Conservative Central Office on the night of her 1987 general election triumph - has failed in its objectives.

For three years between 1988 and 1991 the Government's 'Action For Cities' programme consumed more than pounds 10bn of public money - much of which, the academics maintain, was not properly targetted. Too much attention was paid to new housing schemes and industrial parks and not enough to the 'trickledown' effect of urban decay - to health, education and fighting crime.

'It went on bricks and mortar, and obtaining an instant return, rather than addressing the long- term needs of severely deprived communities,' said a senior source close to the report.

He maintained that a central point - and one that could severely embarrass the Government - was that the repeated complaints from local authorities in the 1980s that the Government was giving their areas money on the one hand but taking it away in the form of budget cuts and rate-capping on the other, were justified.

One glaring example of what the source described as 'conflicting policy directions' is that cities obtaining cash for renewal were also subjected to cuts in their revenue support grants.

Ministers are accused of not thinking policies through and not devising a strategic framework across Whitehall to ensure the policies' efficient implementation. As a result, the report concludes, money was frittered away on projects which did little to add to peoples' long-term well-being.

'It is no good tearing down a tenement block if the surrounding area remains poor and people living there are unemployed and have no means of paying their rent,' the source said. 'You can tart up the environment but it does nothing for people's prospects.'

The criticisms are reflected in the report's five recommendations:

Structures and mechanisms should be developed to create long-term partnerships betwen the Government and the cities;

Local authorities need to be given greater opportunities to play a part in such a coalition;

Local communities also need to play a bigger part;

Programmes need to be made more coherent;

An urban budget should be established, to be administered at regional level.

Opposition MPs last night demanded that the Government publish the report as soon as possible.

Stephen Byers, MP for Wallsend, has tabled a series of Parliamentary questions asking for a date.

He said last night: 'Clearly, this is a damning report for which we've been waiting for 18 months. It is obvious the Government cannot claim to have an urban renewal policy. The report is a total condemnation of the Government's approach. It could have worked closer with local authorities and listened to their needs and views, and developed a regional strategy. Instead it chose not to - and wasted pounds 10bn.' He claimed the Government should 'stop suppressing it and come clean'.

A Department of Environment spokesman refused to comment on the report and would not release an abbreviated version. He was unable to say when it would be published, and attributed the delay to problems with printing such a large document.