Brown swoops to save doomed estates

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The Independent Online
THE 20 worst estates in the most deprived parts of the country are to be targeted by the Government in an extension of the "New Deal" drive against poverty.

The initiative was revealed by Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in an exclusive interview with The Independent. But there was confusion about the move in Whitehall and Westminster last night, with some senior ministers clearly surprised by the timing of the announcement.

There was a strong feeling that some of the Prime Minister's colleagues were again flexing their muscles, taking advantage of his absence in Washington. Last night, in a keynote political speech agreed with Tony Blair before his departure on Wednesday evening, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said the challenge of welfare reform was "to turn Britain into a nation of victors over adversity, rather than victims trapped on benefit".

Speaking in Cardiff, he said that the Government was advocating a return of the "get-up-and-go" enthusiasm drained from the community by 18 years of Tory government, which created a system that rewarded people for maximising "the extent of their illness, their disability, their poverty, and their dependence on others".

Mr Brown and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, are due to launch the initiative this weekend. But it was unclear yesterday whether more detail was to be provided by Mr Prescott in a speech to Labour's local government conference in Scarborough tonight.

The drive, which will bring together spending from several government programmes, will involve the Social Exclusion Unit, and focus resources on estates with some of the most severe social problems. In the 20 worst estates, as many as seven out of ten working-age households have no one in work, the proportion of lone-parent families is three times the national average and there is six times the average rate of truancy from school.

Very few of these estates have amenities such as nurseries, good public transport, or local businesses, according to Whitehall studies. The initiative is expected to be focused on inner-city areas. Among the estates likely to be on the high priority list are Stonebridge Park, in north-west London; Blackbird Leys, Oxford; North Prospect in Plymouth; Toxteth, Merseyside; Ordsall, Salford; and estates in Newcastle and Manchester.

A recent Whitehall analysis has revealed that although more public money is spent in the most deprived areas, most of it is passive spending, such as benefit payments. Under the initiative, the Government's existing New Deal programmes will be extended to tilt the balance of spending towards creating work opportunities and improving education and training in the targeted estates. The programme could start with pilot schemes, and the Government is looking at how to involve the private sector. It plans to build on existing successful local community projects, drawing up a register of those that could be used as templates for other parts of the country.

Funding for the plan, which will co-ordinate spending by a range of government departments and local authorities, will probably be announced in the Budget next month. The money is likely to come from the existing pounds 3.5bn welfare- to-work funds in the first instance, with much more allocated after the announcement of the public expenditure review in the summer.

Mr Brown said yesterday: "We have spent money in the past compensating people for their poverty, but we have not tackled the causes of poverty."

The Chancellor said that the key to the initiative would be its comprehensive approach. There would be co-ordination with the recently established employment zones and the health and education action zones that have yet to be announced. But Mr Brown emphasised that job creation was the most important aspect.

"Regeneration in these areas has got to be economic-led and employment- led," he said.