Improvements of 1980s at risk in 1990s

Housing crisis: Unemployment and deprivation threaten to wipe out progress on 20 worst estates
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Public Policy Editor

Long-term unemployment, social polarisation and concentrations of some of the most vulnerable groups threaten to sweep away the benefits of investment totalling hundreds of millions of pounds in what were 20 of Britain's worst housing estates.

Research shows that the massive refurbishments and new tenant-oriented polices since have produced significant improvements.

The rescue initiatives launched by local authorities and Government in the early 1980s in the face of fears of social breakdown have led to better physical conditions, more community facilities, less litter and fewer empty properties. Only 2 of the 20 are now rated the worst estate locally by staff and residents.

But by 1994, the communities - in London, Liverpool, Rochdale and Tyneside - were far more disadvantaged than 15 years earlier. Residents felt pressured by crime and social breakdown, with estate managers reporting that socially disruptive behaviour was increasingly difficult to control.

And the estates risked becoming social ghettos. The proportion of lone parents on them doubled between 1981 and 1991 to 18 per cent of households, against 4 per cent nationally. Unemployment ran at 34 per cent, against 13 per cent in the surrounding local authorities and 10 per cent nationally. Their share of the ethnic minority population increased - to 26 per cent on average, compared to 19 per cent locally and 6 per cent nationally. The trend was most marked in London, where the majority of the population of seven of the 11 estates studied was black by 1991.

Growing numbers on the estates were young - increasing control problems in the absence of the normal leavening of adults. In 1991, 31 per cent of residents were under 16 - half as a high as in surrounding areas and nationally. School performance was far below average with truancy rates way above. Four times as many children left school with no GCSEs than their local authority average.

"High concentrations of visibly different and disadvantaged groups in separate and unpopular areas had serious implications," Anne Power and Rebecca Tunstall of the London School of Economics, who carried out the study, said yesterday. "Often they linked race with bad conditions, enhancing prejudice and making it easier to stereotype and blame and racial minority groups for wider social ills.

"Most of the estates had suffered from terrible reputations for a long time." Yet their reputations had risen chiefly "as a result of the careful and prolonged efforts of staff and residents, rather than a reduction in problems." Tenants were less likely to move away at the first opportunity.

But the fear of social breakdown from concentrations of the needy and vulnerable were so acute that specialised local measures to reinforce community stability were constantly necessary. The key had been linking large-scale capital spending with community and tenant involvement in management. Tenants, while not equipped to take over estate management wholesale, were "the linchpin of change", the study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says.

But to work, the estates required continued relatively low-level investment, Anne Power said. "You can't just pour money into these places to improve them, and then go away thinking you've solved the problem."

The new Single Regeneration Budget - which puts housing, urban aid and development cash into one pot - risks reducing tenant involvement, the report says.

Equally, compulsory tendering for housing management, while welcomed by local staff, looks likely to create large management units of 5,000 homes when estates worked best in units of 1,000.