Independent Decade : Tales of the city and a tower of dreams

Urban realities
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The Independent Online
Perhaps more than anything else, the towering presence of Canary Wharf in east London's docklands symbolises the 10-year economic and social rollercoaster which saw this monument to Thatcherism rise from dereliction, go spectacularly bust, and then return on a fresh wave of optimism.

The 50-storey tower, centrepiece of the docklands transformation, was the most visible example of regeneration in many of Britain's inner cities. The tower, which is now home to The Independent and its Sunday sister, was the result of a controversial market-led strategy to create a prestigious development as London's "third centre", after the City and the West End.

Similar schemes, on a smaller scale, were created in most of Britain's larger cities - with mixed results. There have undoubtedly been heartening transformations in some areas, particularly those next to the former docks in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford, but the failures outnumber the successes. While it has proved possible to regenerate areas with large swathes of unused land, the traditional inner-city estates remain a sad testament to the failures of decades.

The clearances of the 1960s created a new generation of estates which, although not called slums, are often little different from those that were demolished to make way for them, except that the type of housing - tower blocks rather than cramped terraces - is worse outside but better inside. Many have already been demolished and many more would be, if so much money had not been taken out of local authority housing programmes.

Labour's dominance of the inner cities meant that urban regeneration was one of Margaret Thatcher's obsessions because of the challenge it presented. As she celebrated victory in the 1987 election, outside No 10, she declared "now to win our inner cities".

The Thatcherite model for urban regeneration was typically confrontational. Existing structures of local democracy and community were ignored. Instead, all-powerful urban development corporations were created, generously funded and able to take all planning decisions without reference to local people. Only private housing was to be built. Large model projects were to be created by attracting inward investment from multi-nationals and other big firms, and the wealth created by them would trickle down.

The policy came complete with large amounts of money. The London Docklands Development Corporation, for example, has received about pounds 2.25bn in grants since its creation 15 years ago; about half the total allocation for all the development corporations, fuelling criticism that many inner-city areas have lost out in favour of the prestige projects.

Certainly, in London's Docklands, a lot has been built on the wasteland of 15 years ago. But there has been little real regeneration. A lot of jobs have been attracted to the new offices, subsidised through rate-free periods and tax concessions, but existing communities have benefited little. Most of the jobs, like those at The Independent, have been displaced rather than genuinely created.

Despite all the resources, the problems remain. The story of urban regeneration is punctuated with white elephants and broken promises. Too often, policies have ignored the crucial component - people. As Peter Hall, Professor of Planning at London University puts it: "There can't be any regeneration if only 10 per cent of kids in some schools are getting five or more GCSEs."