The 4,000 estates that shame Britain

The wall that Tony built... now you see it, now you don't
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THE PRIME Minister unveiled an pounds 800m, 20-year campaign to transform Britain's most run-down areas yesterday, saying the only answer for some of the worst sink estates could be demolition.

Launching a report which estimates there are up to 4,000 such areas, Tony Blair said the poverty and fear in some communities "shames us as a nation". He attacked previous governments for putting too much emphasis on improving buildings rather than the lives of the people living in crime- ridden blackspots.

But his campaign suffered an embarrassing hitch at its launch when it emerged that cosmetic changes had been made at the Holly Street Estate in Hackney, east London, so that he could stage a photo-opportunity at yesterday's launch. Builders demolished a wall shortly after he left.

Seventeen "pathfinder areas" will pilot the first wave of what the Government is calling a New Deal and compete for pounds 12m available this year. Local people, firms, community and voluntary groups, local authorities and other public bodies will form partnerships to identify neighbourhoods that would gain from intensive, focused regeneration. They will work out proposals for long-term revival through a range of projects, from improving job prospects and stopping vandalism to building links between schools and the community and improving access to the health services.

Announcing details, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said: "I think the proposition of demolishing housing estates is not something any one of us would relish. The real question is: can we get the community to still want to live in these areas?"

The report by the Social Exclusion Unit, "Bringing Britain Together", sets out a strategy for co-ordinating government action on education, crime and health; targeting programmes on the poorest areas, through 18 teams covering 10 Whitehall departments, and including outside experts. Interim reports are planned for spring and next summer, with publication of a new strategy, covering all Britain, at the end of next year.

Mr Blair hailed Holly Street Estate, where tower-blocks are being demolished and replaced by traditional two-storey yellow-brick flats with garden access, as a "monument of all the things we should change about inner cities." Plagued by crime and unemployment on the estate, the residents, Hackney Council, the Government, the Laing construction company and housing authorities drew up a pounds 100m plan in 1993 to improve conditions. Since then, the number of residents mugged or burgled has dropped from 40 to 1 per cent.

But Ken Gilmour, a retired electrician who has lived on the estate for 44 years, was doubtful that similar initiatives would succeed elsewhere. "John Major came here a few years ago and made similar great promises but this estate has been turned around because of our community spirit and we had to fight all the way.

"We had all sorts of crime but we never really had racial problems and that made it possible to speak with one voice. I cannot see how other estates will be able to do the same."

Lisa Low, a 30-year-old unemployed single mother, living in a one-bedroom flat in one of the remaining tower-blocks on the estate, is still waiting to move into her new two-bedroom flat with garden access.

Surrounded by several run-down estates, she is worried that the regenerated Holly Street estate will become a target for burglaries. "What is the point of improving one estate if the area as a whole still attracts crime?

"I don't think Tony Blair can come here and claim the credit for what tenants have done when there are still so many problems."

Another resident, who did not want to give his name, also complained about the Government's choice of the estate for its launch. "It is ludicrous. They built a wall only this morning so that Mr Blair could shake hands with a builder and then they go on about waste of money. It is a farce."

Charles Collins, who shouted abuse at Mr Prescott as he left the estate, agreed: "Until they deliver, I will not believe a word."

The Tories' environment spokesman, Bernard Jenkin, said: "The estate which Tony Blair visited this morning was actually transformed while we were in government. Labour is merely continuing the best practice that we had already established."

Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of the regeneration organisation Groundwork, said: "Building the capacity of local people to enable them to take control of their lives is the only way of creating lasting change."