Riots 'should not be confused with inner-city needs'

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RIOTS cannot be excused because of the problems of the inner cities, Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said yesterday when he announced a Government initiative to revive derelict urban land.

Mr Howard said the disturbances in Bristol and other areas of England were a law-and-order problem.

He added: 'I don't think we should confuse what was a law- and-order situation, exploited by people who came from outside the area, with the genuine needs of the inner-city areas.'

The creation of an Urban Regeneration Agency (URA) under the chairmanship of Peter Walker, the former Secretary of State for Wales, with a budget of about pounds 250m a year, is part of the Government's long-term response to the intractable problem of the inner cities, which forced its way on to the agenda with the summer riots of 1981. Ministers believe the URA will help to answer critics who say the Government is not doing enough in the face of the renewed violence, and warnings by some black MPs, following riots in Los Angeles, that the summer will see more disorder in Britain.

But Barry Sheerman, a Labour home affairs spokesman, accused ministers of allowing 'no-go areas' for the police and fire brigades in inner cities; David Blunkett, the Labour spokesman on local government, dismissed the URA as a missed opportunity; and Bryan Gould, Labour's environment spokesman, described the URA as a 'public relations gimmick'.

Baroness Thatcher appointed ministers with responsibility for individual cities and said in 1983 that she wanted to bring the inner cities 'with us' at the next election. Michael Heseltine 'adopted' Liverpool, but the Conservatives failed to cure the alienation of the inner cities. The URA, which will be formed late next year after legislation to be introduced next autumn, follows Thatcherite principles. It will use a limited amount of public money to stimulate private investment, with powers to override those of the locally elected councils.

Although the Government hopes councils will co-operate with the URA, some Labour-controlled authorities yesterday resented the interference.

Albert Bore, Labour chairman of the economic development committee of Birmingham city council, said: 'We don't want to see parachuted into Birmingham - and I am sure I speak for other local authorities - yet another government scheme.'

But the Government believes its approach is in line with the recommendations of the Scarman report into the 1981 disturbances. Lord Scarman said large sums of money had been spent on the inner cities to little effect and called for better co-ordination.

'While I have neither the evidence nor the experience to recommend any reorganisation of local government, I do note the apparent existence of a striking problem of co-ordination - not only in London, Merseyside, and the other great conurbations but also in an area like Bristol where a sizeable city is located in a largely rural county,' he said. 'I conclude that much could be done to achieve a better co- ordinated and directed attack on inner city problems, and I recommend action to achieve it.'

The URA will offer a new unified grant for development, replacing two existing sources of money: derelict land grant and city grant.

It will take over English Estates, which generates money by the sale of land. Ministers are also considering a single budget for the inner-city programmes, as promised in the Conservatives' election manifesto.

Mr Howard refused to say whether he was bidding for 'new' money from the Treasury but colleagues say Mr Walker - due to take up a life peerage in the autumn - will be expected to use the public funds as a lever to generate more from the private sector, as he did in Wales. A consultation document yesterday said the URA's aim was to promote the reclamation of derelict land in towns and cities. It will be on similar lines to those used by Mr Walker in Wales and by Urban Development Corporations (UDCs).

Its powers will include compulsory purchase, where necessary, and planning control.

To avoid duplication of effort, it will not operate in areas where UDCs exist, such as Liverpool. The Secretary of State for the Environment will have powers to take over the land from public bodies, including local authorities, and pass it to the URA for development. Since about half of the vacant land in urban areas is owned by public bodies, this could be a cause of conflict with local authorities, but it is seen as a reserve power.

(Photograph omitted)