Urban regeneration? We've heard it all before

Cappuccino bars are not the answer, writes Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
TUESDAY'S attempt to save Britain's cities is already providing a powerful sense of deja vu. For, nearly a quarter of a century ago, the last Labour government launched a similar bid, sounding much the same alarm.

Back in 1976, the then Environment Secretary, Peter Shore, warned that the plight of the inner cities presented the country with its gravest complex of "economic, social and physical" crises. Now his successor, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, is warning colleagues - in strikingly similar language - that urban decay threatens the "economic, social and environmental well being" of the entire country.

Initiative after official initiative has followed Mr Shore's pledge to switch government priorities to rescuing the inner cities. Billions of pounds have been poured into some of the most deprived areas. Yet as Lord Rogers, the principal architect of this week's report has admitted, the crisis has deepened.

"We have seen a worsening of the quality of life in our cities," he said. "They have fallen from near the top of the European league to near the bottom." Every week 1,700 people abandon them for the countryside.

On Tuesday he and Mr Prescott - who have come to a remarkably common view on what needs to be done - have their chance to begin to reverse the trend. Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, set up by the Deputy Prime Minister last year, will lay down five benchmarks for revitalisation - design excellence, economic strength, environmental responsibility, good governance, and social wellbeing. And it will produce a neat aphorism: Cities make citizens, and citizens make cities.

All true enough, but the plans will be scrutinised by jaded expert eyes, used to past failure and sceptical of neat slogans and trendy ideas. Eyes like those of David Lock, former Chief Planning Adviser to the Department of the Environment, who fears that Lord Rogers will seek too many of his solutions in "loft conversions, cappuccino bars, and the 24-hour city". The real test of success, he says, will be whether families, rather than just yuppies, are lured back.

That would mean reversing a long trend. Over 150 years ago, Friedrich Engels vividly described the "miserable and dilapidated" inner cities. Yet by the time Mr Shore launched his initiative the numbers of homeless people in them had doubled since Engels' time. The crisis has gone on growing. Those who can afford to escape flee, while jobs and public transport disappear, trapping the poor in deepening destitution.

Riots in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 forced them onto the Thatcher government's agenda ("It took a riot", Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine headed the paper he sent the Prime Minister, outlining his proposed solutions). Only partially convinced then, she claimed the issue for her own six years later, promising to rescue the inner cities in her 1987 election victory speech.

All to little avail. In 1985 the Church of England castigated the Conservatives' failure to address the crisis in a stinging report Faith In The Cities - only to be attacked by one cabinet minister for promoting "Marxist theology". Ten years later the church returned to the theme to report that "the gap between rich and poor has grown much wider" amid "a sea of government indifference". The same year an official study admitted that successive initiatives had failed.

Mr Heseltine's solution - urban development corporations - spent over pounds 3bn in deprived areas such as Docklands, stimulating spectacular property development. They created over 1,500 jobs, but mainly for outsiders: the local poor benefited little.

Both the Shore and the Heseltine initiatives concentrated narrowly on the neediest areas, and that, say critics, was one cause of failure: the benefits did not spread beyond the lines drawn on the map. "None of us knew this at the time," says David Lock, now a vice-chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association. "But if you look at Docklands, for example, you can almost see the boundaries of the urban Development Corporation in the difference."

He wants the new strategy to concentrate less on spreading the buzz of the city centre outwards than on bringing the quiet values of suburbia - space, clean air, safe streets, and, above all, good education - inwards, to attract families back. But, he warns, "suburbia is deeply unfashionable to distinguished architects like Lord Rogers".

Another acid test will be whether the whole of government takes up the issue. Few doubt John Prescott's commitment. Influenced by 30 years of representing a Hull constituency, deeply affected by the decline of the coalfield communities, he is convinced that "urban renaissance" is one of the key challenges facing government. He sees it as central to some of his most cherished policies, including reviving public transport, cutting pollution, preserving the countryside, and developing the regions. He plans to mull over Lord Rogers' ideas and is likely to incorporate many of them in an Urban White Paper, the first since the late 1970s, next year.

There are signs that some of his colleagues see the need for action. Downing Street's Social Exclusion Unit is addressing poverty in the inner cities. Seventeen particularly deprived estates have already been picked for revitalisation. David Blunkett has ideas on education, Frank Dobson on health, and Jack Straw on crime. But it will take an unprecedentedly co-ordinated and integrated strategy throughout government, addressing Britain's cities as a whole, if Tuesday's launch is not just to mark one more milestone on the long and potholed road of urban decline.