A dream unfulfilled

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The Independent Online
Rioting is not a solution to the long-term problems of black people - or anyone else. But it seems to be the only opportunity that people have at the moment to express the way they are treated as second-class citizens of this country. There is so much pent-up frustration. People round here are, for instance, still very angry about the comments made by London's Chief Commissioner, Paul Condon, linking black people to mugging.

As far as the police go, there is a lot of work to be done to re-educate them to understand that they are not a power unto themselves: their actions must be accountable.

But anger at the police is coupled with deprivation and lack of opportunities. There are deep resentments about the lack of jobs and social and recreational facilities in Brixton. No one wants to see a repeat of 1981 or 1985 riots. And to prevent that, this Government gave pounds 37.5m as a grant to set up Brixton City Challenge in 1993, to regenerate the area. I am a director - one of four who represent community organisations - on the City Challenge. It had a grand founding vision:

"Our programme will place people and communities at the heart of the initiative. The investment of pounds 189m will create around 1,650 new jobs and it is estimated that more than 2,500 local people will attain recognised qualifications. Communities will flourish in good homes, be healthy and safe, and participate in the changes that will take place. Young people will grow up in an attractive and prosperous environment and will build further prosperity in Brixton, Lambeth in London and further afield."

That vision is no longer there. Despite the investment, local people have not benefited, because the local communities and existing small businesses - the people who live and work in Brixton - have never been at the heart of the regeneration process.

A great deal of energy has been spent arguing over the development of the central area of Brixton, which includes renovations to the tube station and market. The City Challenge has concentrated on this area, arguing that once it is done, it will be a trigger to other improvements, a launching point for investment in the whole Brixton area. But it has failed to attract the promised private investors - London Underground, P&O, British Rail, Railtrack, and others - so that it has decided to put pounds 13m of City Challenge money into this scheme, rather than the original pounds 7m-pounds 8m. And that is money that will not go to expand small business growth or developmental work for voluntary organisations.

Why has the private sector not invested? I think it is because of the legacy of an incompetent and inefficient local authority - which is of course also the main partner in the City Challenge.

And the Challenge itself is dogged by inefficiency. I know of important, useful community projects that have applied for money and been kept waiting for months without hearing anything. During that period of frustration and delay, they've either gone elsewhere with their funding applications, such as the National Lottery, or they've collapsed altogether.

These failures undermine the good intentions of government when it set up the City Challenge scheme. I and some fellow directors are hoping to meet with central government officials in a few days' time to discuss alternative ideas for trying to achieve the vision set out originally in the Action Plan of the City Challenge. We haven't given up on it: we want to get it back on course.

But that will not be done by pouring millions of pounds of public money into one central area of Brixton. It can only be done, I believe, with another central government intervention, to help create a consortium of investors that will deliver the goods, and make our 30-year dream of development of central Brixton a reality. If government fails this time, I fear the people of Brixton will not forgive it.

Mike Rahman

The writer is a director of Brixton City Challenge and Chair of the National Union of Refugee Organisations.

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