It's the regeneration game again, but will anyone win?

Our inner cities are back on Tory and Labour agendas. Yet it will take far more than posturing to trigger real renewal

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The inner cities have come back into political fashion. Every 10 years or so it seems that a political party seizes on their plight. What is different now is that both the main parties have taken up their cause at around the same time. Last week the Conservatives highlighted their new-found inclusiveness by launching a glitzy document on the subject. Behind the scenes, Tony Blair and his advisers in Downing Street are also much preoccupied by the issue. Before the fuel dispute changed the political landscape, Mr Blair was planning to devote a significant section of his conference speech to the inner cities. He is probably kicking himself that the Tories got there first.

The inner cities have come back into political fashion. Every 10 years or so it seems that a political party seizes on their plight. What is different now is that both the main parties have taken up their cause at around the same time. Last week the Conservatives highlighted their new-found inclusiveness by launching a glitzy document on the subject. Behind the scenes, Tony Blair and his advisers in Downing Street are also much preoccupied by the issue. Before the fuel dispute changed the political landscape, Mr Blair was planning to devote a significant section of his conference speech to the inner cities. He is probably kicking himself that the Tories got there first.

Not that the Conservatives' document reveals much about what they would do with the inner cities. It tells us much more about the state of William Hague's party. The launch served a specific purpose, symbolising to a wider world that they were a one-nation party after all. The Tories are getting good at symbolism. In Bournemouth Michael Portillo was "inclusive". Ann Widdecombe was "tough". Michael Ancram spoke for "the mainstream". Hague spoke "for the nation". All of them were "ready to govern". Here was a document that encompassed all these qualities.

But that is what was wrong with the document, and most of the policies vaguely espoused last week. Symbolism is the art of early opposition. Now, with an election in sight, the Conservatives should be fleshing out the symbols with a few workable policies. Their inner cities programme has as many holes as our run-down urban roads.

Take the timing of the proposed reforms. With an apparent flourish the document states: "Investing in schools and sorting out failing schools will be a foundation step preceding other regeneration spending." So when will the regeneration spending begin if the implementation of other policies is to precede it? Who will pay for the regeneration when it happens? And, anyway, won't the Conservatives be forced to reduce investment in schools? They have not committed themselves to Labour's spending plans for schools, as they have done on the NHS.

There is a wider point here. For a government in waiting the Tories are almost recklessly casual about the timing of any reforms. At one point in Mr Portillo's speech last week, he listed a series of uncosted tax cuts and then added, "That gives you a flavour of my budgets". He paused, as if he was making a joke. But was it a joke? Were the proposals for his first Budget or several Budgets? We were not told.

As far as the inner cities are concerned, the Conservatives propose to create a regeneration minister "to oversee combined regeneration initiatives across government departments". This proposal has a familiar ring. It is what Margaret Thatcher did after the 1987 election. That was the last time the inner cities were in fashion. "We must do more for them," she said as she headed out of Central Office on the night of her final election triumph. So she created an inner cities minister.

This did not in itself create new policies. Instead a terrified junior minister, with virtually no power, produced a yearly presentation of government policies dwarfed by a frenzied-looking prime minister at a glitzy press conference in Westminster. I predict that whoever becomes the regeneration minister will suffer a similar political nightmare, the equivalent in this government of being a Cabinet Office minister.

There is another echo from the past. The Tories propose to create "new regeneration companies", bringing in private-sector enterprise and private investment. They sound similar to the urban development corporations (UDCs) of the 1980s, which had their moment in the sun, performed erratically, and were gradually disbanded. These new companies, like the UDCs, would presumably be accountable to the government in London. In effect, Whitehall would continue to rule our cities.

This is the biggest hole in the Conservatives' document. Local government hardly gets a look in. Councils are offered more powers to remove graffiti and that is their lot. The Conservatives did not spend 18 years in government running down councils to revive them now.

The current government seems to agree. The head of Tony Blair' s policy unit, David Miliband, made a rare public speech last month in which he placed inner city decline at the heart of his concerns. Given that Labour councils rule most cities, he made a rather courageous intervention, which has not been reported until now. Mr Miliband told a conference that: "Britain suffers from weak cities. Eighty per cent of the population live in cities. In other countries, national renewal derives from effective city governance. Asa Briggs's masterpiece Victorian Cities reminded me recently that strong city government acted like a turbo-charge on national progress in the 19th century. Britain prospered from the bottom up. Today, a big comparative disadvantage for Britain is the weakness of city renewal. There are 30 cities with populations of over 100,000 people. They should be real beacons of innovation and change."

I agree with every word. But Mr Miliband did not end his bold analysis with the obvious conclusion that local government for the cities needs urgent invigoration. This is the great bipartisan taboo.

Some progress is being made. There is a renewed enthusiasm in Downing Street for city mayors. Insiders say that they have not been deterred by the Ken Livingstone saga. Instead, they suggest with enthusiasm that in Liverpool, Newcastle and Birmingham there is some excitement at the prospect of a mayoral contest. Apparently, possible candidates are already out and about discreetly sniffing the electoral air. But mayoral reform apart, the Government suffers as much as the Conservative administrations that preceded it, from an assumption that it knows best.

But the Government is stuck, partly because it is more divided on this issue than just about any other. Tony Blair would like to revive local government by introducing electoral reform. In my view this is the key. Ministers complain about the mediocrity of the one-party fiefdoms that rule many cities. Electoral reform would end the complacent incompet-ence at a stroke, energising big city councils. But John Prescott is firmly opposed to electoral reform for local elections. Blair, who has wrongly vetoed some of Prescott's more radical ideas, is wary of challenging Prescott when it is the Deputy Prime Minister who is being the conservative. Meanwhile, Prescott remains an evangelist for regional government, but this is opposed by Blair, Brown, and just about everyone else in the Cabinet. As one minister put it, "the hopeless councillors running our city will all end up running our region".

There is the Catch 22. Councils will not attract great talent unless they have more power. This cautious government is reluctant to give them powers because it is concerned about the lack of local political talent. The new fashion for the inner cities provides a wider snapshot of the post-conference political scene: an uncosted policy vacuum from the Conservatives and timidity from an over-mighty government.

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