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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Junior Web Developer- CSS, HMTL

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz