I learnt that there was much that was wrong with Britain's inner-cities. They are where we need good schools the most, but where, too often, the worst schools are found. They are where high public services would have greatest impact, but where bureaucracy and a lack of accountability let down those in real need. They are where people need opportunities the most - but where it is hardest to get on the ladder.
But there was also much that was right about the community in which I grew up. There was a web of informal social support - a neighbourliness - which helped people living together. Parents kept a watchful eye, not just on their own children, but on friends and elderly neighbours. Vandalism and anti-social behaviour were not unknown - but they were not excused or explained away.
In the late Fifties and Sixties, many inner-city terraces were demolished. Communities were rehoused in tower blocks that were more modern, clean and spacious. But too often, they were also soulless. The housing was better, but the community was lost.
The best of intentions had produced the worst of results. Across Britain the state was taking over too much. We created a well-meaning system of paternalism, where the state decided what people ought to want, where the Government, national or local, created its dependent client groups and based its power on them.
Mutual assistance was replaced by the primacy of the waiting list. Councils took over and self-help was pushed aside. Education became more the school's responsibility, less the parents. Parents were given little choice. Social Services moved in, and community responsibility weakened.
Over the past 18 years we have tried to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Eighty-five per cent of housing development funds now goes to mixed housing on a human scale. We have created diversity in existing estates by giving tenants the right to buy - 1.4 million families have exercised this right in the teeth of bitter Labour opposition. We have given tenants a much greater say in running their own estates. With those rights came responsibilities: local authorities were given the ability to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
We put money into the renovation and rebuilding of poor quality public housing. Over the past 10 years, pounds 2bn has been spent improving 500 of the worst estates.
I entered politics not just because I wanted to see Britain prosperous, but because I wanted everyone to share in that prosperity. I wanted to turn "have nots" into "haves": to help build the security of ownership and self-reliance - to widen opportunity for all It is one of this Government's proudest achievements that we have spread a better quality of life throughout the population. That 68 per cent of homes in England are owner-occupied, compared with 56 per cent when we were elected. That 86 per cent of households have central heating - against just over half then. That one in three young people now go on to higher education - up from one in eight in 1979.
These dry statistics bear out a fundamental truth about the Conservatives: that we have governed for the many and not for the few.
At the peak of Britain's industrial restructuring, 10 years ago, an extra 7 or 8 per cent of the working population was on the dole in the depressed regions of the North compared to London and the South-east. Now those differences have been cut in half, and every region of the UK has unemployment levels below the average for the rest of Europe. It hasn't happened by accident. It is not simply the product of good intentions. It is the result of Conservative enterprise policies that are attracting new industries and investment.
We've made Britain the lowest taxed major economy in Europe. We've tamed the unions. We've freed business from the burdens that Labour would bring back through the job-destroying Social Chapter and minimum wage. And we have brought private sector funding into areas which have been run down for generations.
This Government has transformed areas like Hulme in Manchester. Four years ago it was marked by high unemployment, soaring crime and a dehumanising high rise estate. Now nearly 900 new jobs have been saved or created through private sector investment in social housing.
My objective is to transform the remaining large-scale public estates over the next decade. We are committedto transfer - with tenants' consents - over half of the remaining public housing stock to new partnership landlords. This will give estates around pounds 25bn in private investment.
But it's not just housing. In Kings Heath, Birmingham, Baverstock school - which serves the city's poorest neighbourhoods - has become Grant Maintained. An enthusiastic head teacher has restored pride, discipline and standards. In 1988 one in 14 pupils gained five GCSEs at grade A-C; now the figure is one in three. Then Baverstock had no sixth form. Now three out of four will be staying on in the sixth form established only four years ago. In Walsall an abandoned power station is being redeveloped. After 15 years 300 new houses, a golf course and nature reserve will take the place of rotting concrete and rusty boilers. Eight million pounds from Government has attracted pounds 54m in private investment. The whole process is creating well over 1,000 new jobs.
Eighteen years in opposition have left Labour ravenous for power. They mouth the words they are given, wear the right suit and tie, smile when told to do so. What lies behind the smile?
Those who really seek to raise educational standards will not pin their faith to a party which mouths pieties after it has opposed every measure of school performance. Those who really wish to turn "have nots" into "haves" will not put their trust in a party which fought council house sales and seeks to punish those who have bought shares in privatised industry. Those who really want to provide jobs will not allow the Social Chapter and minimum wage to drive young people into unemployment.
When I speak about the classless society, I have in mind the sort of people amongst whom I grew up. They deserve opportunity and choice. They should not be fobbed off with fine words and an easy smile.
Our philosophy is about treating all people as equal citizens - with a right to independence and self-respect. Yes, we believe in helping the less well-off. But it does them no favours to make them dependent on that help. I am determined to give everyone the opportunity to rise through their own efforts and share in the rewards of Conservative prosperity.Reuse content