Leading Article: Gun law in the ghettos

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The Independent Online
PROFESSOR Brian Robson, of Manchester University, warned us this week that if we do not watch out we shall find ourselves with American-type urban ghettos guarded by armed police. He contrasted the successful development of some northern European cities with Britain's failure to invest enough in urban policy or to achieve a coherent long- term policy. Without money, work and hope our cities will founder, he said.

Fortunately we are still a long way from American levels of violent crime but the warning is timely. Over more than a decade, each explosion of violence in Britain's urban disaster areas has produced a flurry of reports and proposed remedies culminating most recently in the City Challenge programme of 1991 and the Urban Regeneration Agency launched last year.

Some efforts have brought improvements, as Professor Robson acknowledges, but the problem continues to worsen. In too many British cities there are areas of deep poverty and demoralisation in which law and order have largely broken down. Urban areas account for most recorded crime, which rose by 11 per cent in the year ending June 1992. Firearms offences increased by about 4.5 per cent a year from 1980, reaching 10,373 by 1990. Drug trafficking is rising steadily.

These are not problems that can be ignored by the rest of society in the hope that they will be contained in small areas, if only because burglaries and muggings radiate out to plague law-abiding communities. The fact is that Britain is nurturing an underclass of dangerously bitter people who feel no loyalty to society, expect to play no role in it, cost a great deal to maintain and present a growing danger to themselves and everyone else.

Causes are easier to find than solutions. Bad architecture and town planning contributed to the breakdown of old communities, which were partly self-regulating. The increase in single-parent families inflicts greater stress on the poor. Immigration has exacerbated ethnic tensions and contributed to the tribalism that attracts young people of all colours in search of identity, purpose and excitement. The weakening of local government and cuts in the funding of some programmes have not helped. Recession and unemployment make a bad situation worse.

The most serious long-term contribution to the problem is the failure of the education system to prepare young people for an economy in which the proportion of unskilled jobs will continue to fall. Many of the violent youths now carrying guns around Manchester's Moss Side would be incapable of finding employment even if the recession were to end tomorrow. They know this, or feel it, so they turn easily to the criminal economy.

As far back as 1971 the Tories called for a 'total approach' to urban decline. That is still what is needed. It should start from a strategic concept of the British city of the future and reach down to the fine details of local regeneration and community involvement. It will have to be linked to the broad issues of industrial policy, further education reforms, local government, better policing and ideas such as 'workfare' designed to harness energies of the unemployed that now go to waste. For a prime minister from Brixton in search of a new domestic agenda there could scarcely be a more appropriate issue on which to focus.

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