Privet and privation
The government has fixed Britain's broken inner cities. That was the easy part
TONY BLAIR gave his first major speech as prime minister not to MPs or activists, but to the residents of a housing estate in south London. Standing in front of grey slab-like flats and overhanging concrete walkways, he declared that the poorest people in Britain had hitherto been “ignored...except for the purpose of blaming them”. There would, he said, “be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build.”
In 1997 inner-city estates like the one Mr Blair visited were rife with crime, deprivation and alienation. Politicians think they still are. In 2008 David Cameron, now prime minister, gave a speech in east Glasgow declaring that Britain was “broken”. Yet such places are no longer the country's most pressing problem. Over the past few years most social blights—from crime to teenage pregnancy—have declined. And the improvement has been fastest by far in the middles of big cities. In suburban and rural areas, and particularly in poor coastal towns, social ills have been ameliorated less or have even got worse. Their residents are the new forgotten people.
Since 2008 the murder rate in England's biggest metropolitan areas—London, Manchester and the West Midlands—has declined five times faster than in the country as a whole. Teenage pregnancy, now much rarer in big cities like Birmingham, has ticked up in rural places such as Devon. Most dramatic is the change in schools. In 1997 Ofsted, Britain's schools inspector, declared the schools of Tower Hamlets, an east London borough, the worst in Britain. Last year poor children in Tower Hamlets did as well in GCSEs, exams taken at 16, as did all children in the country as a whole. These trends are especially stark in Britain, partly because of the country's excellent statistics. But they can be traced elsewhere too: violent crime dropped by 61% in America's biggest cities between 1991 and 2012, but by only 36% nationally.
This spectacular inner-city recovery—the result of gentrification, sober immigrants and government policy—is extremely welcome, but it leaves politicians with a problem. By European standards, Britain still ranks poorly on many measures: teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and educational failure are too common. And these ills are now dispersed around the country. Politicians who want to drive up school results and push down the national crime rate cannot simply focus on a benighted estate. They will have to fix problems in more unexpected places too. Poor children do worst at school in Peterborough, a cathedral town, and West Berkshire, in the Home Counties. Burglaries are most common in Yorkshire.
That means putting some noses out of joint. Despite years of reform, England and Wales still have 43 individual police forces. The smaller ones are in the rural areas; city forces are big. Small forces are less good at dealing with professional criminals or problems such as mental illness. The National Crime Agency, which launched last October, may go some way to forcing them to pool their expertise and to tackle problems which cross force boundaries. But it would be better to merge smaller forces into bigger ones, as has been done in Scotland. The police, who know where their weaknesses lie, are mostly willing to support this, but politicians have ducked it.
State cash should go to where the problems are. Schools in Tower Hamlets get 70% more money per pupil than do schools in Dorset. Given that it is now fairly easy to recruit ambitious young teachers in London, thanks to the increasingly powerful pull of the capital, that discrepancy is too high. Pay should be made more responsive to shortages in talent, whether among teachers or social workers. Programmes that send graduates to tough schools have so far focused on cities. In future their benefits should be more evenly spread.
More broadly, politicians will have to move away from the photo op and grand initiative method of improving society. Dramatically taking charge from Whitehall worked when problems were concentrated; it will not work nearly so well now that they are dispersed. In future, Britain's local councils—and indeed its neighbourhood charities and associations—will have to be trusted to do more themselves. Those that fail will need to be made more accountable. And Britain's next prime minister ought to make his first speech about social policy from behind a privet hedge.