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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Deep insight into the UK's knife crime problems

Simon Jenkins is often an excellent commentator. He writes in The Times - he has just highlighted a stack of (government-related) reasons why people arm themselves with knives, namely because of the utter failure of politicians, especially at national level, to better equip this country's towns and cities for the future.

With urban regenerations systematically failing and way behind the rest of Europe, our politicians are just crap leaders - their egos, their preoccupation with status and careers blinds them to understanding what this country would do better without... quite simply, we would do better without them at the helm.

But I think we've got to vote for change, use the ballot box - and protest if possible. We really don't want to wait for things to collapse by themselves, for things to get worse, for extravagance, complacency and self-indulgence in (central) government to continue. We must bring these things to a head somehow - but how?

Here's Simon Jenkins article - viewable on The Times site too.

There is nothing so absurd as a British politician pretending to be provincial. Last week those not on holiday went berserk rubbishing a think tank report said to suggest that northern cities be cleansed of talent and their populations moved to the south.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, in Carlisle at the time, described a report he cannot have read as “insane, barmy” and, for good measure, “total rubbish”. John Prescott, the former Labour deputy leader, bellowed from Hull that it was “insulting and ignorant”. Vera Baird, a minister, suggested it showed “vindictive antinorthern thinking”. The study said no such thing, but any stick will do to beat the dog of geographical stereotype.

Earlier this month Gordon Brown was on the same bandwagon, proposing to hold cabinet meetings in the provinces. The idea was worthy of the emperor Bokassa. Brown clearly envisages overjoyed peasants streaming from their hovels, wiping coal dust and tears from their eyes with grubby handkerchiefs. His richly apparelled cabinet, with gun-toting police and lobby reporters in attendance, would pass by as the people cried, “Thank you, dear prime minister, for so recognising our existence with your presence.”

The never out-dafted Hazel Blears has plans for ministers to “fan out” to meet “local people” (a hitherto unmet group) and hold cabinet sessions “drawing on the conversations”. Her image consultants suggest the British Legion in Swindon, the town hall in Grimsby and the Victoria centre in Crewe, I kid you not, as gritty venues. Actors would presumably be stationed at key points before the cameras to shout, “Bah goom, Hazel, tha’s got a reel tooch o’ the north abaht ye.”

I never cease to marvel at the patience of provincial England towards the insufferable patronage of London. Politicians step off trains and pat children on the head, saying, “There, there, it is not too bad living in Barnsley, is it?” - as if Barnsley were recovering from the plague. The idea of a lumpen electorate that can be appeased with such pap as a “listening visit” is classic top-down paternalism. But since the Irish, Scots and Welsh have won a measure of self-government, the people of England are politically in play. Henry James never spoke more true than that “all England is a suburb of London”.

The Policy Exchange report on Cities Unlimited is thoughtful. It seeks to analyse the “predict-and-provide” planning, coupled with letting the market rip, that has dominated government policy for decades. New building has indeed drifted south and east, while huge amounts of money have been tipped into demolishing and rebuilding “new Jerusalems” in the north and west.

This rebuilding has been public-sector-led, largely for housing and more recently for retailing and warehousing. The glories of Victorian urbanism, which might have created exciting magnets of city renewal, were destroyed and replaced by fast-decaying blandness. Nor is this confined to the north: see Southampton, Bristol and Plymouth.

The report concludes that “the policy of regeneration has failed”. The north-south gap in wealth and population growth has widened, as has the earnings gulf between London and the rest of England. This is supported by an Office for National Statistics report in June that showed London’s gross value added per head as 50% above the national average.

The policy has imprisoned millions in characterless housing estates, many far from city centres, from which they cannot find jobs, other than government ones. No amount of romanticism, or the pockets of liveliness in conserved areas of Newcastle upon Tyne, Liverpool and Leeds, can conceal this fact. Provincial urban renewal has been the greatest single failure of domestic policy in half a century, comparing starkly with regeneration in continental Europe and America. Since the start of deindustrialisation, Britain’s cities have lagged behind those of France, Germany and Italy in prosperity, appearance, self-confidence and public order.

The chief reason is not economic geography - the obsolescence of cities built to look to the sea or the coal fields. Such places in Europe and America have been equally ill-sited but have adjusted. The reason for peculiar failure in Britain has been the emasculation of local leadership and its replacement with central government dirigisme. The only parallel is with socialist eastern Europe.

The death of civic pride in England, engineered by governments of both parties, has collapsed the enterprise culture on which renewal depends. Provincial administration has become dependent on one central agency after another, culminating in the costly candy-floss of regional development agencies.

These overpaid bureaucracies stand pathetic comparison with the elected mayors of Barcelona, Toulouse, Munich or Milan, whose renaissance in recent decades has been rooted, as the report says, “in local leadership being taken for granted, where the locality not the nation state determines priorities, makes decisions and takes responsibility”.

In Britain, anonymous city councillors must go cap in hand to obscure officials to plead for grants, “portraying their pitiful state that would be transformed if only central government were to fund a business park, high-speed train, new town centre or cultural quarter”. No political leadership, no risk or enterprise, emerges from such a process. Yet fear of being thought “unprovincial” is leading Cameron to recoil from his plan to abolish the regional development agencies.

London’s preeminence may diminish with the recession in financial services, but its proximity to the continent, size and cultural vitality will always make it the nation’s first city. At the same time the former industrial regions cannot be written off. Their revival needs elected mayors (so revivifying for London) and an independent tax base. This is especially the case given the other side of the report’s coin. The concentration of development in the southeast by offering it more land would consign yet more of rural Britain to concrete.

Anyone flying low over the southeast has an overwhelming sensation of the vulnerability of its green acres. Anyone flying over the north of Britain is equally aware of the quantity of derelict and unused land. Mile upon mile of the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire is industrial detritus. Were the free market a genuine one, these miles would be returned to farming. The emptying warehouses and hypermarkets would revert to countryside. But open space and greenery is no longer created, only destroyed.

That is why what is rightly called “town-and-country planning” exists. It is why the effort that has gone into the renewal of the urban Midlands and north cannot be wasted. The idea of more intensive development in the London region to allow its economy to boom is one thing, but rural Britain is becoming more desirable than urban. Rural land and house prices are rising, in the north as well as the south. Villages are sought by the wealthy, the telecommuter and the retired. That is why sacrificing the green belts anywhere to development would be crazy.

There is no evidence that the British people want such a sacrifice. They want the one thing government (and the opposition) refuses to give them: stability and pride in their community and the freedom and local taxes to govern it themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Your Blog is wonderful, it is great to see someone taking a proactive stance about knife crime.
    Thank you


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