Anthony Steen – 1978 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Steen, the then Conservative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, in the House of Commons on 1 November 1978.

I wish to speak about the part of the Gracious Speech to which I do not believe that other hon. Members have yet addressed their minds. I refer to the great towns and cities and revival of those great cities, because that has been a major plank of successive Government strategies, both economically and socially.

I think it was the Wilsonian Administration about 10 years ago which started it off. It was quite natural, therefore, that in the Gracious Speech there should be a line about the inner city areas stating that the Government would continue to press forward with their partnership plans. Presumably, the Secretary of State for the Environment will be at the helm, as he has been up to now, directing the operations. This Session he will be armed with the Inner Urban Areas Act and the partnership committees now fully in being. The only problem is that the Secretary of State has now been at the helm for some three or four years and not very much has happened to show his work.

If one looks at the cities, one will not see the new dawn about which the Secretary of State has been talking. In fact, many people have grown restless when they have seen no evidence that the cities are on the mend. They also find it difficult to reconcile the utterances of the Secretary of State, who keeps ​ saying how gratified he is with progress, with the stark reality which shows our major cities continuing in their rapid decline. How can the Secretary of State possibly equate his optimism with the persistently high levels of unemployment which we find in most of our major urban areas, with the lengthening list of firms wanting to leave the inner cities, or with the continuing exodus of people from the inner areas to the outer zones and the ever-increasing shortage of good homes? I am only sorry that the Secretary of State for the Environment is unable to be with us tonight. In the face of this situation, the provisions of the Inner Urban Areas Act are damaging. I shall explain why this is so.

The Act has given the poor urban authorities the powers to increase their borrowing. Therefore, those already heavily committed in debt to crippling housing debt charges can just increase those charges. The Act has tempted some of the most deprived urban authorities to become even more deprived. It is driving them deeper and deeper into debt and creating even more problems for them in the future.

The Inner Urban Areas Act is just one manifestation of the tricks up the Government’s sleeve. It is a mirage created by the Government that prosperity for our cities is on the horizon. The illusion has been fortified by a whole gamut of cleverly chosen named projects which convey positive thinking but which so far have meant absolutely nothing.

For example, there are now seven so-called partnership schemes covering 15 local authority districts. There are 15 programme districts and 14 recently announced designated districts. These are on top of the existing areas which are included in development area status, special development status and the old assisted areas. No one quite understands what these areas are or what they do. All we know is that there has been no sign of any revival in our towns and cities in the last four years.

It seems from the Gracious Speech that the Government propose to continue with those schemes and with those names. In the last few years the Secretary of State has followed the publication of the White Paper on policy for the inner cities by doing two things. He has topped up the ​ urban aid programme, which had lost its real force, and he has introduced a Bill, which is now an Act, which will make the poor local authorities poorer because they will be asked and expected to increase their debt charges.

The White Paper from which we expected so much is no more than the culmination of a decade of activity in research analysis action projects which have now cost the taxpayer £100 million. The House will recollect where all this began—with the urban aid programme, which first came about in 1968. This was to deal with the pockets of deprivation. Then we had the community development project, the educational priority areas, the young volunteer force, the neighbourhood schemes, the urban guideline studies and the inner area studies. Then research was started into transmitted deprivation, followed by the quality of life studies. Then we had the urban deprivation unit and comprehensive community programmes, and the GLC set up a deprived areas project. There are now area management and research trials in Liverpool.

When the White Paper was published 18 months to two years ago, the nation held its breath and thought that at last, after all the research schemes and action projects, the actual action was about to start. The principal actors seemed to be in the right place, the set-up was brilliant, the lyrics were racy, the producer came from a good stable, and, indeed, it was to be a spectacular. What, in fact, did we see? None other than our old friend Mickey Mouse. The Government’s approach to the cities’ problems has been as meaningful as a Walt Disney cartoon.

In Liverpool there have been only three partnership meetings in the last 18 months. These were chaired by the Secretary of State for the Environment himself. There have been a few other Ministers present—from Industry, Employment and Education. Then the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour groups also attend, and county councillors, the health authority and many others are involved in partnership meetings.

If that was all we were witnessing, we would perhaps be content that there was one group of people looking once again ​ into the problems of the inner city. But that partnership committee is but one of a great number of committees. There is an officers’ steering committee consisting of more than a dozen principal officers, not to mention the working groups of senior officials on the economy, housing, physical areas, environment, recreation and transport. There is also an inner area sub-committee made up of 20 councillors, and there are more committees and sub-committees than I have mentioned.

But as the non-statutory bodies—the voluntary organisations and community groups—are not involved in the partnership, despite pressure from this side of the House that they should be included, the voluntary bodies have started to go it alone. They have set up rival partnership committees. The one that is now running in Liverpool has 170 organisations meeting every two or three months, running exactly in parallel to all the other Government committees. The conflict and confrontation are right there in the partnership.

Despite the buzz and whizzing of papers through the official corridors, the numbers of acres of vacant and derelict land in Liverpool are still around 2,000, and over three-quarters belongs to the city council and nationalised industries.

Therefore, despite the huge build-up to the effect that all the problems were to be solved, we have still exactly the same number of derelict and vacant areas which are not being used to produce wealth or create jobs in the very area where the partnership committee is at work. It is here that we see land hoarding at its worst. This has caused artificially high book values. Not surprisingly, authorities cannot find buyers because scarcity knocks up the rent and rates as well as driving small businesses away from the inner cities, and jobs with them.

This is no way to woo back the thousands who have already fled the inner city in the last decade. But surely that is what the partnership is purported to be all about. It is about revitalising the inner areas, creating new jobs and new homes and developing new businesses. What is the point of building new advance factories in inner Liverpool on Government money when there are so may good, empty, older factories which are not used and which, with a little modernisation, rehabilitation and imagination, ​ could be good for use again? What justification can there be now that the Inner Urban Areas Act is in force for permitting the Lucas Aerospace factory, a company which has closed its large old premises in my constituency, to move out into a green field site on the edge of Liverpool, depriving the inner city of both jobs and rate income?

That makes nonsense of partnership, because that is what partnership would not approve of. There is plenty of space left in Liverpool and many other principal areas which could be used first before green field site development. But green field site development on the edges of a city is always cheaper and the infrastructure in the new sites is more reasonable than if one seeks to put infrastructure back into the inner cities. One reason for this situation is the artificially high land value which the inner city now attracts.

It is also strange that the partnership concentrates on the inner areas, because many of the large provincial towns, in which the population has moved from the inner city to the outer city, are where the concentrations should be. The populations are no longer in the core areas because, as a result of demolition, they have moved to the edges. Yet the edges of the city comprise the one area—and Liverpool is no exception—not included in the partnership.

The partnership specifically excludes those major areas of population density and concentrates on inner area revival. It is in the outer city that the social problems exist. The one thing that the partnership areas have in common is that they include a number of marginal seats within their boundaries, and they have also suffered from severe cut-backs in public expenditure over the past five years.

For example, we were spending £5·3 million on improvement grants in Liverpool in 1974–75. In 1977–78 that figure was down to £1·5 million. Local authority mortgage loans to buy and improve totalled £4·7 million in 1974–75 but barely £1 million last year. If the partnership is talking about reviving the inner city and rehabilitating the older houses, it must be pointed out that the sums of money in the local authority budget which could do this work have been drastically cut.

What is partnership all about? All one can say about it is that the Government are trying to put right the money they took away. There is no question of giving more money or new money. They are merely putting back and making good the previous losses. If this is all the partnership is about, why set up such an elaborate structure? We could have done without the Minister and his colleagues walking down Dale Street in Liverpool, smiling from side to side and posing for local photographers. But that is what it appears partnership is about, because to date the new money is hardly sufficient to replace the old and the replacement money is accompanied by far greater Government controls and sanctions. First they took it away, then they put it back to what it was before—but with increased controls and sanctions.

Even on the most charitable interpretation, the most that can be said for the partnership in our area is that it is a little more of the same thing, but it has done no particular good for people living in the inner areas. Far from finding cures for old ills, the partnership appears to have done little more than partly refill some of the local authority coffers for special needs—improvement of council housing, rehabilitation of private homes, grants for mortgages and loans and grants for voluntary work.

Liverpool found its £30 million housing budget increased to £40 million—the level of some years ago—through the partnership. We then had the extraordinary situation of the director of housing passing a confidential note, which everyone now knows about, telling the local authority that he cannot spend £40 million because he does not have the machinery to cope with and process all the applications which will result from the increased cash and saying that, unless he is given more staff and resources or the rules and regulations are changed, he will have to hand back £3 million to £5 million this year. That has happened in an area where the housing is probably the worst in the country.

There is no point in topping up a fund which has dropped unless it is accompanied by all the paraphernalia and bureaucracy that is needed to run the fund or unless the rules are changed. The partnership will not do that. It insists on playing according to the rules as they ​ have been, rather than having new approaches and innovations.

I am told that similar problems exist in other spending departments where an injection of funds, far from helping to solve problems, is merely creating new problems within the departments. If the partnership were just this it would be an extremely sick joke, because the new machinery would be fouling up existing mechanisms which were working before the partnership came along. However, I suggest that there is a far more sinister move behind the partnership.

One may ask whether this is the first step of the Government to establish a sort of regional supremo for the metropolitan areas which the Government feel have failed to rejuvenate their urban areas. Is there to be a sort of local dictator from London to push, chivy and ultimately control the local authorities in the area? Let me explain why I think that this is happening.

In some ways the Government have lost faith in the Liverpool city council as well as the Mersey county council. They consider those local authorities to be without ideas, but that is not true. The Liverpool city council is already building houses for sale, and the county council has a number of exciting and interesting projects to revive the economy of Merseyside. However, such initiatives are seemingly discouraged because of the partnership’s insistence that every new project that emanates from the city council or county council must come under the partnership scheme.

There is already talk about setting up sub-committees of the partnership so that the local authorities are subordinated to this new tier of government. Is the partnership to become a new tier of government? Has it been subtly erected above the local authorities so that the Minister has control of what goes on at that level? Can we expect this to be the first stage of manoeuvring in regional control and regional government? Is that what the partnership is all about? If the partnership means a new approach and a new initiative, where are they’? All that we have seen is a little more of the old thing served up in new guises.

There is talk of the urban aid programme. It is the upgraded 1978 model of the 1968 scheme. It has broader terms of reference and an increased amount of public money. No one has ever seen the urban aid programme tackling our major cities’ problems. On the contrary, it has helped to bring forward some of the projects that are already in the pipeline that the city council would have undertaken in any event. It has helped to do that a little earlier. For example, there is a sports complex in Edinburgh Street, Liverpool. It is stuck in a park in the middle of nowhere. The council has been trying to bring it forward for many years. As a result of the urban aid programme it has managed to start building it now. The complex is virtually completed. However, it will do nothing to solve unemployment, housing or the provision of jobs in the inner area.

One wonders whether the Government would be better to pay off Liverpool’s housing debt for a few years—it is now running at £28 million a year—instead of all this partnership nonsense. If they paid off the housing debt for two or three years, that would allow the council to spend its own money as it thought best.

One of the problems of urban aid is that it distorts the existing priority lists of the local authority by pushing forward schemes in which the Government are particularly interested, thus distorting the picture locally.

I should like to ask the Minister, if he ever turns up in the Chamber, one or two further questions. Does he expect to hear proposals from one partner in the partnership in areas of concern which are the responsibility of another partner in the partnership? Is it the Government’s belief that the needs of the inner cities can be met merely by taking existing local authority services and Government functions and trying to extend their boundaries? Surely the Home Office community development project showed the limitations of neighbourhood-based experiments finding new ways of meeting the needs of those living in areas of high social deprivation.

If the Government are not planning to make the partnership a vehicle for new solutions and the creation of change, the cities have been hoodwinked, as well as the people living in them. All that we are ​ witnessing is another project in the same mould that will deceive and distort. It will do nothing to solve the real problems. If the sum result of the White Paper is another, more elaborate talking shop, dereliction and despair in our industrial towns will continue and worsen.

It may be that the Government have already concluded that there are no solutions to the ailing cities. If so, why erect such an elaborate fa çade to conceal the truth, undermine local authority powers and block up the existing machinery? I cannot believe that the Government are that stupid. It must be part of a greater strategy to bring the cities under Government control with Whitehall and the Minister in a new tier of government on top and in charge.