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Letwin: the Conservative Party has to be the party of the inner cities

Speech in Brixton at the Ritzy Cinema

Some time ago, I made a speech about how we aspire to prevent crime in our inner cities. Instead of asking what were the causes of crime, I asked what are the causes of the neighbourly society?

I argued that a strong neighbourly society is about the establishment and preservation of the right relationships between individuals and that only strong relationships can foster strong communities.

Whilst many would agree with these aspirations, it is much harder to make them a concrete reality.

My task as Shadow Home Secretary is to try to formulate a set of foundations on which the neighbourly society can build:

First and foremost a neighbourly society must be one which fosters and encourages the networks of support between individuals, families, neighbourhoods and community associations. It depends on active citizens. and gains enormous benefits from voluntary activity.

Second, a neighbourly society is one which welcomes the society we have today, not one that hankers after the society which existed fifty years ago. It means establishing a framework in which neighbours of differing creeds and colours, backgrounds and aspirations, lifestyles and mores, can agree to differ and live together in harmony. They share the common enterprise of sustaining a neighbourhood, and the common enterprise of ensuring that their children are brought up to be law abiding and active citizens. From the many one.

Third, a neighbourly society requires providing young people with exit routes from the conveyer belt to crime. Parents of very young children facing difficulties need help. Persistent offenders need long term rehabilitation and young addicts need serious and effective drug treatment.

Fourth, a neighbourly society depends on the police. We need to give them the ability to recapture our streets through the real and sustained neighbourhood policing that we have had in Brixton - actively pursued by Borough Commander Richard Quinn and Inspector Sean Wilson. We will support this commitment by allowing for a real and substantive increase in police numbers. We are pledged to increase police numbers by 40,000 - roughly a third - over eight years which would mean an extra 8,482 extra officers for London alone.

The strange thing is that - in an age in which obligatory disagreement between politicians of differing Parties has become almost a religion (though not a religion of which I am an adherent) - these propositions have not attracted much opposition.

I should love to believe that the lack of disagreement is wholly due to positive and enthusiastic agreement - a positive consensus.

And I do believe there is a degree of consensus.

There is agreement on the scale of the problem in our inner cities. There is agreement on the nature of the problem in our inner cities. There is even agreement on many of the particular things that we need to do to tackle the problems.

But I fear there is another, much less comforting reason for the lack of opposition. I believe that my political opponents - and many of the commentators - think that the establishment of a neighbourly society in our inner cities is no more than a pleasing, nostalgic pipe-dream.

They think that the problems of the inner cities are so vast as to be insoluble. They are happy for the Government to take initiatives - but, as Barbara Roche's interesting commentary has recently emphasised, they do not really believe that these initiatives will do much more than to show willing by bringing about temporary improvements. They regard the idea of what I have called sustainable social progress in the inner cities as desirable but naïve.

I do not agree with them.

In another context, I recently described myself as a naïve optimist who believed in miracles.

I am, and I do.

I believe in the miracle of the establishment of a neighbourly society - the bringing about of sustainable social programmes in our inner cities.

Yes. This is a dream. But only in the sense in which Martin Luther King used that term in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the greatest speech of the twentieth century, and the dream he dreamed that day has surely been coming true ever since.

We too must have the capacity to dream - and the will to make our dreams come true.

I say this as much to my own party as to any other. As Iain Duncan Smith has made abundantly plain, the Conservative Party cannot be seen merely as the Party of the leafy suburbs and of the rural shires.

The Conservative Party is committed and has to be committed to a fair deal for everyone. No one held back and no one left behind.

To fulfil that commitment, the Conservative Party has to be the Party of the Inner Cities.

We have to believe in our dream of sustainable social progress in the inner cities. We have to believe in our dream of establishing a neighbourly society in the inner cities. We have to believe that we can lift young people off the conveyer belt to crime.

Of course, we have to recognise that there are grounds for - at least reasons for - the pessimism and cynicism that is so prevalent.

In just over fifty years, as we have vastly increased our national income, we have moved from a "deferential society" through a "liberated society" to a "celebrity society" in which David and Victoria Beckham's comings and goings attract more attention than an earthquake in Algeria. We now live in a society in which millions of our citizens prefer to vote characters off reality TV programmes - using their mobile phones at 25 pence a shot - rather than turn up at polling booths for elections.

The paradox is that this prosperity and celebrity are not enough. Behind the glitz and glamour of much of modern life there is an underbelly of material and spiritual poverty. One estimate from Dick Atkinson - an expert in urban renewal - suggests that 20% of the population live in 3,000 troubled inner and outer city neighbourhoods. A further 10% teeter on the brink.

To have almost one in three of our fellow citizens facing such circumstances is shocking enough. Add to this the knowledge that a crime is committed every five seconds, that criminals only have a 3% chance of being convicted and that 75% of young offenders re-offend following their sentences, and the "celebrity society" begins to look very threadbare indeed.

No wonder great pessimism abounds about the breakdown and, what some have termed, the 'atomisation' of our communities. No wonder there are some who believe that nothing can be done.

And, beyond the spiritual poverty of the celebrity society, there lies another reason for pessimism: the all too frequent failure of well meaning Government initiatives and Whitehall sponsored schemes that offer a lot of hope - and money - but do not achieve what they set out to do.

Take 'zones'. Education zones. Health zones. New Deal zones. It sometimes feels as if we now live in a kaleidoscope of zones. And, as the kaleidoscope is shaken, as one zone turns into another, as Whitehall celebrates another initiative in another place, the troubled, hard-pressed neighbourhoods are left with the same fundamental problems that they had before the men from the ministry moved in.

As Dick Atkinson says :

"While we may end up with say 50 Education Action Zones, even 100 Health Zones and 40 New Deal communities, these will hardly touch the 3,000 troubled neighbourhoods and the 15,000,000 people who live in them…..

…..the honest intentions of government risk being diverted again into icing the crumbling cake instead of helping bake a new one".

Or take another example of huge regeneration schemes. Earlier this year it was revealed by the Birmingham Evening Mail that an organisation set up in April 2001 - with £54 million cash - under a new deal project for Aston in Birmingham, managed to spend just £5 million of which £538,000 was spent on bureaucrats and hundreds of thousands more on consultants doing feasibility studies. 14,000 residents in Aston who had been told that their neighbourhoods would be transformed did not experience any changes at all.

As the newspaper stated:

"lots of bluster about holistic visions and overarching statements cloud the fact that in three years virtually nothing has been done".

No wonder the All-Party Commons Select Committee on Local Government warned in a Report earlier this year that "the targets and outcomes of area based regeneration programmes need to be aligned to the needs of the area concerned".

Or as Rachel Heywood puts it:

"We want sustainable solutions; we're weary of the quick fixes, parachuted in expertise, the plethoras of short term projects, bored of being an experiment. We know that we have expertise on the ground, we know that we could lead the way in best practice.. the community is aware of the scale and the complexity of what is going on and what needs to be done."

Rachel is right and the pessimists are clearly wrong. Community, not bureaucracy is the answer.

But the fact that there are reasons for the pessimism and the cynicism does not mean that the pessimism or the cynicisms are justified.

On the contrary, I know that the pessimism and the cynicism are unjustified.

I know that they are unjustified because in some places the dream is becoming true.

I know that miracles can occur, because in some places they are occurring.

These miracles have not been bought about by politicians or by bureaucrats. They have not been brought about by plans, or initiatives, or targets. They have not been brought about by money or celebrity or glitz or spin.

They have been brought about by faith and hope.

They have been brought about by communal effort, by people determined to make, for themselves and their neighbours, sustainable social progress in the inner cities - the very commodity that the cynics and the pessimists believe cannot be manufactured.

Three Miracles

Brixton

I have been taken to the Pulross Playground by Rachel Heywood and Inspector Sean Wilson, Head of the Brixton Town Centre Team. Rachel tells me that her activities began in 1996 with a campaign to save their dangerous playground from property developers. Not only did Rachel and other local residents ward off the developers, but they warded off the drug dealers as well. How was this done? Through sheer determination, courage and community action. The mess was cleared, gardens were planted and events organised. They have transformed a dangerous playground full of drug needles and other detritus into an oasis of tranquillity for the children who live nearby. They have restored a community spirit and pride in a neighbourhood that was previously known for its local crack houses.

What is even more remarkable is that Rachel and others have moved on from rescuing a playground to helping to renew a whole community. Their work in building close relationships with the police, the anti drugs campaigns, the positive messages sent out to young people cannot be understated. This, coupled with the efforts of the Brixton Police to engage with the local community and build close relationships, is all having a dramatic effect.

The result is undisputed both anecdotally and factually. For example, the leader of a Rastafarian temple invited police to clear out drug users from the temple - something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Over the past year, crime figures for Lambeth have radically improved. Since August 2002, robbery is down 36% and burglary down 50%. Over 140 abandoned cars have been removed, over 900 graffiti sites cleansed and 30,000 needles collected.

Haringey

Joel Edwards who has done such remarkable things with the Evangelical Alliance once said:

"Christians are all called to be ambassadors - agents of reconciliation pointing people to forgiveness in Christ and reminding us of our obligations towards one another. In the book of Revelation, we read of the time when, the kingdom of this world will become "the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ." In the mean time, preacher, priest or politician - all of us - must seize every opportunity to work for that society. A society which anticipates the time when hostility and hatred ends. And it will start in our families, down our street and across our communities as we dare to think of ourselves as God's ambassadors of reconciliation."

I was reminded of Joel's powerful words, when I visited the Haringey Peace Alliance a few months ago - a remarkable organisation set up by Pastor Nims in 2001. The Haringey Peace Alliance has many qualities, but its key role is in building relationships between all sections of the community. The Alliance draws together local clergy (of all faiths), local authorities and the police and takes a lead role in organising campaigns against drugs, gangs and violent crime.

When violent crime was at an all time high, the Alliance staged a Week of Peace which involved seven days of continuous activities including a youth festival. When young people needed support and advice, the Alliance set up a Pastor's initiative, training a team of twelve committed individuals to go out to mentor troubled youngsters.

When there was distrust between the police and local inhabitants, the Alliance worked with the police to arrange for local people to accompany them on night duties. When the police received funds from the Crime and Disorder Partnership, instead of just spending it on their own immediate and short term needs, they shared it round with the Alliance and other community groups. When a police officer died in a car crash, the Alliance gave a public show of solidarity by organising members of the public to turn up to the funeral.

The Alliance applies for Government and agency funding wherever possible. But because the community from the grassroots are applying directly for funds, the money they receive, whilst not huge, is spent much more wisely. This is the Brixton story all over again.

Asked what is the secret ingredient to the Alliance, Pastor Nims has a simple answer. The Alliance works because people with a passion are working together for the good of their neighbourhood and are establishing relationships which are strong because they are personal rather than bureaucratic.

What has been the effect of the Alliance on crime? The first Peace Week led to a big decrease in violent crime, a fortnight after the event had ended. Firearm crimes involving murder and attempted murder have dropped by 47% over an eight month period. These figures speak for themselves.

Birmingham

Earlier in my speech, I gave an example of a bureaucratic top down regeneration scheme in Aston in Birmingham, which has clearly failed. Yet by contrast, just around the corner there are social entrepreneurs who are working from within their neighbourhoods to improve people's lives.

Recently, I visited Handsworth in Birmingham where I met two groups, Parents United and the Partnership Against Crime. These groups were set up in response to the violent gang culture in the area, exemplified by the tragic murder of teenagers Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in Aston on New Year's Day. They are determined to work with residents and existing groups such as local churches to draw their young people away from the gun and gang culture and off the conveyer belt to crime. They are doing everything possible to ensure that the tragedy that befell the families of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis does not happen to another family. Because they have been established by local people within their neighbourhoods, they are able to build relationships where none existed before. They are able to offer young people exits from the conveyer belt to crime, because they know and understand the young people concerned.

Although it is early days, there is every possibility that Parents United and Partnership against Crime will achieve the same success as the Brixton Crime Forum and the Haringey Peace Alliance.

Conclusion

What is my message to the miracle-workers? What is the message of my Party?

It is that visiting these examples of extraordinary human achievement is not enough, and that politicians like me need to help the spiritual flowers we have found take root in other, currently barren soils.

It is that the purpose of the state must be to recognize, to celebrate and to assist - but not to seek to replace or supplant their efforts.

It is that, in their efforts, their successes, their miracles, lies the route to the establishment of the neighbourly society, the route to sustainable social progress in our inner cities.

The pessimists will never be able to kill off their neighbourhood action and the renewal of the neighbourly society because it works. These are miracles, but they are not complex and they can be replicated. They do not involve splitting the atom, or inventing eternal motion. They involve human beings learning to feel differently about one another.

Michael Groce has a very important message which I hope he won't mind me quoting. He says:

"I don't think they can ever kill off the community of Brixton".

From what I have seen, I could not agree more.

We have much to thank the optimists for...

... for working miracles in our inner cities.

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