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Chris Grayling: Uniting Britain's cities

"If you watch the film Kidulthood, and its violent sequel Adulthood, you can't help but be shocked by their stark and bleak portrayal of life in British cities today. But almost more shocking than the violence itself is the way in which this sub-culture of poverty, deprivation and alienation from society sits right alongside - literally - areas of prosperity, employment and success.

You find it in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and here in Liverpool.

Just look round the city centre. One of the country's biggest new shopping centres. The new arena. New hotels. The cruise ship terminal. Plans by Peel Holdings to transform the docks into a new skyscraper city.

But if you walk out of here with me, and head a mile off into Toxteth, I can show you streets where no one works, street corners where drug dealing is the main business, children being brought up in squalor, a caged up pub with pitbulls as bouncers - gangs, knives and guns in abundance.

A vast social divide.

The fictional world of Kidulthood and Adulthood are a reality in too many parts of too many cities. Cities where the social divide today is as vast as it has been for generations, and in many respects since Victorian times.

For London's notorious Highway and its surroundings of Victorian times, read today's Estates in South London.

For the gang strife of Norris Green and Toxteth today, read the fascinating saga of Victorian gang crime in Liverpool by Michael Macilwee.

Similar worlds, an era apart.

But whilst it's the violence that makes the headlines, the statistical divide goes much further than crime.

Take the most stark divide of all.

Life expectancy inequalities across the UK are at their widest since Victorian times.

There could be no clearer indicator of a society that is getting things wrong - where fairness is being missed out.

And it's not just health inequalities that are so stark.

The financial gap between the richest and the poorest is at its widest for generations. In fact it is at its highest level since records began.

We have, in this country, the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world. A poor child born in Britain in 1970 is less likely to escape its upbringing than a poor child born in 1958.

There are areas of every major city in this country where you will find communities with no children being brought up in poverty sitting side by side with ones where literally every child is being brought up in poverty - according to the Government's own figures.

And it just makes no sense.

For the past ten years we have listened while again and again Gordon Brown has boasted about his record in creating new jobs and targeting support on our poorest families.

Millions, literally, of people have moved to Britain from overseas to find work.

Just take a walk around this city centre, or go into one of its bars or hotels. Everywhere you go you will find people with overseas accents, people who have come to Liverpool from other parts of the world to find a new life. And they have found it.

So why on earth is it that so many people from within Liverpool have remained out of work, trapped in a culture of benefit dependency?

And it's not just here. It's in every one of our major cities.

Over the past couple of years I have spent time in different parts of the city, seeing and finding out more about the nature of the challenge we face. I've spent time in schools, in a hostel for the homeless, with kids on the streets, have visited youth projects. I've done the same elsewhere - in the Welsh valleys, in London, in Manchester.

I don't profess that a few days here and there make me an expert in the challenges we face. But I have been left with one very clear impression.

Within our cities we have local areas of extreme deprivation and social alienation from which few people escape. It's as if there are glass walls around them - a parallel culture existing alongside all of us in our daily lives.

It's a world where generations do not work.

Where parents take little interest in the schooling of their children - and where all too often truancy rather than education becomes the norm.

Indeed where children all too often have no stable family life at all - sometimes to the extent where they don't even have a single conventional home to live in. Brought up by grandparents, because parents are no longer around. Or passed from relative to relative.

Where children are falling behind before they even start school, and struggle through their education underachieving and falling further behind still.

Where often the gang culture on the streets offers a kind of stability and support that family life could never offer.

And where educational failure is followed by worklessness and all too often crime, antisocial behaviour, welfare dependency and often mental health problems.

Behind glass walls that none of the rest of us ever see as we drive past the end of the street. Except when the problem of criminality spills over into our lives.

I see one of the historic challenges of our time as being to break down those glass walls, to break down that parallel culture, and to return to an era where social mobility is the norm and not the exception.

That's what we mean as Conservatives when we talk about tackling our broken society.

There is no single, easy solution to these challenges. And no solution will be found overnight. It will be like steering the proverbial supertanker.

And we as politicians, like you as businessmen and women, can only help address parts of the problem.

But what I do know is that the top-down Government led bureaucratic approach that traps people in dependency, keeps police off our streets, and refuses to accept that different children need different kinds of support has failed.

And just throwing money at the problem doesn't sort things out either.

We now need to deploy Conservative means to achieve progressive ends.

We are now the only party that can tackle poverty, that can rebuild social mobility in Britain.

So we can change our tax and benefits system so it supports families and encourages couples to stay together.

We can create a much more fluid and challenging education system.

We can bring forward innovative plans to tackle our skills challenge, as my colleague David Willett's did last week.

But I think meeting the challenge of the glass wall estates needs a much more focused approach as well, involving Government and local communities alike.

And I think there are five things that need to form the heart of an alternative strategy to begin to break down the divides in our cities.

Five things that will form the heart of the next Conservative Government's efforts to revitalise those alienated communities.

A five point plan for reuniting our divided cities.

The starting point has to be to tackle the blight of worklessness in benefit blackspots.

We will need a network of back-to-work centres serving these most deprived communities - often run by the local voluntary groups that know the areas best.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is how we take people from an environment where work has been an alien concept, where getting up in the morning to go to work is something you just don't do, and help transform them into people who you would all deem employable and who could make a difference to your organisation.

I don't underestimate the challenge of that task. But we also know it can be done. It has been done for years in cities like New York, in thriving centres that can literally turn peoples' lives around. It's also being done on a lesser scale in this country. Yesterday I visited a project in London which is helping former gang members into work and training. I met a group of young men who've left the streets and started to sort their lives out. One of them has recently joined an estate agency and is - even in the current difficult climate - making an impact.

Sadly that project does not have funding to continue its work. Under the proposals we outlined, it would do. I want to see localised back to work programmes of this kind playing an important part of the welfare state of the future.

I think they are a vital ingredient of an effective package.

I was delighted last week when James Purnell, on behalf of the Government, accepted Conservative proposals for radical welfare reform.

But although we gave his words a warm welcome, he now has to prove that he intends to turn those warm words into reality. And we'll be chasing him every inch of the way to make sure the plans don't lose momentum - whilst getting ready to take up the task ourselves if we win the election.

The second area where change is desperately needed is in our primary schools. There is general acceptance today that children brought up in our most deprived communities arrive in school without much, if any, of the early developmental support that most children receive from their parents.

Head teachers regularly talk of children arriving in school barely able to string a sentence together because no one has helped them develop language skills.

Or never having used a knife and fork.

Or eaten a meal sitting at a table.

Or seen a book.

Or sat with their parents and worked out which letters are which.

Things we may all take for granted, but alien for many young children.

My colleague Michael Gove has brought forward innovative plans for our schools system - but no part of what he is planning is more important than an intensive programme of early intervention in primary schools to identify and help children who start to fall behind early in their schooling.

In particular, it's vital to make sure that children who struggle to read when they get to school catch up quickly. If they are allowed to really fall behind, all the evidence is that they will never catch up. That's why we are putting such a priority on reading skills for children from deprived areas, and why we are committed to targeting resource from within the education budget on a rapid catch up for their reading.

And let no one think that there is no potential among the young people on these estates. A few months ago I visited a project in Manchester working with truanting teenagers. "Right now," said the man running the project, "we have a problem with teenagers blowing up telephone boxes. They build small home made bombs in their kitchens, and then explode them in the phone boxes. Imagine if we could capture that ingenuity in a positive way," he said.

Imagine indeed. In a country short of scientists, imagine an education system that could channel those instincts in a positive way."

But we will also need to be much tougher on disorder, that disrupts those alienated communities as much as anything. That is our third challenge.

I remember visiting a half-term holiday scheme for nine year olds in the city four years ago, and meeting a group of lively and engaging youngsters. "The trouble is," said the student running the scheme, "that within three or four years virtually all of them will have been sucked into the local gang and drug culture."

That's why we are arguing for tough new measures to tackle criminality in such areas. We need much greater powers to stop and search - particularly given the epidemic of gun and knife crime. We need a simpler process to question suspects - and less bureaucracy - so we can get more police out onto the beat.

We need to tackle the drug culture in particular, by making proper treatment for addiction a condition of both our benefits and our criminal justice system.

And we are planning a revolution in prison rehabilitation, that will, we believe, dramatically reduce re-offending rates among young offenders in our cities.

Our fourth goal is to build a much stronger sense of ownership and involvement for those behind the glass walls.

I hope David Cameron's proposed National Citizens Service, available to all 16 year olds, will help to do just this. We need action to teach our young people about the self respect and respect for those around them. We need to help every young person achieve a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging as they enter adulthood. We also need to present young people with the opportunity to engage with and address issues that they believe to be important in their local communities.

That's what we intend for National Citizen Service, available to all 16 year olds. This will provide a compelling and challenging programme that will help teach young people about their responsibilities in society and provide a focus for participating in community service.

But it is not only our young people that we need to reengage in our communities. I envisage that our proposals for community work projects for the long term unemployed will not only help break a cycle of benefit dependency, but they will also give people a chance to invest in their own communities at the same time as gaining the skills they need to return to work.

But none of this will happen without the involvement of people with leadership skills and a sense of purpose in these areas. That's why the fifth priority must be to improve support for, and the involvement of voluntary groups.

Within Liverpool there are countless different organisations providing valuable support through networks of local volunteers. Last year I took one of them - Captain Dave Sharples - who works with the team at Frontline Church to mentor, support and excite vast numbers of local children and teenagers - to my Party's conference to share his experience with Conservative members. He got a standing ovation for one of the most moving moments of the Conference. I was out again with his team in Toxteth this morning.

It's people like Dave, and thousands like him around the country, who are changing people's lives on an individual and local basis in a way no politician could.

Our job is to recognise our limitations, and make sure that when we are back in Government, we set the voluntary sector free.

It won't be easy.

None of it will.

But Britain in the twenty-first century should not be a throwback to the nineteenth.

We should not have recreated the world of Victorian gangs in the realities seen in Adulthood and Kidulthood.

We should not be tolerating a society where the social divide has become so vast.

We should not have communities with glass walls around them, invisibly trapping their residents in a life of dependency.

Over the past ten years we have heard endless rhetoric from the current Government about the social challenges we face.

And about the things they have achieved.

But if you walk round our most deprived areas, you know immediately that things are not right, that the job remains undone - that we live in a society where fairness is in danger of being forgotten.

I believe our challenge in Government will be to start the enormous task of turning things around."

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