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Cameron: Helping make Britain the most civilised place in the world

Speech in Devon

"Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you here today.

This is an incredibly special place for me and my family. In fact, they're all on the beach just a few hundred yards away.

Over the past few months, we have enjoyed the rare opportunity to debate our Party's future direction.

I've made a number of contributions to that debate, and today I'd like to draw together some of the themes I've already outlined, and offer a new perspective on the direction I think we should take.

I'd like to start with the last general election.

You don't get anywhere in life unless you're honest with yourself about things that go well and things that don't.

Politics is no different: and when Michael Howard gave us this opportunity to debate ideas freely and openly, that's what he had in mind.

So let's be honest with ourselves.

At the last election, we got some things right.

We set the agenda, forcing the Government to account for itself on the issues that mattered to the British people. You can still see the impact today.

It was our leader, Michael Howard, starting in the summer of last year, who identified and campaigned on the need for more respect, discipline and decent values.

What did Tony Blair say on the steps of Downing Street the day after the election? That restoring respect would be top of his agenda.

It was our education spokesman, Tim Collins, who identified and campaigned on the central problem of discipline in our schools.

What was the first area that Ruth Kelly focused on when she became Education Secretary? School discipline.

It was our health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, who campaigned so vigorously and effectively on the scandal of hospital-acquired infections.

And what do we see today? The problem accelerating even further out of control, but with Patricia Hewitt recognising that it's her number one issue.

So let's be proud of what we did at the last election.

We showed that our party is in touch with the issues that matter to people.

We showed that we have the courage to stand up for what we believe.

And perhaps most importantly of all, we showed ourselves to be a disciplined team.

As a party, we win as a team, and we lose as a team. But we must also learn as a team. I was part of our team at the last election, and I want to make sure that as well as remembering our successes, we learn from our mistakes.

And I think it's pretty clear now what some of those mistakes were. First, we didn't articulate a central theme that united our policies. Second, we didn't demonstrate sufficiently to the British people that our values chimed with theirs.

And third, we didn't communicate an inspiring vision for the kind of country Britain would be with a Conservative Government. In my contributions to our debate so far, I've already set out my views on the first two of these areas.

I believe that the central theme which should unite all our policies is timeless and straightforward. We need to strengthen the ties that bind us. In June, I spoke about the family as the most important building block of society. Modern families come in all shapes and sizes and they all need support.

But I believe that a modern Conservative party should strengthen marriage. In July, I emphasised the importance of communities: how we need to do more to encourage social action. Take any one of the most intractable problems we face - illiteracy, drug abuse, family breakdown and you will find a social enterprise somewhere in the country doing great work and showing great initiative.

We need to give them more power. And last week, I spoke about the ties that bind us as a nation.

I described how our response to the security threat we face should be rooted in our shared national values - freedom under the rule of law. And how we need to reassert those values to create a greater sense of national cohesion and purpose.

Priorities which all Conservatives instinctively and passionately support. Only the Conservative Party fully understands their importance. It is our historic duty to fight the forces that undermine them. But we can only do that if we reach out beyond our core constituency, attracting enough new support to return our party to government.

That's why we need to modernise our party. Britain's families need us. Our communities need us. Our country needs us. But we need to show that our values chime with the values of modern Britain.

That's why I've argued that we must embrace what I've described as modern compassionate Conservatism: Modern - because we must be in tune with modern Britain, because we believe that our best days lie ahead and because we always do best when arguing for the changes needed to make our country great.

Compassionate - because we understand that there's a "we" in politics as well as a "me" that there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state.

And Conservative - because Britain will do best if we apply our trusted Conservative principles of limited government, personal responsibility, sound money, toughness on crime, strong defence, and national self-government.

I've also argued that shared responsibility should be at the heart of our political approach. We're all in this together, and we can't just leave everything to the state - the instinctive approach of the left. But nor can we leave everything to individuals acting on their own, as some on the right have sometimes implied.

And we must be consistent Conservatives. If the Government says or does something Conservative - the City Academy programme, for example - we should support it, and seek to extend and improve it. Today, I want to focus on the third area we must address if we are to be to be trusted with the government of our country once again.

One of the strengths of our party is that we've always been practical and down to earth, not utopian dreamers. Our practical vision is a strong, dynamic economy and a decent society with high quality, responsive public services. But people in Britain today don't just want to be better off financially, with decent, well-paid jobs. They don't just want public services that work. They want Britain to be a place which lifts the spirits.

Where streets and public spaces aren't filthy; where getting around isn't such a hassle; where the environment isn't just an afterthought.

They want Britain to be a civilised place to live. Some say there's not much politics can do about this. I completely reject that view. We can do something about the state of our streets, our communities, our culture, our environment. I think we need to be ambitious in our aspirations for our country.

So our vision should be to help make Britain the most civilised place in the world to live. This is a task for a modern Conservative Party. We have a particular set of insights to bring.

Our trust in market economics; our belief in personal responsibility; our faith in local institutions mean that we understand how to channel the dynamism of the free market, the ingenuity of individuals, and the power of civic pride to make Britain a more civilised place to live.

For the Conservative Party, this means engaging with a renewed sense of determination and idealism in the quality of life agenda. We know that this will reap political rewards. Younger people in particular are passionate about these issues. In an age where economic stability and prosperity are increasingly taken for granted, younger generations care just as much about quality of life concerns; the environment, urban space, culture and leisure; as the traditional policy boxes in which we've conducted our debates.

I know this is how young people feel because this is how I feel.

Reconnecting with younger voters is a precondition for our future electoral success. Support for our party amongst under-35s is not just lagging behind Labour: we're in third place.

To reconnect with younger generations, and the electorate as a whole, we need to recognise that for people today, the quality of life matters just as much as the quantity of money. So we should have a simple test for all our policy thinking in the years ahead: "will it make Britain a more civilised place to live?"

This is a huge agenda, encompassing a vast range of interconnected issues. Everything from transport and climate change to farming and food quality. Today, I'm just going to focus on two aspects: where we live and how we work.

Our quality of life is totally bound up with where we live. In Britain today, we're seeing flight from our cities as the quality of life declines, and huge development pressure in the countryside. People are asking: Where all the new houses we need are supposed to be built? How are we going to deal with the accompanying growth in traffic? How local schools, GPs and hospitals are expected to cope? And young people, looking at the price of housing are asking: "How am I ever going to get a foot on the ladder and own my own home?"

Meanwhile, rising crime, falling educational standards, and the sheer squalor, ugliness and degradation of far too many parts of urban Britain are wrecking the quality of life for many families.

Between 1993 and 2002, over 600,000 more people moved out of London, than moved in from elsewhere in the UK. In 2003 alone there was net outflow from London of 114,000 people to the rest of the UK.

It is a scandal that in the fourth richest country in the world, we tolerate urban conditions which would have been unacceptable 50 years ago, never mind at the start of the 21st century.

Labour's approach to development pressure in the countryside is top-down targets, specifying the number of new houses that must be built in every region. Here in the South West, for example, the Government's target is for 404,000 new homes in the next 20 years.

Labour's approach to the problem of urban flight is the left's instinctive tendency to run things from on high.

The Urban Task Force, Local Strategic Partnerships, the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, the Active Community Unit, the Social Exclusion Unit, the Urban Policy Unit. We've seen billions of pounds spent. But to what effect?

So, in a nutshell - Labour's response to this growing challenge is bureaucracy in the cities and housing targets in the country.

A long-term, thoughtful Conservative response cannot simply consist of opposing development in the countryside.

We need to fight as hard for low-cost housing, shared ownership and starter homes for young people as we do - quite rightly - for protecting the countryside.

We should recognise that the best way to reduce development pressure in the countryside is to improve the quality of life in our cities. We must tackle those core problems that are making life a misery in many of our inner cities today: crime and poor quality education. That's something I'm going to talk about next week.

But making our cities better places to live is also about the urban environment. I can't lay down a blueprint today, but I can give you a sense of what I think we should be aiming for. This is a sometimes forgotten part of the Conservative heritage: think of the visionary civic leadership of Joseph Chamberlain.

Of course there have been some excellent examples of urban regeneration in recent years - The Calls in Leeds, Brindleyplace in Birmingham, and Newcastle/Gateshead.

But we still seem to fall short of what's been achieved in cities like Stockholm, Berlin - or further afield, Portland, Oregon. Our objective should be to spread the best in urban regeneration beyond a few flagship projects and into every corner of our great cities. I'm also clear about the policy direction we should take.

It should be based on that fundamental Conservative insight: that people cherish, protect and improve what is theirs and that it is not only impossible, but counter-productive for central government to impose blueprints on communities. So my ambition is to develop a radical Conservative programme for the transfer of power and control to the local level.

I want to see a new generation of visionary civic leaders ... with more freedom for local communities to shape their public spaces.

That means more elected mayors in our cities, and a massive cut in red tape and central government interference.

Quality of life is not just about where we live. It's also about how we work. Families today are asking how they can earn enough to maintain the standard of living they want, while having enough time to spend with their kids; working mothers wrestle with the cost and availability of childcare; and families often struggle to find time for the things that make life worth living: family, friends, leisure, just enjoying life.

As a country, we need to ensure that all our most talented people have the opportunity to contribute to our economy. A more feminised workforce is good for Britain. It gives us more of the skills that will underpin our competitiveness in the future: creativity, communication and empathy.

Striking the right balance between work and family life is difficult for individuals. And it's just as hard for government. Labour's approach is a simplistic desire to see all women going out to work, whatever the impact on family life. When it comes to childcare, their answer is that classic left-wing device: taking people's money in tax and giving it back to them to spend in a way that the state decides.

A serious, coherent Conservative response cannot just be to argue that a woman's place is in the home. Or that government has no business meddling in these matters. A modern Conservative approach should be to create a culture where people have more and better choices about their work and family commitments. Where women have real sovereignty over these crucial decisions.

Again, I can't give you a policy blueprint today. But I'm clear about the direction for reform. We need to make childcare easier and more affordable. Unravelling Labour's tax credit system will be a complex and long-term task. Unravelling Labour's tax credit system will be a complex and long-term task, but we need to take two steps: first, raising tax thresholds to take low-paid people out of tax, and second, introducing tax relief for childcare for those who are paying tax.

But childcare is just one aspect of this issue. Flexibility in working life matters too. More and more companies are recognising that happier workers are more productive: providing crèches in the workplace; encouraging job sharing; taking a positive attitude to women who want to work part-time so they can balance being a mother with the satisfaction of a career.

Of course, just as a civilised life may require more flexibility from employers, so it requires more flexibility for employers. The foundation of a civilised life is a dynamic economy, and government must ensure that the tax and regulatory environment provides the conditions for businesses to create the decent, well-paid jobs we want.

Modern compassionate Conservatism means recognising that there's more to human life than getting and spending money. To make life better in these crowded islands, we need to engage in a huge variety of concerns: from the quality of the food we put in our children's mouths; to the quality of the air they breathe; to the quality of their school; to the quality of the transport system that takes them there.

Life is changing fast, and we in the Conservative Party must always be up to date. We've got the right principles. We've done amazing things in the past. Now we must channel the energy and enthusiasm we brought to the challenge of revitalising our economy: to the challenge of providing the people of this country with a quality of life that is the envy of the world. We need dynamism, optimism and open-mindedness. We need discipline, consistency and a sense of purpose.

And we need to focus all our efforts on a clear vision: helping to make Britain the most civilised place in the world to live."

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