Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Slash And Burn

The Fabians held their annual conference a week or two back, on the State and human happiness. Paul Richards blogged thereon. Now Paul is a decent democrat, whose political outlook is singularly free of the anger and bitterness which suffuses so many blogs (mine for example), so I feel a trifle ungentlemanly in using his belief that a reduction in the State's share of national income from 42% to 40% would constitute 'slash and burn' as the springboard for this post. I doubt he'll lose sleep.

We await a report on the Fabian website, so I can't be sure if Polly Toynbee's thesis that "only the state can buy the things that make people happiest" was carried unanimously, but Paul's musings don't make me optimistic.

"I was on a housing estate outside Norwich on Friday, visiting the New Deal for Communities and chatting to residents. They have £35 million to spend, a new community centre, neighbourhood wardens, new healthy eating initiatives, and extra money for local schools. The Tories would remove all of it at a stroke."

Now I know nothing about Thorpe Hamlet or Mile Cross, and what follows is painted with my broadest caricature brush, but let's assume the New Deal and Surestart are being implemented as they are in my neck of the woods, i.e. it's the 'bad' estates that are getting the money. Where's it going to end up ?

This £35 million isn't being bunged in cash to the residents - it'll end up in the pockets of middle class social worker types. The new community centre will replace the old one which has been vandalised beyond repair. The only working class people who will benefit will be the builders who tear down the thirty-year old maisonettes (themselves a replacement for Victorian terraces), and replace them with shiny new modern terraces, into which the people who rendered the maisonettes only semi-habitable will be moved along with their victims. If they're very lucky, the elderly will be moved into sheltered housing, completely contrary to a strategy of social diversity but ensuring they can step outside more often. There seems no reason why this cycle of rebuild and rehouse shouldn't go on indefinitely.

New healthy eating initiatives ? For God's sake, these people know where Lidl is ! Fruit and veg are dirt cheap there. It's not poverty of purse which keeps the trolleys full of lager and empty of oranges.

Sure Start ? In one Sure Start area near me, mums have just had a nice day off. Someone else took care of the kids while they had an Indian head massage, facial, aromatherapy and were given tips from a beautician. I'm not sure how this helps people in the long term to make more of their lives, but it keeps a few more quasi-hippies employed. This week, the drumming workshop for seven to eleven year olds with 'behavioural problems' - or 'little sods' as they were known in more judgemental days.

Extra money for local schools ? New interactive whiteboards and more laptops ! Pity about the kids' reading skills, but you can't have everything. Oh, and an extra classroom assistant to give one to one attention and stop young Colum, who's already been excluded from two infant schools, disrupting the education of his classmates for yet another term. That will, at least in the short term, bring a benefit. I'm not so sure about the message it sends out to potential Colums and to their parents.

The neighbourhood wardens are the one idea that seems a good one. But will it work in practice ? Will the bad boys take any notice of Mr NW unless he's as bad as they are ? Perhaps, just as certain northern councils hired criminals to provide security on major building projects, they could find the hardest thug on the estate and make him a warden. "Since all Mile Cross cannot govern Dave Yob, let Dave Yob govern all Mile Cross", as was once said of Kildare.

All this helps soak up that £35 million of our taxes. Some good will come of it, of course. Some young men may have their lives transformed by modern dance classes, as Chris Smith rhapsodised (don't even think about it ... ), some young heroin user may pull herself together and get a state-funded job counselling other heroin users. You can read these success stories in the Guardian. But is this a good return on what Labour insist on calling 'investment' ? I call an investment something on which you hope to get a return. Or does the return in fact consist of more welfare-dependent people, needing the services of more social workers ?

The righteous Richard certainly thinks so.