Britain's Major Puts New Emphasis on Urban Renewal
THE riots in Los Angeles and other American cities have moved the political spotlight firmly onto a renewed attempt by the British government to address the problem of inner city decay.
Prime Minister John Major has appointed Peter Walker, a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, to lead a new Urban Regeneration Agency (URA).
Mr. Walker is expected to announce his priorities for the agency this week. He will do so amid clear signs that the government sees what happened in Los Angeles as a warning of what could happen in Britain unless appropriate action is taken.
Walker's agency has a mandate to rebuild derelict districts in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, and other cities where riots have broken out in recent years, and to encourage the setting up of new businesses and the creation of new jobs. The agency will build factories and housing.
Walker has been budgeted 24 million pounds ($42.8 million), which he will use to form a series of task forces in individual urban areas. He will be able to draw on funds from a 4 billion-pound Action for Cities program that will form part of the Major government's urban recovery strategy in the next five years.
A source in the Environment Department said last week's Los Angeles riots had their roots in economic deprivation of the type that is common in Britain's inner cities. The rioting had underlined the need for Walker and the URA to make an early start on reclaiming unused land and encouraging redevelopment of the sites, using private capital, the source said.
This will be the second attempt in a decade to tackle the problems of Britain's inner cities.
In the early 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher launched a major assault on urban decay and appointed Michael Heseltine, a senior Cabinet minister, to coordinate the effort. Her action followed rioting in south London and the Toxteth area of Liverpool. The effort then, however, was handicapped by government red tape and a failure by industrialists to support the initiative.
Walker, a former millionaire property developer, will try to model redevelopment of inner city areas on the rebuilding of London's docklands where construction companies were able in many cases to disregard orthodox building restrictions.
Major has said that he will arrange for individual government ministers to take a close interest in particular urban projects. Walker wants to draw local residents into the early stages of planning, a government official said.
The surge of violence in California following the acquittal of the four white policemen in the Rodney King beating case prompted commentators here to draw parallels with similar problems in Britain. The Observer newspaper said in an editorial Sunday that an underclass of economically and socially disadvantaged citizens existed in both countries.
The Major government's decision to launch a new assault on inner city decay has been criticized however by the opposition Labour Party. David Blunkett, the party's local government spokesman, was reported on Saturday as saying that the initiative "smacks of a form of neocolonialism."
"I fear we will see a new emphasis on speculative property development which will produce neither jobs nor regeneration, but more empty office blocks," Mr. Blunkett said.