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  1. Politics
10 April 2000

Can we have some jobs, please?

Schemes to teach "social skills" multiply at a dizzying rate. But the unemployed know how to chat to

By Judy Hirst

Steve doesn’t have a car, or a bike – or, most weeks, even the price of a return bus fare to his nearest town. But that hasn’t stopped Gordon Brown suggesting that, if the jobs won’t come to him, Steve should get off his backside and travel elsewhere to find work.

In this case – he lives in Hastings, a south-east unemployment black spot – that could mean a lengthy hike, maybe to Brighton, Gatwick or even London. But no matter. Armed with a complimentary mobile phone and new haircut, and tutored by a personal adviser in essential life skills, he should not be deterred by several hours commuting each day.

That at least is the theory. The Treasury’s claim that one million jobs are out there, just waiting for Britain’s 1.1 million job- seekers to pick off the shelf, has been greeted with incredulity. Everyone knows that the jobs generally available are either too highly skilled for most claimants to qualify or too low paid to make the travelling worthwhile. How far would you go to work as a care assistant or as a burger bar server?

The government’s approach also begs an important question. If the answer to unemployment is for the workless to get more mobile, where does that leave the inner cities, the former coalfields, steelworks and dockyards, or the desolate coastal towns? Whatever happened to the strategy of regenerating the country’s most economically deprived and excluded areas?

Regeneration has not been much of a success story – at least not for the communities that were meant to benefit from the billions ploughed into enterprise zones and urban development corporations in the 1980s, or more recently from City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB).

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On Merseyside, fewer than 500 of the people trained with SRB money in the past five years have found themselves jobs. Liverpool, the city that Heseltine promised to transform, still tops the official deprivation index. Grandiose regeneration exercises like London Docklands or Salford Quays have done little to create employment for local communities. Many conurbations, including large parts of London, and most of “peripheral” England, became relatively more deprived in the 1990s, despite successive rounds of regeneration funding.

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Hastings, for example, has had little difficulty in winning something from every SRB round so far: it has some of the highest levels in Britain of benefit claimants, overcrowded housing and ill-health, and over 18 per cent unemployment in its worst wards. In recent years, Hastings has levered in over £120m in regeneration funding. But walk around and, apart from a bit of pedestrianisation and the new shopping mall, there is little to show for it.

Long abandoned as a tourist destination, and with all the grunginess but none of the designer chic of Brighton, Hastings doesn’t feel like it’s having new life breathed into it. Indeed, the latest (so far unpublished) figures indicate that the area is in further decline. Once only the 81st most deprived local authority area in the country, it is now the 31st. This has prompted a flurry of further initiatives: Sure Start (for pre-school children), an education action zone, a health improvement programme.

Local business and community leaders blame poor roads and transport links (London is nearly a two-hour trek away), lack of mainstream infrastructure funding, and fly-by-night businesses which depart at the first sign of a downturn. But there is another, more self-searching explanation. Christine Goldschmidt, chair of the Hastings Regeneration Partnership, suggests that early investment programmes concentrated too much on bricks and mortar. She says that, once people realised the area’s social problems were on a par with its physical ones, the regeneration strategy was rewritten.

Hastings is not alone in this respect. It is now widely agreed that the urban development corporations failed to tackle localised unemployment: few of the 40,000 jobs attracted to Docklands, for instance, went to local people. So nationally, there has been a shift away from enterprise-led, physical regeneration schemes towards social projects directed at improving skills and life chances for needy communities.

City Challenge and the SRB, introduced under John Major, were early examples of the new approach. Since 1997, “soft” regeneration initiatives, repackaged as social inclusion programmes, have multiplied at a dizzy rate, with the latest example, just announced, being the neighbourhood renewal programme. Employment zones, education action zones, health action zones, New Start, Fresh Start, Sure Start, New Deal for Communities and just about everyone else: these initiatives have, according to the Cabinet Office, become so unco-ordinated and confusing that yet another unit – on top of the Social Exclusion Unit, the regional development agencies and other quangos – is needed to make it all join up. But the government’s manic zeal is based on the firm belief, articulated by Gordon Brown, that unemployment is largely a supply-side problem – that, by and large, the jobs are there, if only individuals and whole communities can be shaped up to fill them.

This is not exactly how they see it down at the Job Club in Hastings, now renamed the “Programme Centre”. Steve, who used to be a security guard, does have aspirations to get a better job. But in the meantime, all that’s on offer to him in this minimum-wage town is warehouse work at £3.60 an hour. Hastings has some of the lowest wages in the UK (along with the highest level of male suicides). For most claimants in the town, working for this kind of money doesn’t make much financial sense; they’re better off on housing benefit and job-seekers’ allowance.

As they thumb through the jobs pages and tidy up their CVs on the computers, many complain they haven’t found work because of ageism or disability or being stereotyped as single parents. All agree that the basic problem – particularly for young people – is the shortage of decent local jobs. Most resent the implication that it is their fault that they are unemployed.

Old-style regeneration has largely failed people like this. Property developers have grown rich on showcase building projects, and the gains have not trickled down to workless communities in Hastings, Liverpool or Tower Hamlets. But it’s hard to see how new Labour’s capacity-building alternative can square the circle. Though it talks so much about social inclusion and the primacy of work, this government spends less on regeneration than the Conservatives did in the mid-1990s: 11 per cent less in real terms, according to Peter Robinson, senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research. But then advocacy, counselling and training come a lot cheaper than major infrastructural, job-creating programmes. So do the bartering schemes, credit unions, neighbourhood management and all the other elements of modest, sustainable development that Whitehall wants to cultivate on Britain’s third-world estates.

Talking about capacity-building makes politicians feel warm and cuddly, says Robinson. And he agrees that communities should be consulted about their needs. “But that should only be a means to an end. In many areas, there is an absolute shortage of job opportunities. That’s what needs to be addressed.”

Like many labour market economists, Robinson is deeply sceptical of the Chancellor’s neat equation of the number of jobless and the vacancies to be filled – and not just because the government’s claimant figures seriously underestimate the number of unemployed. “The vacancy figures are suspect, too. They’re more a measure of turnover than anything else. McDonald’s has a 100 per cent turnover in London. Its entire workforce leaves each year.” The TUC argues that the way the Treasury arrived at its figure of one million jobs – by taking the number of vacancies notified to Jobcentres and tripling them – is in itself seriously flawed.

Whichever way you crunch the numbers, the evidence speaks for itself. Go to the run-down estates in the workless wastelands, where up to half the men are unemployed, and the majority of families live on benefit, and it’s hard to see where the jobs are going to come from. Yet the regeneration programmes going into these areas now give a low priority to job-creation which is dismissed as overly “top-down”. A major SRB housing development in Lewisham, south London, offers young people on the estate some employment training – for the “cultural industries” – only as an adjunct. Liverpool Vision, a brainchild of Lord Rogers’s Urban Task Force, is drawing up plans to “reinvent the cultural quarter of the city”, but is vague on how this will improve job prospects for people on Merseyside. In Hastings, the head of the local enterprise agency worries that all this image-making and capacity-building will create a few well-paid jobs and a talking shop for middle-class people, but not much for the local community.

It is the employment issue that is being ignored, says Brian Robson of Manchester University, author of a major evaluation of regeneration for the former Department of the Environment. All the emphasis is on community development, and the design elements of regeneration, he says. “What’s missing is the third leg – jobs. The implication is that this issue has been sorted, when it clearly hasn’t.” The programmes that are most effective are long-term and large-scale, and linked to mainstream services – unlike the bitty, piecemeal projects that characterise so much regeneration work.

Ivan Turok, author of a Joseph Rowntree study, The Jobs Gap in Britain’s Cities, is scathing about the direction in which regeneration policy is moving. “The fundamental importance of suitable, sustainable employment, to reduce poverty and raise living standards, is being sidelined,” he says. EU regulations rule out direct incentives to attract inward investment. But, Turok argues: “That doesn’t preclude national and local government taking an active approach, creating labour demand by providing the kind of infrastructures that will attract employers, offering tax breaks and reclaiming land. We need a kind of enterprise zone Mark Two.”

It’s not a fashionable, or necessarily realisable, view. But building the long-promised ring road for Hastings or upgrading its public services, and so increasing the number of reasonably paid semi-skilled jobs, is what would make sense to the claimants at the town’s programme centre. More sense, anyway, than employing an army of well-meaning advisers to teach them what they know already – how to talk to their neighbours, and mend and make do.