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Will Ed correct David’s mistake on poor neighbourhoods?

With so much attention focused on the impact of coalition cuts, it was easy to overlook Ed Miliband’s launch in November 2010 of a wide-ranging, two-year review of Labour Party policy. Party heavyweight and outside experts will be assembled into 22 ‘policy inquiries’ to examine every aspect of the party’s future policy manifesto.

Politically, the review will enable the new leader to distance himself from the Blair / Brown past while giving him a few years of cloud cover to attack the coalition without having to offer solid alternatives. This is a canny move. Some coalition ministers have seized on Miliband’s description of the review as a ‘blank sheet’, to imply he stands for nothing. Such attacks only reveal their frustration at the leeway the review will give him.

Looking beyond these short-term arguments, and assuming that the Labour Party returns to power in some form and at some point, the review will have more significant implications.

My question is where do poor neighbourhoods feature in Labour’s policy review?

Of the promised 22 inquiries, five have so far been announced. They cover schools; supporting children to become successful adults; family life; talent and aspiration; and ‘families’ aspirations for good housing and a home’.

The last inquiry is the closest to our theme, but neighbourhoods are about much more than houses, and even discussions of housing tend to get focused further down onto the narrow issues of house prices and completion rates.

We shouldn’t assume that poor neighbourhoods will automatically feature in the policy reviews. The last time Labour undertook a policy examination on a similar scale was the Commission on Social Justice. This reported in 1994.

The secretary to the Commission was a youthful David Miliband, brother of the current Labour leader. The Commission re-cast the Labour Party’s approach to poverty by linking economic competitiveness with social fairness. The report made a series of recommendations on welfare, benefits, workers’ rights, skills and pensions.

Yet it had very little to say about place and, in particular, the poorest places. As a consequence, the party had very little concept of what it was going to do about “the worst estates”, as Tony Blair habitually referred to the poorest places, when it came to power in 1997.

Revisionist in so many senses, the Commission didn’t challenge the absence of spatial awareness that was entrenched in the post-war welfare settlement.

The 1997 – 1999 two-year spending freeze gave the new government time and space to come up with what became the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. The commitment to narrow the gap between the poorest places and the rest to such an extent that ‘nobody should be disadvantaged by where they live’ was unprecedented in its scale and radicalism of ambition.

Yet within a few years, the focus on the poorest places was diluted and the party reverted to a traditional reliance on welfare measures – primarily tax credits and getting people into work – to tackle poverty. The government’s initial realisation that poverty has specific and complicated spatial manifestations was first unlearned and then forgotten.

Will Ed Miliband make the same mistake as David, and sideline the problem of poor neighbourhoods, or correct his older brother’s mistake?

There is clearly a need for a discussion about the future of poor neighbourhoods. Labour MPs are keen to point out that the cuts are being felt more quickly and more deeply in the poorest places, so helping these places to ‘recover’ will be crucial.

They’re right. But a more challenging question for them is why the investment they oversaw in power didn’t leave these places more resilient and less reliant on public spending. Why were even their natural supporters complaining that too much money was going on structures and processes instead of front-line services like neighbourhood management?

Looking ahead, the questions are no longer how much money can we spend, and where can we spend it.

There are a lot of people, with similar passions but diverse experiences and perspectives, who could help define the terms of the inquiry and develop the questions for the future. What should be the ambition for isolated neighbourhoods where the traditional pattern of growth is no longer a feasible objective? How do we re-connect other poorest places into the surrounding social fabric and economic geography? What can we learn from Lambeth’s co-operative experiment as an example of building community capacity and resilience without extra funding?

‘Being the opposition is hell’, an experienced politician friend of mine always reminds his colleagues when they complain about the burden of power. No doubt he’s right. But if Ed Miliband can start a conversation that addresses these questions now, he can equip his party to make the most of the return to power which he promises.

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