This week sees the launch of an pound;800 million scheme to help bridge the growing divide between rich and poor. Nicolas Barnard reports
THE FIGURES are grim: in an England of two nations, thousands live in neighbourhoods where unemployment is two-thirds higher than the rest of England, under-age pregnancies are 50 per cent higher and a quarter more adults have poor basic skills.
This week Labour launched perhaps its most ambitious programme yet - to end decades of failure in the nation's poorest estates and to bridge the growing divide between these two nations.
Much of the public attention in the pound;800 million New Deal for Communities will be focused on bricks and mortar. But as Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear in an article for The TES last week, education will play a key role.
And beyond the 17 "pathfinder" projects in deprived estates from Newcastle to Brighton - also revealed in last week's TES - Labour is attempting to put "joined-up Government" into action with 18 cross-departmental action groups set up to focus on answers to the deep-seated problems behind the social collapse of those estates.
The New Deal is launched on the back of the third report of the Social Exclusion Unit. It makes stark reading: too many estates have become "no-go areas for some and no-exit zones for others".
They are badly-built, isolated and under-served by basic facilities from shops to childcare. Past attempts to help have failed because they were badly co-ordinated, ill-thought out or sought to impose solutions instead of asking communities.
Labour believes the key to succeeding this time will be to involve those communities, to invest in people rather than buildings by tackling employment, disaffection, drugs and other social issues - instead of renovating buildings nobody wants.
The 18 action groups, whose work will lead to the launch of a national strategy in December 1999, will address problems from neighbourhood management to improving access to shops, from hard-to-let housing to anti-social behaviour. Education and employment ministers will sit on 14 of them and chair three - on jobs, skills and "Schools Plus".
The last, led by schools minister Estelle Morris, will identify the best ways of reducing educational failure and using schools as a focus for community services and adult education. It will analyse the success of schemes such as breakfast and homework clubs, mentoring, and involving parents. Another group will look at youth disaffection.
The 17 pathfinder districts will be asked to submit 10-year plans by Christmas of up to pound;50m for neighbourhoods of 1,000-4,000 households. More estates will follow - the pound;800m is just for the first three years. Some pound;2.3 billion in Single Regeneration Budget money will also be available over the next three years.
The Government chose Holly Street estate in Hackney, east London, to launch the scheme as an example of the possible. Mr Blair lived nearby in the 1980s and said he remembered the "sense of fear". But in five years, one of Britain's worst sink estates has been transformed beyond recognition through community involvement - and heavy investment.