Releasing the trap of urban poverty;Opinion

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Cities are where it's at. Or more precisely, where most of us are or will be at. In the next century, four out of five of us will work in cities. Urban life will be the norm. It's easy to see why - shops, entertainment, the sheer excitement of those mean streets. It would horrify the old monk Richard of Devizes, who, back in 1180, warned that London was a sink of iniquity.

"Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No one lives in it without falling into some sort of crimes... Whatever evil and malicious thing that can be found in every part of the world you will find in that one city... avoid the dice and the gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all of France; the number of parasites is infinite... jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortionists, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons; all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore if you do not want to dwell with evil-doers, do not live in London."

Richard's intention was to dissuade people from coming to London, but for many this is tantamount to a come-on. However, today not even the offer of unrestrained wickedness may be enough to lure the young and talented. The London Housing Federation's recent report demonstrated vividly how difficult it is for people on public-sector incomes to work in the capital. Costs of housing, transport and other basic necessities are increasingly prohibitive.

On the face of it, the higher incomes available in cities should make prices irrelevant; but the average income is not the same as most people's earnings. There is a huge gap in incomes between the rich and the poor in cities, which hides the low incomes of many professional groups. London in particular faces what might be called "the Vail Trap".

The Colorado ski resort of Vail is the favourite haunt of America's super-rich. Its house prices have soared and small homes cost well into the million dollar bracket. The result has been a rise in homelessness among municipal workers. The local authority is having to find homes for doctors, teachers and police officers.

Things may not be quite so dire in British cities, but there is little doubt that public-service workers are facing a crisis. Property prices are on the move again, and the Government's iron fiscal control on spending offers little hope of pay rises to compensate. For the Metropolitan Police, for example, the result has been a disastrous cycle of recruitment, promotion and loss of staff. There is little attraction to being a London copper if your job is harder and more dangerous than elsewhere, and your quality of life is poorer. It's all very well for people to bang on about the wonderful theatres and restaurants, but if you don't have the cash to enjoy them it means little. The same is true for teachers and nurses.

Yet we who live in cities need the highest calibre of public-sector professionals in our schools, hospitals and police. In London we can count the cost every day of the loss of skilled and experienced teachers, in the queues of parents driving miles across the capital in search of the best schools. Surely it is time for drastic measures.

If we can't pay teachers, the police and nurses more, isn't there a case for new concessions on public transport? More substantially, if the banks and building societies can offer favourable mortgage terms to their staff, might they extend similar benefits to the people who ensure that their employees' families have decent schools, reliable health care, and professional policing? The case for a special deal for urban public sector workers grows stronger every day. It doesn't take a genius to see that without some imaginative new thinking none of Prime Minister Tony Blair's hopes for improved performance can ever be realised.

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