The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Social Market Foundation Conference – 26 April 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Social Market Foundation Conference on the subject of “The Future of Cities”, held at the Institution of Civil Engineers on Wednesday 26th April 1995.


Let me first thank you for inviting me to open your conference today. I’d like to use this occasion to set out some reflections on regenerating our inner cities, and how we are seeking to bring together the policies to tackle the poverty of opportunity that has often been associated with urban decay.

Let me give you three snapshots of life in our inner cities today.

Hulme in Manchester: 3 years ago, one of the worst inner city areas in Europe: high unemployment, soaring crime, above all a deck access estate which was quite simply dehumanising – not just the familiar problems, but the familiar problems in spades. Now these estates are being demolished. For the first time there will be homes to buy, alongside social housing, built by the private sector. Tenants have won a national award for participation in planning and design of the new mixed tenure housing that is now being built. Nearly 900 jobs have been saved or created. Most of the investment is private sector.

In King’s Heath, Birmingham, a secondary school serving some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, surrounded by council house tower blocks. A decade ago, plagued by gangs and daubed with graffiti, Baverstock School was one of those schools that no parents wanted their children to go to. Now a Grant Maintained school, an enthusiastic headteacher has restored pride, discipline and standards. The number of children gaining 5 GCSEs at grade A-C has risen from 7% to 32%, and after opening its own sixth form the number staying on (for year 12) has risen from zero to 142 in just 3 years. Not surprisingly, the school is now massively oversubscribed – offering opportunity and hope to young people who previously had neither.

In Walsall, a former power station site, fifteen years an abandoned eyesore: rotting concrete, rusty boilers, smoke-blackened weeds. Now it is being redeveloped: £8 million from Government levering in £54 million of private investment: nearly 300 houses built for sale, new industrial and business premises, a golf course and nature reserve. Again local residents are involved in designing the scheme. 1,250 jobs are being created.

Fifteen years ago, even five years ago, none of these things would have happened. Now in nearly every major city in this country, there are new ideas, new thinking, bringing hope and opportunity to the people who live there.

Earlier this month I set out in my speech to the Conservative Party’s Central Council some of the fundamental objectives that guided our principles as a Party and as a Government.

I spoke of the importance we attached to creating the conditions where all could share in the prosperity and security that comes from a successful enterprise economy, and of building a society of opportunity and choice for everyone. It is those beliefs that make ambitious to tackle the problems of urban deprivation, and to tackle them with Conservative solutions.

I believe I’m the first Prime Minister this century who grew up in an inner city and represented a deprived area of a local authority. That was chance. But that chance gave me valuable experience.

In the 50s and 60s, I saw terraces not far from where I lived demolished. Communities, albeit poor, were re-housed in tower blocks that were more modern, clean, sanitary spacious but also soul-less. The best of intentions produced the worst of results. The housing was better but the community was lost.

Some of those people were friends, neighbours, people I knew – so it’s hardly surprising that I feel strongly about this issue. When I spoke about the classless society it was people like that I had in mind. They deserve opportunity and choice. They do not deserve to be patronised and disregarded. I know their worth and they deserve to have it recognised.

The experience of those years was one of the things that brought me into politics. I chose the Conservative Party because Conservatism is tough edged. It offers opportunity but it demands that people stir themselves as well. It does not believe Government is all powerful. It asks people to contribute, to help themselves and their communities. It knows the Government cannot replace individual effort.

If you look at the experience of the last 40 odd years, in too many areas, what we have seen is the State taking on the role of the community. We created a system of authoritarian paternalism, where the state decided what people ought to want, where the Government, national or local, created its dependent client groups and sought to base its power on them, where the concept of mutual assistance was replaced by the primacy of the waiting list and the need to negotiate the paths of city hall power structures.

Before, when people needed minor repairs to their houses they did it themselves. But then the Council took over and self-help was pushed aside.

The Social Service departments started to take over, and community help was pushed aside.

Education became the schools’ responsibility, not the parents. Parents were given no information and little choice.

Too often the web of informal social support – the neighbourliness of our cities – all the things that make it possible for human beings to live together, broke down because the State intervened and controlled too much. Community help and self-help were disregarded. Government knew best. But the truth is – they didn’t. Good intentions had bad effects.

I saw the mistakes that were made by politicians and bureaucrats believing they could do it all: the ghetto estates, the stunted opportunities. These mistakes stemmed from an essentially socialist approach: top down planning, welfarism rather than opportunity, public sector provision rather than individual choice, working against not with the market.

When this Conservative Government first came to office, inner cities – like many other aspects of our national life – needed drastic action to reverse years of neglect and decay. The Urban Development Corporations came first: they were tough medicine, and they succeeded – turning around many of the worst city centre areas by bringing together the power of Government, the leadership of local businessmen and the confidence of sustained public investment.

In their time the 12 English UDCs have reclaimed some 2,500 hectares of derelict land, stimulated over £10 billion of private investment and created over 140,000 new jobs in UDC areas. As they wind down their role over the next three years, they leave a tremendous legacy that few people would have imagined was possible when they first opened their doors.

But we learned from these experiences to provide more flexible and effective policies, better able to deal with the problem as a whole. The first result was City Challenge, followed by our more ambitious Single Regeneration Budget. These new programmes:

– not only promote physical development but also focus on creating jobs for local people;

– they seek to tackle all of an area’s fundamental problems, such as poor schooling;

– they build on the talents of the local community;

– they create exciting new opportunities to lever in private finance;

– overall they put the emphasis on results and not just resources.

The challenging principle which underlies these new approaches has been a major innovation that is now being copied around the world. They target resources on good imaginative projects which bring together different kinds of help. They require local councils, business leaders and community groups to work together to bid for money – demonstrating how they can make a real impact on the opportunities available to people in inner city areas. As a result we are seeing public money drawing in massive amounts of private sector investment.

Close to here, in Deptford, one of these City Challenges is targeting to provide over 2,000 new permanent jobs – and these results are being repeated all over the country; in Nottingham, in Tyneside, in Walsall and in Wigan to name but a few. In our first round of bids for the Single Regeneration Budget, £1 billion of SRB money is attracting £3 billion of private investment. For that we’re getting more than 50,000 new or improved houses, funding 7,500 voluntary groups and supporting 60,000 new businesses.

So we are making tremendous progress, transforming the prospects for many in our inner cities – and offering new hope of a better tomorrow. It is the only way that is affordable to meet the needs of the future.

But I would be complacent if I believed that these policies alone were enough to tackle urban problems in all their guises.

Our regeneration policies in the urban areas are part of a much wider picture. That picture includes our policies on education, on housing, on job creation, on tax and benefit reform, on crime and almost every other aspect of Government activity. In other words all the things that touch on how as a nation we open opportunity and choice for everyone.

In my experience people in the inner cities don’t want patronising concerns. They share the same ambitions, the same aspirations as everyone else. They should not be treated as though many of them are only capable of dependency. Give them opportunity and they will give themselves security.

That’s why inner city policies are important. No more families trapped in cheap and cheerless tower blocks. No more children who do not learn what they need to learn to get on in life because of poor schooling. No more areas where people cannot get jobs because private enterprise has moved away. No more people frozen into dependency by misguided social experiment and the culture of welfare entitlement.

We need better incentives for the unemployed to start on the job ladder. That’s why we are introducing a whole range of new incentives through the benefits system – insisting that unemployed people actively look for work while claiming benefit, and providing better in-work benefits like the Back to Work bonus, to encourage people to take part-time work as the first step on the ladder out of unemployment.

We need opportunity for everyone in the inner cities to acquire the education and skills to succeed in the jobs market. So we’re tackling the problem of poor education standards in our schools – against the howls of many of the so-called progressives who bear so much of the responsibility for failing our children. Parents have the right to choose their child’s school. We’ve got the national curriculum – testing – teacher appraisal – regular inspection and reporting of results. It’s working. We are getting clear evidence from our inspectors that where they have found schools to be failing – local education authorities and governors are being galvanised into action to improve or close weak schools. Measures, by the way, that New Labour voted against. And our new system means that following OFSTED Reports, all schools have to publish action plans to address the areas of weakness that have been found.

Within the national curriculum, there is increasing emphasis on technology and vocational skills. We’ve dramatically increased the numbers going on to further and higher education. Only one in eight children in 1979 went on to higher education, now it’s one in three. More mature students are taking up further and higher education courses – updating their skills. And we’ve set up a new improved apprentice scheme. Better skills, better training, better education offers the chance of higher wages with higher employment.

But as we look ahead, I believe one of the major challenges we still face is the continuing legacy of large scale, sub-standard public housing estates – some in inner cities, some outside. For the problem they present is not only in the quality of housing itself, but in the associated poverty of opportunity in communities that have given up hope.

Many were built as solutions to inner city problems; ironically they have now become major contributors to the problem. There they stand – grey, sullen, concrete wastelands, set apart from the rest of the community, robbing people of ambition, of self-respect. Monuments to the failed history of socialist planning – too many lives have been wrecked by growing up in such demoralising surroundings. So what have we done? First we have sought to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. 85% of Housing Corporation funds now go to small developments where people feel comfortable. We have also created diversity in existing estates by giving tenants the right to buy. Some 1.4 million have exercised this right in the last 15 years. 25% of social housing has been sold to tenants, creating new home owners.

Second we have sought to give tenants a much greater say in running their own estates. We introduced the Tenant’s Charter setting out for the first time what tenants can expect, and giving them a say in the running of their estates. We will be issuing a new – and improved – Charter in the next few weeks. We are also tackling problem behaviour. Just before Easter the Government set out its ideas for introducing probationary tenancies. These would give local authorities the right to crack down on neighbour nuisance, and give a clear signal to new tenants that anti-social behaviour is unacceptable. We will follow this up with action to encourage quicker and more effective handling of cases by the courts.

Third the Government has taken action to renovate and rebuild areas of poor quality public housing. Over £2 billion has been spent over the past 10 years improving 500 of the worst estates. And we are now encouraging schemes to get the private sector involved in rebuilding these old monolithic estates, bringing in more mixed forms of housing tenure, more opportunities for tenants to become home owners or own their own estates.

Later today, for example, I will visit Dalston City Partnership, where a run-down local authority estate is being transformed thanks to this government’s initiative in promoting a City Challenge and Estate Action partnership. The old local authority estate is being replaced by over a thousand new homes for sale and rent. £14 million of private money is being invested.

Let me be quite clear what has brought this about. This improvement would not and could not have happened without the direct involvement of the Government, of Challenge Funding, and of the private sector. Local authorities alone would not have been able to do it.

We are determined to work with authorities of whatever political persuasion. And we will encourage the private sector to work with Conservative councils, with Liberal councils and with Labour councils. What we are concerned with is to produce better housing in areas that for generations have been run down. To improve the quality of housing, to improve the mix of income groups, to improve the environment, so that no-one in the inner cities may feel abandoned, whatever the nature of the council they live in. In my determination to improve the inner cities I am politically colour-blind.

All of these measures will help address the sense of hopelessness that pervades some of our worst housing estates by giving the people who live there more choice, more opportunity, more say in their future.

Mr Chairman, at Birmingham earlier this month I said that I wanted to develop plans and ambitions for the next phase of Conservative Government – ambitions that would build on what we had achieved and carry us into the next century. So let me tell you my aspirations to carry forward our achievements in urban regeneration, to build a society of opportunity and choice.

We must build on the proven and exciting schemes we have set up to get private finance and private development involved in providing a better choice of housing for the poor.

As we move towards the next century, we should be looking at how a Conservative Government can increasingly involve the private sector in the ambitious objective of transforming the remaining large scale, poor quality public housing estates in Britain. I grew up among 1950’s slums; I now want to end the monstrosities that too often replaced them. To create in their place housing on a human scale, mixed housing with less isolation, and communities that enable everyone to share the same aspirations, the same hopes, the same opportunities. The social benefits will be enormous if we can finish the job we’ve started.

We must pledge to continue our fight for standards in schools, so that all inner city children have access to schools that offer the best standards of achievement and discipline. How many children can read by the age of 8? Shouldn’t schools know? And set targets for improvement? Doesn’t every parent have a right to know what its child’s school is aiming at? And be involved in helping set the targets? That is the direction in which we must go.

I want to see individual schools setting their own performance standards building on the Parent’s Charter. I will be encouraging the first pilots on this later this year, including some inner city schools.

We must be unapologetic about putting standards at the top of our educational priorities – the children deserve no less. And we are unapologetic about believing that the best guarantee of standards is for parents to have a real choice of schools – with access to the best whatever their income and wherever they live.

Our objective must also be to continue bringing new jobs into urban areas year after year – bringing down unemployment, and creating new opportunities for individuals to get their feet on the ladder of experience.

And we must ensure that Training and Enterprise Councils continue to play their part in giving everyone the opportunity to develop the skills and qualifications needed for tomorrow’s employment – working towards making Britain’s workforce the best qualified in Europe.

Providing opportunity and choice, while continuing our policies to encourage new investment and new enterprise in inner cities – those are our challenges for the future.

At heart our philosophy is about treating all people are equal citizens, people who need to fell self-respect just like everyone else. Yes, we believe in helping the less well-off, but we don’t want them to remain dependent on that help. We want to give everyone the opportunity to rise through their own efforts and share in the rewards of prosperity.

Those principles lie right at the heart of what this Government is trying to do, and will remain our guiding principles for the future.