What is the inner city problem and how has it changed since the mid 1960?

“The problems of the inner city cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the conurbation, nor in isolation from the overall economic and social structure of society. “(The Inner City Working Group, joint centre for Regional, Urban, and Local Government) Problems with inner cities have been around as long as inner cities have. However, in the past years they have assumed an important, even central place in the hierarchy of contemporary ills. More recently governments have also realized the importance of urban economics.

In this essay I will look at what the inner city problem actually is and how it has changed since the sixties. Population in the inner cities declined massively in the 60’s, by 17% in Liverpool for example. Jobs in manufacturing sector fell as well, for instance in London this was 15%. In 1976 over 40% of all the unemployed lived in the seven major metropolitan areas of the United Kingdom. Inner cities suffer from poor amenities and over crowding; these symptoms of decline have been officially recognized for many years.

The 1970 Chamberlain Committee on Unhealthy Areas for instance, pointed to the vast scale and complexity of housing problems, notably in inner London. The problems were conceptualized in terms of imbalances and the solution was a larger role for central and local government which would provide overall direction and the resources for (re)development which, on the whole, would actually be carried out by the private sector. With regard to urban problems and their causation, the social dimension was entirely ignored and the emphasis was firmly on the physical.

Explanations tended to stress over concentration of industry and population in cities but also saw cities as suffering from almost inevitable ageing process which meant that certain areas (or forms of housing) had come to the end of the natural lives and need replacing. With regard to regional problems this was simply a problem of imbalance which could be rectified by government forcing or encouraging firms to relocate. Despite the absence of clear policy there was a general recognition, by the mid 1960s, that poverty and disadvantage still existed in the United Kingdom.

New problems, notably racial, were also emerging to bemuse politicians and policy makers, and polices being developed in the United States were providing possible pointers for future action. By the second half of the sixties governments were also increasingly being forced to acknowledge that the problems of Britain’s cities could not be solved simply by physical measures. The emergent new approach entailed area – based policies focused on one or more aspects of social pathology.

The impetus for this shift in policy emphasis did not come from politicians. Urban policy offered the prospect of some relief to the problems faced by the urban inhabitants and had the added advantage of benefiting an important part of Labour’s electoral constituency at a time when the labour government was experiencing a series of crisis and doing particularly badly in opinion polls. Wilson, ever the consummate politician, immediately offered his party’s support for the new initiatives. The first urban initiatives emerged in Britain in the late 1960’s.

There were two, the Urban Programme and the Community Development Project these were both in tune with the prevailing social pathology and operated through area based measures. The Urban Programme and the Community Development Projects which were initiated in 1968 in the aftermath of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech (Edwards and Batley, 1978). In essence the Urban Programme served as a filler of gaps in existing provision. Higgins et al (1983, pp 47-8) point out that from 1968 to 1978, the UP was: “a set of arrangements for the part funding by central government of projects an any local authority… hat could demonstrate ‘special social need’. The programme involved positive discrimination in favour of selected groups or areas and typically took the form of small scale projects emphasizing experimentation, self help, co – ordination of existing services and the promotion of rapid results. The prime criteria for the approval seem to have been race; visible effect at the lowest cost; and the enthusiasm and commitment of the relevant central government department: in other words a laissez faire approach with little direction.

Suggesting that the centre had little or no idea of what the problems were or what it wanted to achieve. It could be argued that race was a central issue, but it was played down until at least 1973. From the early 1970s in academic circles, and from the mid- 1970s within central government, there has risen an orthodoxy based on the received wisdom that the urban problem is becoming worse. To a Labour Secretary of State, for instance, by 1976 it appeared that the diminishing demographic and economic bases of the cities were creating severe and worsening inner city problems.

It was clear also three years after when the Conservative who replaced this gentleman, found also that many young, qualified people were leaving the inner cities, thus causing urban decay and also wasting resources. The Urban Programme that has been discussed above concentrate on policies designed to regenerate manufacturing industry. However, there are good arguments for suggesting that this approach is too narrow. Some belief that that new industry is unlikely to relocate in inner cities of there own accord.

This marked reluctance on the part of manufacturing employment to locate and expand in older urban areas has given rise to the theory that centralization, but ultimately leading to very substantial economic decentralization. There are still two suggestions that might mean that industrialization within the inner city is possible. It has been argued that firms go through a product life cycle, that near the later stages of this cycle they will need to relocate.

But in the early stages of this cycle, companies may require skills, innovative talent, and to be close to other firms, location is very important and is more likely to be achieved in and around large cities. The Community Development Project (CDP), like the UP, was also influenced by civil servants, academics and the US experience. They were essentially small area projects located within deprived local authorities and designed focus limited resources on ‘deviant’ individuals and communities who had, by reason of choice or accident, slipped through the welfare net or not taken advantage of the opportunities offered by full employment.

Twelve CDP’s were set up in variety of, mainly urban, locations suffering form deprivation. If the CDP’s were experiment designed to unveil the nature and cause of urban deprivation, then they required clearer experimental design and, more importantly, someone to control the experiment; they required direction from the centre and an organis5tional structure which would ensure that the results of the coordinated work of action teams and research teams were widely circulated among the CDPs and assimilated by policy makers both at the centre and locally.

In 1972 the then Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment (DoE), Peter Walker, set up the Inner Area Studies (IAS). These studies numbered six in all. Three were concerned with local government decision making and its impact on environmental problems, and focused on Oldham, Rotherham and Sunderland. The other three gave detailed attention to relatively small inner city communities in Liverpool, Birmingham and London.

The causes of problems within inner cities has confirmed our belief that the roots of urban depravation do not lie in personal inadequacy but in societal forces which create situations of such serious disadvantage and deprivation for many people that they may properly be termed “victims”. We can see that the early urban initiatives had a common aim: this aim was to help local communities and individuals to help them help themselves. In order to do something about his problem it was seen best that a area based policy would be the way of dealing with it.

However, there came another problem the local authorities and central departments had problems with dealing how much to whom? Funding was small scale and the CDPs were badly managed, and the UP lacked any real control from the centre or local. There was also clear confusion at the top as well, between The Department for Environment and the Home Office. No new legislation was passed; this was mainly because the two departments believed that the problem was small and not enormous as the found out later. There was a clear ‘crisis’ in the 1970s. However there were some other reasons as to what helped the crisis seem bigger.

There were many economic and political changes at the time. As from 1973 British capitalism entered into a state of severe structural crisis, where both unemployment and inflation were rising. The economy was experiencing ‘negative – growth’ something known as ‘stagflation’ (Altvater, 1973). It was into this clod climate that the lessons and results of the early urban initiatives emerged, and it was this climate that determined the limits and possibilities of action for any government which intended to act on the new structural diagnosis of urban problems.

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