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May 11, 2010

Was the New Deal the real deal?

When the Scottish Government held its consultation on what community empowerment might look like, Stephen Maxwell, then of SCVO, proposed that the most disadvantaged communities in the country should be endowed with a large capital sum (£1 million min) and thereafter be given the freedom to set their own priorities –  a direct challenge to Scotland’s obsession with top down delivery. Before we consign all New Labour’s regeneration initiatives to the policy landfill, it’s worth reflecting on the New Deal for Communities programme which came pretty close to this idea

Polly Toynbee, The Guardian

It was a melancholy pre-election visit at the end of an era and the end of a project symbolising what Labour did – and all it leaves unfinished. I followed the fortunes of the Clapham Park estate as a testbed for judging Labour. With near mystical belief in community activism, Labour gave the nation’s 39 poorest estates a 10-year budget of £56m to transform themselves. The New Deal for Communities was, unlike Cameron’s DIY sham, an authentic Big Society idea, giving serious money to a board with residents holding the controlling vote. It’s a New Labour story – good intent, money put in and a naive belief that symptoms of poverty can be cured without confronting inequality itself.

Clapham Park is 10 minutes’ brisk walk from where I live in south London, and yet a social world away. I lived here for a few months writing my book Hard Work, when I took basic jobs to explore the sub-survivability of the minimum wage. The residents’ board has let me sit in on meetings and drop back from time to time to watch their progress.

Donna Charmaine Henry, chair of the board, sat in the Hand in Hand pub opposite the primary school, recalling when we met 10 years ago. She never expected her life to take this turn. An elegant woman, born in St Kitts and brought up in Oldham, she has lived here since 1975. “I had nothing to do with the community. I came home from work, looked after my family, shut the front door and shut out everything outside,” she says. There was a lot to shut out: drug dealers and prostitutes, now mostly gone, and 40 crack houses.

She was asked out of the blue to stand for election by a neighbour she barely knew: “I had no idea what I was getting into.” It was often a rough ride – only two originals are still on the board. “You need broad shoulders or you go home in tears. The rows! The patience you need!” They give up most evenings, their small flats filled with files, shouldering blame from residents who want everything fixed right now. “But worth it, absolutely, for the things we’ve done.”

Anyone who thinks “community” is cuddly and consensual has never tried it. Political parties exist for good reason, to rationalise disagreement. Though the vote on the estate went 60% in favour, there was vigorous opposition when the board decided to redevelop the worst blocks by handing them over to a housing association to bring in private money. Expecting democracy to flourish in this high-turnover, partly non-English-speaking, low-voting non-community was often more Afghanistan than Ambridge.

Donna says: “When I hear David Cameron and his Big Society expecting people to join in and do everything themselves, it makes me really angry. He has no idea how difficult it is and it needs big government backing. He’s daydreaming.” The project had the money for the board to buy in professionals to run their programmes. But there were, we agree ruefully, Labour daydreams too.

Clapham Park’s 7,300 inhabitants in dilapidated and crime-ridden 1930s and 40s blocks had weak schools and no community groups. The targets set were eye-watering: 100% of housing must reach “decent homes” standard with crime down to national average levels and a halving of fear of crime, and a halving of sickness; GCSE grades, adult qualifications and unemployment must emulate national averages; 85% of residents must say they are “satisfied with the area”. The guiding target said three-quarters must “feel involved” in their community, rather more than in Mayfair or Notting Hill (2%-4% is all professional organisers expect). Donna and her local heroes put the rest of us to shame.

The wonder is how much they achieved. Superhuman effort meant learning spreadsheets and masterplans. Spending money was slow, every penny passported through three tiers of government. Nothing was easy. Was it a success? Local schools have improved greatly. The brightest change is two new children’s centres. According to a 2008 Mori survey, residents’ satisfaction with the estate is up, at 74%. Now only 20% feel unsafe walking at night. Two-thirds think the project has improved the area. As for the people, 6% more have qualifications, smoking is down, 3% more are in work and 10% fewer live on very low incomes. When the project ends this year, a legacy charity hopes to keep Timebank (which swaps chores and favours), the internet community radio station, a bike repair project, youth schemes, the women’s group, coffee mornings for the elderly, and the annual summer festival.

But sadly, there still stands White House, the decrepit 1930s block where I lived briefly. It is not supposed to be there, but there is not even a scheduled date for demolition. True, it looks better. When I lived here netting caught bits falling off the pockmarked facade, but it has been painted, and the staircase is no longer urine-stinking or graffitied. My neighbour, Micky, with his fierce-looking studs that belie a gentle nature, has had central heating fitted, but my old flat and most of the rest are still freezing. The block has had only a lick and a promise. Time spent on estate democracy and the property development crash took its toll in delays.

As everywhere, housing was a great Labour failure. But how do you measure life-changing success when, as in most poor places, half the residents who lived here 10 years ago have gone? People helped to get jobs escape and are replaced by new problem families, so statistics tell only half the story.

Walking back home I thought over this microcosm of New Labour with its hyperbolic promises brought down to earth by hard realities. The social distance between Clapham Park and well-off Clapham where I live is as wide or wider now. Like Britain, the estate is brighter, cleaner, safer and better off with tax credits – but the social chasm between their children’s lives and those 10 minutes away is as deep as ever.

This reminder of how hard it is to make real social change only adds to my despair at what a Conservative government would do. Cuts deeper than Margaret Thatcher’s will hit these people hardest, risking all the progress made. Gordon Brown’s deluded leadership deficiency is haemorrhaging Labour votes. But if centre-left people don’t vote tactically in every seat for whoever best keeps a Conservative out – Labour or Lib Dem regardless of personal preference – it is Donna’s Clapham Park people who will be stricken by George Osborne’s first emergency budget.