The contrasts in British city life have seldom been so stark.
Cities today have social divisions as wide as has been seen in Britain for generations – in many respects since Victorian times. Areas of the same City where almost every child lives in poverty, while nearby virtually none do. A life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor that is as wide as it has been since the nineteenth century.
Within our Cities we have local areas of extreme deprivation and social alienation from which few people escape. It’s as if there are glass walls around them – a parallel culture existing alongside all of us in our daily lives. Where the violent and controversial world of the films Adulthood and Kidulthood come to life.
It’s a world where generations do not work. Where children are falling behind before they even start school, and struggle through their education underachieving and falling further behind still. Where often the gang culture on the streets offers a kind of stability and support that family life could never offer. And where educational failure is followed by worklessness and all too often crime, antisocial behaviour, welfare dependency and often mental health problems.
Behind glass walls that none of the rest of us ever see as we drive
past the end of the street. Except when the problem of criminality
spills over into our lives. I see one of the historic challenges of our time as being to break down
those glass walls, to break down that parallel culture, and to return
to an era where social mobility is the norm and not the exception.
Tackling the blight of worklessness is a key part of the task ahead. It
will take time to build a new system that provides people with
effective help to get into work, but no longer permits them to sit at
home on benefits doing nothing.
That’s why the cross-Party agreement on welfare reform is so valuable. We need to make rapid progress. But that’s only one part of the story. Family breakdown, educational
failure, addiction, crime and antisocial behaviour all have to be
addressed if we are to start to turn things round.
That’s why this week we are setting out some of our thinking about the
nature of the challenge we face in our cities, and the things we will
need to do to change things for the better.
We’ll talk about ways to help break young people out of the gang
culture and into training and work. We’ll talk about ways of
intervening early to stop children from deprived areas falling behind.
We’ll talk about ways to build greater community pride in these
deprived areas. We’ll talk about how we start to break down those glass
On several occasions in the past year I have sat with teenagers from
some of the most deprived areas of our Cities. And asked them the same
question. How long would it take you to go and get a gun? The answer is
usually the same – about five minutes.
An element of bravado, I am sure. But a sign of the times, and a sign
of a world that has to change. It’s a challenge we all have to meet.