for RIBA Journal


Des McConaghy

July, 1978




Whole nations perceive their governments helpless in facing fundamental topical issues. The "inner city" could be said to be one of these issues but, in a very real sense, it embraces all the rest. The "inner city" has been dressed up to look like some definable topic rather than a more general and more serious area of concern. For example, architects visiting Liverpool will be the first to realise that the vast outer area and post war housing areas of Kirkby, Cantril Farm and Netherley have just as serious problems as the arbitrary "inner city" boundaries drawn up by the Government. That is immediately obvious but it is only a clue to the real problem:- what we conveniently label the "inner city" is really only the most visible and distressing manifestation of fundamental weaknesses in national and regional economies and in the institutions charged with managing them.


The "inner city" serves merely to dramatise - or throw into high relief - four sets of national problems which are not going to go away and may be rapidly getting worse.


  • The first set concern instability: (Liverpool is already "beyond the stable state"). Into this set comes the erosion of the economic base, low income, permanent and large scale unemployment, crime, race, law and order, and so on.

  • The second set of problems concern the incompatibility of our arbitrary style of government with public expenditure as a high proportion of gross national product These are the problems inherent in our style of governmental machinery - or bureaucracy - and they find expression in our inability to cope with industrial rationalisation and post industrial trends: the inherent "poverty traps" of public finance and the cumulative causation that converts problems into merely more expensive problems.

  • The third set of problems is perhaps more the traditional subject matter of planners and architects. I refer to the vast range of anomalies and inconsistencies as it becomes daily more obvious that problems of the physical and economic environments are inseparable. There is no department of State with a serious or unambiguous responsibility for the economic environment.

  • Finally, the fourth set is all about accountability and the political process itself. The urban crisis is, at base, a crisis of technology but the complex problems generated have led to increased centralisation, accompanied by lack of accountability and consequent failures in the political process both locally and in Parliament. Bob Hope's famous "one liner" rings particularly true today: "it doesn't matter who you vote for the Government always get in!"


But even for a less daunting group of problems, the superficiality of governmental response can be easily demonstrated.1 The real problem behind diminishing opportunities for groups of people, cities, and whole urban regions around them is that, possibly for the first time in history, we have societies which don't need people! Liverpool is such a society now.


It is probably the first city in Britain to experience this problem in all its stark reality. Sue Shafer, Director of South Liverpool Personnel Limited calls the city "Capital of the Fourth World". The designation rings true. Permanent unemployment is now a fact of life and, in the traditional terms of the industrial state, a whole city has become redundant. Often an intelligent and highly imaginative people raise two eloquent fingers to a Government that has exhausted it remedies - a gesture that can be misunderstood in the press and in that other area of multiple-deprivation called "Whitehall". But Liverpool is an original city, pioneer of many institutional and social reforms. Described by Jung as "the POOL of life", Liverpool has outlived its own dream and faces the new frontier. Liverpool and such cities will be the "Watergate" of our scandalously inept planning system.


Triggered by fear, special urban programmes originated with Harold Wilson's speech in Birmingham on 5 May 1968. His "answer to Enoch Powell" heralded a decade of special measures and projects, experimental or academic in style and always administered by Governments in a haphazard way. The 1972 initiative by Peter Walker was no exception although I personally fought hard to turn this from the academic bonanza it became and the poverty-industrial-complex follow-through of Peter Shore's initiative in 1977.2 Endless study of urban decline and experimental action cannot evade the issue that government itself is the main problem.




The present Government initiatives have four main ingredients which comprise:

  1. adoption of main programmes to the needs of so-called "inner areas";
  2. a more "unified approach",
  3. efforts to improve local economies, and finally,
  4. a "recast Urban Programme" and special "partnership" arrangements for certain cities. Briefly, I will say something about each:


  1. Main Programmes: When it comes to money, and everything comes to money in the end, Mr. Shore's main instrument of positive discrimination remains the Rate Support Grant (RSG). Mr. Shore says so and, indeed it is beyond dispute.

    Now RSG has worked well enough as a current expenditure subsidy for the large range of routine services that always make up the bulk of public spending. But whatever its benefits it remains a passive subsidy for addictive services. Concerned with some £6,000,000,000 a year, any relationship between this vast redistribution of resources and an improvement of the economic base of our cities is at worst unlikely and, at best, entirely fortuitous. As with many of the major instruments of our Welfare State, RSG may have alleviated trends towards greater inequalities but it certainly has not reversed them.

    In fact, RSG itself has built in features which can leave a city which tries to help itself worse off than before - and despite the size of the redistribution involved - it cannot alone, halt urban decline.

  2. More Unified Approach: Whitehall's lack of corporate action on urban problems has long been a notorious dilemma. All Ministers always say that they will do something about this and Peter Shore is no exception; under his resurrected rubric of "the total approach". A little is being co-ordinated here and there but central departments continue to protect their corners just as jealously as in the past. And why not! Thank heavens, the magical corporate planning myths of the early seventies are rapidly following the comic "planning mood" of the sixties into historical oblivion.

    It is the nature of any large bureaucracies that competent departments will go their separate ways. At least the "Inner City" White Paper is realistic in suggesting they should become involved "so far as practicable".3 "Co-ordination" as such is just an empty word unless there is a clear policy that demands co-ordinating. Only the most positive spending programme and policies can determine when and where it is necessary to unify departmental efforts and ensure co-ordination takes place. The continued absence of a unified approach by central departments just reflects the absence of positive policy content.

  3. Improvement of Local Economy: We do not have a central government department with clear responsibilities for the economic environment beyond aggregate national accounting. Dummy planning activities have long protected the mass of people from realising this little omission. And so we also have no coherent manpower programmes and a Department of Employment that could be more appropriately called the "Department of Unemployment". The citizen has long accepted that he is within his rights to demand a school and teachers for his children along with access to health, housing, transport, the courts and many other basic services. But it must be said that the right to work has always been seen as a too radical objective in our type of society.

    Consequently the billions scattered about by public corporations and the Department of Industry are not centred on objectives such as providing specific numbers of jobs in any one area - or at all. Quite irrespective of political, ideologies (to the Right or Left) this is proving to be one of the most troublesome areas of our public service.

    In spite of Mr. Shore's leadership on this most important aspect of "inner city policy!", neither Whitehall or Government wish to see any clear role for local government in terms of manpower or industrial programmes. This remains true in spite of various local government initiatives, Private Acts, the Inner Urban Areas Bill, Circular 71/77 and all that is being said under the rubric of "inner city policy".

  4. The "Urban Programme" and "Partnerships": The final ingredient of new policies - and in many ways the matter that strangely attracts most headlines - is the "recast" Urban Programme and special administrative arrangements for a limited number of cities. The first point to note here is that the Urban Programme (under the Social Needs Act) has not been "recast" but has been given a little extra money: minute relative to the other measures I have already discussed. Under the Home Office this was known as the "Urban Aid Lucky Dip" and under DOE is becoming known as a "bran tub": same thing!

    In spite of Treasury concern, and internal reviews suggesting expenditure-based planning solutions4 the Urban Programme was administered in a quite random or ad hoc way until it reached an allocation of £30 million in 1977. The 1978 "Inner City Policy" raises this to £125 million out of which £50 million goes to the first partnership cities. There is also a further "construction" package of £83 million in England. As usual, if this money is to be used, local government has to find 25%, or rather increase its already enormous debt by £42 million while suffering further reducing overall subsidy in servicing loans and current expenditure. Now, as a rock thrown to a drowning man, it may be that this effort will nevertheless produce ripples of innovation as special partnership cities bring forward proposals.


In conclusion one must say that this seems unlikely. The Government's "guidance notes" to local authorities for preparing bids show no definite criteria that would indicate the presence of positive policy. In these circumstances, councils that have seen such initiatives many times before, will tend to do a few useful things, by "dusting off" old pet projects previously shelved. Of course, we will learn something. Ministers may become rather more familiar with special urban problems and we will all have the opportunity of educating yet another wave of civil servants as they flit through this part of the governmental machine.


But if this educational process is to be effective it will need to be miraculously fast before the combined effects of poverty, structural unemployment and race erupt in serious social conflicts. Nor is this purely a local matter. From what I have said it must be concluded that urban problems raise the most profound issues for society in general. They question the relevance of the whole apparatus of government. After all the machinery that evolved to serve the growth of industrial society is not easily adapted to post-industrial trends. The solutions that many of us have worked towards have been difficult to promote precisely because they involved adaptations in a good deal of our main controls and could not simply be an "inner city dimension" added on. In the end present trends suggest that local democracy will become as completely eroded as its economic base and a centralised closed form of national government will continue to alternate between cosmetic treatments and repressive measures in a fairly arbitrary way.



  1. The essential strategy gap behind the last decade of programmes is more deeply explored in "Setting Up Six Towns: An Urban Strategy Gap". Des McConaghy, Town Planning Review, April 1978.
  2. "Setting Up Six Towns: An Urban Strategy Gap" op.cit.
  3. Secretary of State for the Environment: "Policy for the Inner Cities", Cmnd. 6845, London, HMSO.
  4. Setting Up Six Towns, op.cit. Expenditure-Based Plans are developed further in "The Cutting Edge", Des McConaghy, Built Environment Quarterly, March 1978


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