The Fire - Now !


Des McConaghy


Local Government News August 1981



RICS & NCTJ First Prize 1982: Specialist Category for Journalists & Broadcasters.


(Dodging the rioters on the night the balloon went up in Toxteth, Des McConaghy reflects on 13 years of inept cosmetic treatment and challenges ministers to face the real issues)



Getting home was difficult - the front door mid-way between a police cordon and the crowd. Later, from the safety of my balcony, I saw a massive bulldozer sent into the barrier of riot shields. Then the blue line broke. Terrified policemen scattered into Upper Parliament Street. The elated mob - both white and black - danced with joy. They were mostly adults and hefty teenagers. The building behind me was set on fire: even now my flat smells of smoke. Upper Parliament Street was burning. I had witnessed the first really indigenous major city riot this century: Liverpool 8, Sunday 8 July, 1981.


Some faces were familiar. I remember a riot at precisely the same spot on 8 August 1972. The kids had used contractors' reinforcing bars as barricades. Relatively it was a minor affair. But stiff penalties followed and official "cover-ups". In 1972 these same young men were, even then, quite outside the political process, seething with frustration, defiant and hating the police. Nine years later - and there are still no jobs and less prospects.


Lifting the lid


In 1969 a Liverpool police sergeant told me: "Society puts its rubbish in a dust-bin and expects the policeman to sit on the lid". But to live here is to know real people and to glimpse their new frontier: something more real and demanding than anything yet faced by Government or Whitehall. In their own immediate way, they experience the widening chasm between government and the governed, the erosion of consent, the pressure on the political centre and so on. And this failure of democracy, this exclusion, becomes intolerable when one is jobless, credit-less and hopeless. Everyday government for many in Liverpool 8 is the police - and this corrupts the police also! Unlike that Liverpool sergeant, I can see plenty of civil servants and Ministers in his "dust-bin". This article takes a look inside.



In 1972 I went to work in Whitehall with a bundle of reforms under my arm. We had proposed - and thought we had begun - a national programme on a pilot basis: a new framework for debate within which diverse priority areas could bid for supplementary resources across the board. It was a principle of priority funding which could perhaps lead to a full measure of reform: to open up and democratise resource decision at every level. To officials this was tantamount to treason and nothing to do with the mental "box" or "straight jacket" already prepared for Liverpool 8, Liverpool itself and the "urban problem".


In fact, for thirteen years the hallmark of governmental response has been weak-minded and myopic. This "Pandora's Box" must be opened before our army camps are full of rioters and our cities are full of the army. When Heseltine and Raison report on their two weeks' "study of Liverpool" they should bear in mind four crucial facts totally ignored by governments so far:


  1. The "inner city problem" is mainly a severe concentration of wider problems - and causes lie elsewhere;
  2. Traditional employment opportunities shall remain inadequate and this is intolerable alongside other deprivations;
  3. Effective interventions need co-ordination of departmental programmes - and Whitehall continues to fight this; and
  4. We are now a centralised state where local democracy has little real meaning - and none at all for the underprivileged.



Setting the Style


From the start the Home Secretary's responsibility for law and order gave him the dominant interest. But when Prime Minister Wilson announced his 1968 "Urban Programme" - triggered by Enoch Powell's vision of "rivers of blood" - it took most Ministers and officials off guard. Consequently the £25 million "urban aid" programme ("Lucky dip") was operated by the Home Office in an amateur and arbitrary way. Although urban resources have increased (under Heseltine). No part of the programme has ever been related to main line governmental policies - nor has it been used to prompt essential innovations in the financial field.


Such superficiality of purpose is an advantage for some Ministers when slotting in money - "doling out lollipops" - without the trauma of real policy decisions. For civil servants too, the pattern of response having been set, it is convenient to keep it that way. With the "inner city" or "urban problem" established as some separate domain, new divisions and careers were established in academic isolation - without disturbing the work of main line management.


The mountains of reports about Liverpool and elsewhere had no effect and pilot projects failed - "designed" to "destruct"! This is why the first Home Office "Community Development Projects" (CDPs) came to nothing - isolated local directors "went native" and ended up in confrontation with both local councils and Government. Has he lived, Morrell, the inspired civil servant originally in charge, could have changed nothing! Note his valedictory comment - not as a verdict on CDPs but on Whitehall: "I reject the many sneers to which we are subject. But I accept as valid the charge that creative administration is not our strong point ...that we often seem insensitive to the needs and feelings of the governed; valuing the integrity of our own systems more highly that the integrity of those whose needs we exist to meet".


The Department of the Environment's bid


By 1971 both Peter Walker and Tony Crosland told me the new DOE should take the lead from the Home Office: only by engaging the large range of powers (then) enjoyed by DOE could we spearhead an inter-departmental "total approach to urban problems". Local government finance was one crucial element in any effective reforms. Walker's announcement of the new Transport Grant and the "Six Towns Studies" in 1972 were then linked in his mind to an essential reassessment of financial arrangements that had to accompany local government re-organisation after 1974.


But officials are usually cynical - indeed derisive - about "Ministerial initiatives" in urban policy and neither the Treasury nor DOE were interested in the new local authorities extending the scope of financial decision: quite the contrary. DOE's Permanent Secretary remained opposed to inter-departmental involvement. He knew that the "economic environment" was beyond his scope and Rippon (now Environmental Secretary) "didn't want to change much". So local government re-organisation proceeded without essential financial reforms and, at the urban bottom, the "Six Towns Studies" - including "Inner Area Studies" - were programmes as "non-events".


My frustration as an adviser on the latter was only an echo of seething indignation brewing in Toxteth. In our work in Lambeth, Brixton was studiously avoided as "untypical"! Expensive outside consultants ("we own him bow") were employed "thinking of things to do". Perfectly good proposals were tossed aside; the task was to keep consultants out of the hair of main line DOE management and, of course, central Departments concerned with social and economic issues.


Back Home


On spite of Ted Heath's concern about no positive policy, the initiative had to swing back to base: to Robert Carr as Home Secretary. Lunching Permanent Secretaries noted the intensity of Carr's concern for urban policy and his desire to start co-ordinating things! Their consolation was that the Home Office and Central Policy Review staff (CPRS) would soon become overwhelmed by their topic so long as "amateur" officials were kept well away from DOE financial controls, housing and so on. Carr's inter-departmental review was headed for a comprehensive urban grant. Preparations and pilots were to cost millions but Whitehall had "spiked it" from the start.


Roy Jenkins, the new Labour Home Secretary, launched "Comprehensive Community Programmes" in July 1974. His Commons statement, in a reply to David Steel, was low-key. The staff work, started by Carr, was intended to proceed in a number of cities. One survived for four years in Gateshead but, as intended, it had to wither as another ad hoc venture removed from innovations in financial controls and the mainstream instruments of urban and regional recovery.


DOE's own "Inner Area Studies" groaned on and I hoped Tony Crosland (as Environment Secretary) would take a positive stance. But no! Crosland had the intellect to see the intractable nature of key issues - but also appreciated the limitations of the system ostensibly under his command. He first spelt out the end to the growth of public expenditure; "The party is over"! For everything else he sent "wide ranging and radical reviews" into perpetual orbit. In the 16th July Debate Freeson (Housing Minister) said that he had tried for an inter-departmental response. In fact he was boxed into a corner.


Shoring up


In 1977 Peter Shore's DOE again grabbed the lead from the Home Office, this time to "recast the Urban Programme" and forge, again, a "total approach to urban problems". His "Partnership" authorities still survive as a grotesque bureaucratic vision of Wilson's 1968 concept. His claim to involve main [programmes "so far as is practicable" was misleading. An "Inner Cities Directorate" was established largely for cosmetics and to handle "Partnership bids" quite separately from civil servants actually dealing with education, transport, housing, social services and so on.


Meanwhile Shore (and later Heseltine) spent millions buying esoteric academic research from Universities; research rarely, if ever, directed to practical policy matters.


Like Shore's inner city aid, Heseltine's leaves cities financially worse off. When Kaufmann attacked Heseltine in the 16th July Debate he concealed not only the bi-partisan cosmetic nature of programmes but the "me-tooism" of this Labour and Tory confidence trick: trends in the revenue grant under both Governments had to leave the "beneficiaries" of inner city money net losers.


Back to the gutter


This "glitter in the gutter" syndrome has increased a hundred fold under the Tories. Consider how such Ministerial "lollipops" now look to locals. Just before the riots, Heseltine came to see his Princes Avenue; a Liverpool 8 Parisian style boulevard, landscaped expensively with little regard for utility or taste. It was a desperate attempt to "burn off" £238,000 before the end of the financial year. On each side of this extravaganza the large houses stand rotting, many still empty shells.


Or go behind the Avenue to where we began our improvements and inner city campaign in 1969 (the Shelter Neighbourhood Action Project). Our office, twelve years ago a thriving local workshop with families in two newly rehabilitated flats above, is now deserted and left to rot. Around the corner in Ducie Street I stood outside a house known in law books as "the Granby Decision" where, for the first time, we had compulsory powers used to transfer multi-lets to responsible public ownership. Nine years later this "test case" is indeed in public (SRL) ownership - but still unimproved and now falling down. Just symptoms of what I once called "the mindless mismanagement of urban affairs".


Heseltine's Merseyside Urban Development Corporation is a million miles away. In the March 1980 issue of LGN I showed just how unnecessary UDCs were and the article caused a few ripples at DOE. Provisions were proposed in the local government legislation for achieving the same "results" without loss of democratic control! That same year Heseltine lopped off £186,482,000 in housing investment proposals alone from the authorities in Merseyside and London Docklands - where people actually live. I suggested Heseltine should buy some "insurance" for his improbable stunt of attempting islands of wealth in a growing sea of public squalor. He will find the "premiums" heavier now.


This week the Development Corporation Chief Executive told me he would listen to local community opinion but his Corporation was a strictly "commercial" organisation. But he could not say how his trading budget was geared to grant or what return would ever be expected from investment. In fact his £17 million this year is almost all deficit budget and every penny comes from funds originally intended for local programmes. More "glitter"!




We need calm - but to hell with the usual complacency! When Margaret Thatcher visited Liverpool on 13th July she was worried. But as she sped away in her car, many who spoke to her said she simply did not comprehend the situation. For Wally Brown, a community leader, "everything she heard was outside her experience". The same might be said of many Prime Ministers: their worlds tend to stop at the end of Westminster Square, their vision is dominated by Treasury Chambers and their imagination is constrained by that other area of "multiple-deprivation" called "Whitehall".


Not so in Toxteth! Mr Heseltine's trip to Liverpool was a good idea because it is just possible he might learn from it. If so he will have a lot of work to do back at the ranch. A mere Environmental Secretary will face familiar difficulties if he really wants a less dilettante response to problems: problems not merely local but which concern everyone. From Belfast and Brixton to Berlin this is an international challenge. Because when Governments consistently fail at the centre they fail in all the parts.


Firstly, the "Urban Programme" cannot be left to some peripheral part of the governmental apparatus where the conspicuous superficiality of its operation is so apparent. And this means we can no longer regard "inner areas" as some isolated phenomena. It was always the most persistent weak thinking to imagine that by concentrating "additional" resources in certain enclaves their problems would slowly disappear.


It remains weak thinking to imagine that such enclaves could expect a dramatic change of circumstances when whole urban regions around them continue to decline. Again should we be so miraculously "successful" without simultaneously relating priority action to overall programmes and trends, how could we possibly avoid new enclaves of even worse privation appearing elsewhere?


The so-called "urban problem" is not some separate domain inhabited by feckless foreigners. It is not even a definable topic. As an area of concern it represents only the most visible manifestation of weaknesses in local and national economies - and in the institutions charged with managing them. So priority action has to be incorporated into existing financial mechanisms and the whole range of existing measures actively deployed in urban and regional recovery. The capacity for recovery in deprived areas can hardly be more advanced that that for the urban economy as a whole, not conceivably can it be more successful.


And so to the problems of co-ordination. Whitehall and local government lack the capacity to co-ordinate when and where that is absolutely necessary and also the machinery to decide when that is the case. The "Inner Cities Directorate" and so on, merely institutionalise lack of co-ordination, Its 1981 deployment of £ 17 million inner city cosmetics in Liverpool has to be seen against local government negotiations with diverse Whitehall Departments for a Government planned expenditure (excluding Home Office capital) of £ 694,009,000 for Merseyside authorities, £ 132,671,000 for Merseyside County and £ 221,566,000 for Liverpool District. And, for example, Heseltine's possible "clawback" on a grant related expenditure of £ 182,584,000 in Liverpool could more than wipe out the pretence of co-ordinated inner city "action".


Locally, the same point! They burned down the "Cash and Carry" store in Granby Street but left intact the Housing Aid Centre we bequeathed by SNAP. We were quite unable to persuade the city to make this a "multi-service centre". As with the failed "area management" experiment in Liverpool, co-ordination depends on the financial arrangements; not the administrative convenience of departments.


On the key issue of employment, there is not a shred of evidence that "real jobs" can fill the void in traditional ways. This does not preclude the attempt. But Liverpool, which gave birth to the industrial system, is now the "capital of the Fourth World"! Similar structural changes are inevitable in all European countries - "developed capitalism" and "developed socialism"! The Government has to see that employing the unemployed is a remarkably small fiscal burden - and some such "ideological" tolerance is necessary before the mob reaches Downing Street. Capital spending helps - but we musty also discover what leisure is more rewarding than crime!


What political process can grasp this sorry state of things? Centralisation always breeds extremism - directly or as the mass of people feel more excluded. For Liverpool 8, Toxteth, Liverpool or Merseyside, the traditional economic or constitutional rationale of "local autonomy" had disappeared. And as opportunities decrease central dependency grows; a widening gulf between government and the consumers of services. The problem for our definition of liberal democracy is that it depended for substance on prosperity and continued growth. With the end of that, the people of Liverpool 8 can't be too interested in local political control when, each day, their city loses more powers and hands over more tasks to central quangos.


Governmental response had been institution substitution, not institution building. At the heart of this collapse is the secret government of public money. From constituencies to the House of Commons, from wards to councils, we are accustomed to such secrecy that only the most senior civil servants know what programmes are being robbed at the cost of others - or how the actual pattern of political decisions add up.


It is all of a piece. Improvement of cities must involve improvement of local institutions. This cannot be achieved by bypassing them or excluding them from the wider financial debate - but only by involving them at each level. To spend is to choose. Unless people can see how much, and for what, we are spending, we no longer have democracy worth a damn at any level! Thus we need a framework of debate which extends from the most local level to the centre - properly constituted to be meaningful to all.


Finally, since the above four crucial points are general - and all came to a head in the breakdown of social order - why have they been neglected in such a complacent way? The answer is that, at base, the Liverpool administration still waits for its Merchant Princes to return to Princes Avenue, Liverpool 8. At base, Whitehall believes that we shall all again enjoy a climate of opportunity and indefinite growth - simply because its administrative structure is designed that way. In this model wealth will once again trickle down to deprived areas and keep the sub-classes patient. But if Heseltine and Raison can tolerate such complacency with 3,000,000 unemployed, Mrs Thatcher's next visit to Liverpool will be already too late. No civilian force is heavy enough to sit on that lid!


Des McConaghy


NB. Written during the Toxteth riots, not as "recollected in moments of tranquillity"!


The SNAP Report "Another Chance for Cities: SNAP 69/72" was published by Shelter, London 1972 (ISBN 0 9801242 11 X). Des McConaghy's account of those proposals is also at "SNAP - an Urban Programme" in "The Urban Crisis", Brand & Cox Edits., RTPI, London 1975. My account of the way these and other proposals were handled in Whitehall can be found in "Setting up Six Towns; an Urban Strategy Gap", Town Planning Review, Vol 49, No 2, April 1978. That paper was proof read by the Ministers concerned; Peter Walker, Graham Page and David (now Lord) Lipsey for Tony Crosland (who had died).


 return to top of the page



Contact to Des McConaghy:




5 Glenluce Road, Liverpool L19 9BX,   Tel. 0151 427 6668


return to main page