21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 33

Local government

Understanding special areas

Jef Smith

Pretty soon, a colleague of mine said recently, you will be able to walk right through Liverpool from one special area to another — start from the community development project, straight ahead through the educational priority area and turn left for the total approach zone. Liverpool is certainly a case, and a deserving case by any standard, for just about every experiment in making social services more relevant, but it is not the only city to be the subject of such a network of experimentation that it is almost time to co-ordinate the innovators. The London Borough of Southwark for example is a candidate for urban aid and education priority money, and has a government community development project in Newington and the Southwark Community Project initiated by the National Institution for Social Work Training in the borough area just to the north. Where Seebohm has tidied up the conventional social services, community development appears to be spreading in a variety of different directions all at the same time. As so often with social policy issues, the picture is complicated. The best services I can perform might be simply to compile a glossary of terms, so that readers who stay with me for the next thousand words or so, might then be just about able to follow the paragraph or two of discussion I hope to have room for.

It all started with the concept of Positive discrimination.The British system of local government and more particularly of local authority finance leads to there being some very rich and some very poor councils. Unfortunately, in fact inevitably, given that .expensive property has a high rateable value and run-down areas yield Proportionately little, it tends to be the Poor areas that have the greatest Problems. It is easy for campaigning voluntary organisations to publish surveys Showing the disparity of services between one authority and another, but in the last

resort councils in the depressed innerurban areas where needs are greatest have a pretty small resource cake and apart from minor savings through good housekeeping can only really enlarge the slice allocated to any one service by starving another. Recognising this fundamental problem successive governments at Whitehall have sought for ways of getting more money to the most needy areas without destroying completely the somewhat eroded principle that local authorities remain independent of central government because they are financially self-supporting. Though there is obviously a measure of social justice in the concept of positive discrimination, it is still discrimination and the effect on a neighbourhood of being labelled as in particular need is beginning to worry some workers.

The idea originated in the Plowden Report, perhaps the most innovatory of the great state papers on education produced during the 'sixties. The resulting projects known as 'Educational Priority Areas' (EPAs) established in Birmingham, Liverpool, London and the West Riding — a fifth in Dundee developed rather differently -were the subject of a report published earlier this month, compiled by Dr A. H. Halsey who has co-ordinated the research. The report's major conclusion is to commend the plan in outline and to urge the building of further links between the schools in deprived areas and the neighbourhoods they serve. EPAs have experimented with a variety of methods of increasing the quality of teaching, including the rather unsuccessful award of an extra increment to teachers in selected areas, but have made their greatest impact in that ambiguous area in the lives of children that lies between home and school. Schools, it is argued, could become real community resources, their buildings open to a much wider range of ages and activities than merely those served, through daytime classroom work. Teachers too should get out to visit the homes of their pupils, and there should be a new brand of information-cum-welfare workers with a role similar to that of health visitors in the public health area.

Although the original finance for EPAs came logically enough from the Department of Education and Science and the Social Science Research Council, the continuation of some of the project work is to be financed through the 'Urban Programme,' through money called 'Urban Aid,' which is administered by the Home Office. The model for this fund is American and again the problem it aims to answer is that of local authorities unable or unwilling to take action to meet the needs of their worst areas. In America, it is often said, they have 'programmes' which can be stopped when they are seen to fail or they become politically unacceptable. In England allegedly we have 'policies' which more or less carry on whatever, or are modified marginally.

Over E20 million has been distributed in Urban Aid to local authorities and voluntary groups in the welfare field. Lately the scheme has come under fire from a variety of directions. On the one hand the fact that all applications have to be made through local councils limits the range of distribution to the rather

respectable bodies content to fit into established patterns. On the other hand the Government's insistence that local authorities should not use the grants to subsidise regular work which is already timetabled has often led to a desperate scraping around to initiate projects for which to claim, a process which is the absolute antithesis of good planning.

By contrast, the ' Community Development Project' has been almost overresearched. CDP consists of twelve separate projects in widely dispersed urban areas and each is linked to a relatively local university or polytechnic, all coordinated by a central group led by Professor John Greve. The initial research briefs were so vague that academics were reluctant to be involved in several towns; nor have relations between the researchers and the action teams whose work they monitor always been happy. Still, community workers talk a great deal about conflict, so it would be foolish to run away from the issues at the first sign of tension. More serious is a continuing uncertainty as to what CDPs are trying to achieve. Is it to supplement the conventional social services of an area or to pose alternative solutions to problems? In either case a team of only three or four workers can hardly expect to make much impact compared with whole local authority departments employing hundreds of staff. Is it to explore interventions in human situations at wider levels than the individual or family? If so the fact that many conventional social workers are moving in the same direction could be encouraging but confusing. Or is it, as CDP workers increasingly claim themselves, to bring to bear influence that will change the way in which organisations in the social service sector conventionally operate in relation to their clients?

It is this last possibility that seems to get nearest to what the whole range of priority programmes are about. The independence of local government is one of the sacred cows of the British constitution, but despite all the lip service paid to the principle Whitehall as the guardian of overall standards of provision is constantly seeking ways of intruding. In CDPs, the EPA programme and at last Urban Aid, it has drawn on the not altogether wholehearted co-operation of academic social scientists and in some areas as a result the battle has become almost three-sided. In fact of course there are very many more than three sides even, as Whitehall is far from speaking with one voice. One of the original stated aims of CDP was to influence also the operation of central government and to this end an interdepartmental steering committee was to guide the overall operation. Lately the Home Office as the host department seems to have been left with almost total responsibility, the DES concentrating on its EPA exercises, the DHSS (oddly as the major social service ministry) standing somewhat aloof from the whole show, and the DOOE launching its own 'Total Approach' projects. I haven't said much about Total Approach as it's very new and little is known except the areas in which it will operate. If its achievement matches its ambitious title, we can all presumably stop worrying!