Let’s get past the UK riots, cut through the political rhetoric, and separate the crimes from inner city deprivation. As the flakey media lose interest, it is time for politicians to get back to the jigsaw puzzle. But the picture has changed.
The trouble, of course, is that fundamental problems require big, bold solutions – and a determination to see them through. What chance of that with a creaking coalition and a strident opposition?
So, it’s time to search for a powerful new consensus in a time of urgent need.
First, the problems:
- Low levels of education, self-esteem and motivation among too many young people
- Frequent family-dependency on benefits, with few job prospects
- Little structure and stimulation in many young lives
- Pervasive gangs, drugs and violence in inner city areas
Second, some building blocks:
- Academies. These innovative, inner city secondary schools are funded by central government and managed independent of local government. Crucially, they are sponsored variously by business people, companies and charities. Academies were launched by Labour and are at least as strongly supported by the Conservatives and Liberals. A big private-public success.
- Corporate and social responsibility. ‘CSR’ is the code for companies being ‘good citizens’. Shareholders, especially the growing number of ‘ethical funds’ love CSR and so do employees and customers. Annual Reports are full of it.
- Charities. In spite of the catcalls about David Cameron’s “Big Society”, Labour too supported social charities in a big way. The best charities are strong, well managed and resourceful. Everybody knows that.
Put it in a blender and you might come up with a new brand of local activism driven by businesses and charities, with the ways and means to:
- Create and manage new leisure facilities and activities
- Provide school mentoring for learning, development, and careers
- Create training, work experience, and apprenticeships
- Organise community ‘service’ programmes including renovation of public spaces and facilities
Many such projects already exist in different ways. So-called “city partnerships” sound just right. And Business in the Community (which sprang from the 1980s riots) is excellent. But a transformative approach is needed. The proposed “Local Corporate Partnerships” would be sponsored and driven by companies themselves not by local authorities. Companies (working with charities and others) would take charge and use their resources across a wide range of project areas to make things happen – just as with the Academies. But an additional advantage, in this case, would be that the companies would be persuaded to devote their own resources to making the partnerships work – at a time when public funds are scarce. They would be “sponsors” in every sense of the word.
The government would need to establish:
- Designated inner city areas and towns
- A framework of independence for the partnerships
- A regulatory process to ensure local government co-operation
- Modest incentives (perhaps related to reductions in local business rates as a quid pro quo for creating apprenticeships, for example) to ensure long-term success
The objective of these new commercially-driven partnerships would be to turbo-charge social and youth programmes by capitalizing on the people, resources and motivation of the best companies in each town or region. These CSR-conscious sponsors would take direct responsibility for projects to help young people in blighted inner city areas. Win-win.
Such Local Corporate Partnerships could – if developed carefully - help young people right from learning at school, through structured leisure, to work experience, training and employment. Town-by-town and suburb-by-suburb, they could help transform the school, family and leisure environment for millions of young people. It is easy to believe that companies like Nestlé UK (based in Croydon) and Spurs (Tottenham) would jump at the chance to take responsibility for improving their troubled neighbourhoods.
In nineteenth century England, enlightened employers built community values and healthy living into urban developments (like Bourneville and Port Sunlight) alongside their soap and chocolate factories. It is time for the 21st century versions of those benevolent businesses to help meet today’s social challenges. Government must help make it happen. So, what are we waiting for?