We were elected in 1997 to make a real difference in health, in education, and on the economy. We have rightly focused on those priorities. But ever since we came to Office, we have also dedicated ourselves to the regeneration of our local communities and neighbourhoods.
To raise the standards of education in this country, to cut down on crime, to improve living standards, we need more and better schools, better hospitals, more police and more jobs.
We also need stronger local communities and an improved local quality of life. Streets where parents feel safe to let their children walk to school. Where people want to use the parks. Where graffiti, vandalism, litter and dereliction are not tolerated. Where the environment in which we live fosters rather than alienates a sense of local community and mutual responsibility.
These issues affect the whole country. Town centres can become empty and threatening after dark. So too can suburban streets. Market towns experience vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Villages are cut in half by speeding traffic. Country lanes are used for fly-tipping and dumping cars.
In isolation a bit of vandalism here or graffiti there might seem trivial, but their combined effect can seriously undermine local quality of life. Some criminologists talk of the "broken window" problem. They argue that a failure to tackle small-scale problems can lead to serious crime and environmental blight. Streets that are dirty and threatening deter people from going out. They signal that the community has lost interest. As a result, anti-social behaviour and more serious criminality may take root.
Indeed, one of the failings of Thatcherism was to misunderstand how 'public goods' such as clean, safe and attractive streets and public spaces need investment alongside growing private affluence.
Today, these issues are also crucial for economic success. We live in an increasingly competitive world, where people and capital are ever more mobile. Towns, cities, regions and countries that provide safe and attractive places for people to live and work will be the winners. For Britain to prosper, we need to make such places the rule, not the exception.
In parts of Europe, this is taken for granted. Anyone who has visited Stockholm or Copenhagen will know what I mean. In the US, they call this agenda "liveability" and in many American communities, politics is now focused on improving these aspects of local quality of life. Rudy Guiliani in New York, Richard Daley in Chicago and many others - they have understood that small things add up to make a bigger picture. They invoke the concept of liveability as a short hand for all the things which improve our daily experience of life where we live.
Of course, local government and local people must be in the vanguard. Tackling these problems requires local control and local solutions. Central government's role is much more limited. It is to provide seed corn funding, to get the regulations right, to give local government the freedoms and support they need and to give these issues the political profile they deserve.
We've been applying this approach, tackling neighbourhood renewal, ever since we came to Office. The Urban White Paper provided an overall strategy for improving the quality of life in our cities and towns. Our Neighbourhood Renewal strategy recognises the special needs of our most deprived areas. Local Strategic Partnerships are now promoting a cross-cutting approach to government, by bringing together a wide range of agencies from the Police to the health authorities.
Today, I want to set out our plans for further strengthening this agenda.
For neighbourhood renewal to succeed, individuals have also to take responsibility for the environment in which they live. Part of expecting more responsible behaviour means not tolerating irresponsible behaviour - the yob culture that intimidates so many people.
That means giving the police the resources they need. The Crime Fighting Fund to boost police recruitment. The biggest ever Crime Reduction Programme, with over ??200 million already committed. An extra ??30 million a year during this spending period to tackle rural crime. The results are now feeding through: overall crime down, although with much still to do; police recruitment up to its highest level for three years.
We are giving new powers to the police to issue fixed penalty notices for low level disorder offences so that they can deal with troublemakers, on the spot, with the minimum of fuss and red tape. Anti-social behaviour orders are now being used more widely to tackle loutish behaviour and we are urging councils and the police to make even greater use of these.
Crime and Disorder Partnerships set up in 1998 are bringing police, local government and other bodies together in new ways. In Manchester, the Housing Department has established specialist teams to tackle anti-social behaviour. In Cardiff, an initiative to bring together the police, licensing magistrates, A&E consultants and local authorities has helped reduce violence in licensed premises by 35% last year. There are similar innovative schemes across the country.
Last month the Home Secretary announced another ??108 million for CCTV projects throughout the country. Since 1997 coverage has increased threefold. CCTV now plays an indispensable role up and down the country in providing evidence, acting as a deterrent to criminals, and as a reassurance to everyone else.
Today I would like to set out how we are going to use our new Reparation Orders to bear down on irresponsible behaviour.
Over the next year, the Youth Justice Board will introduce a new Community Payback scheme. It will issue guidance to all 154 youth offending teams in England and Wales so that where victims have not asked for direct reparation, all young offenders on reparation orders should participate in a 'Community Payback' scheme. Through this initiative young offenders will be involved directly in removing graffiti, clearing up litter, repairing vandalism and improving communal areas.
Young offenders take something out of society through their offending. This scheme will allow them to put something back.
I would like to go further along this path of developing social responsibility for all youngsters.
The Youth Justice Board runs nearly 70 Youth Inclusion Programmes in high crime estates. These provide supervised leisure activities and personal development programmes for youngsters most at risk of offending. The Government wants to extend these programmes to see if they can include a stronger incentive to reward responsible behaviour.
The Youth Justice Board will set up a pilot scheme in London. This will provide rewards for youngsters - such as vouchers for clothes, music, travel or computer equipment - when they take part in community renewal work. The Board will seek private sponsors for the scheme.
Clean and Well-Managed Streets
Streets need to be safe. They also need to be clean and well managed. We have already made a start.
We have included street cleaning standards, pavement repairs and street lighting in the Best Value Performance Indicators. We have provided ??30 billion through the Ten-Year Transport Plan to tackle the backlog of road maintenance and street lighting repairs.
We have made it a criminal offence to leave or deposit litter, with a maximum fine of ??2500. Yet the total value of fines for litter and dog fouling combined is no more than ??70,000 a year, nationally.
We all know that some people still drop litter with impunity. Why? In part it is because local authorities do not keep the money raised from litter and dog fouling - they do not have a direct financial incentive to tackle the problem.
So we want to give local authorities a further incentive to improve their environment. We will double the spot fine for dog fouling and littering. And we will allow local authorities to keep the resources from these fines. This money will be used to provide additional spending to enhance the local environment. Surplus revenue from parking fines will similarly be available for additional spending on local environmental improvement.
Abandoned cars are a major and increasing problem in many areas. They encourage crime and make an area look squalid and run down. According to an RAC survey, 10,000 cars were dumped in Birmingham last year alone.
We will press for the maximum fines to be imposed on those people abandoning vehicles where they can be traced. Local authorities need to be able to deal with abandoned vehicles quickly. Two pilot schemes, in Newham and Lewisham, are now looking at the scope for local authorities to wheel clamp untaxed, nuisance vehicles and remove them after 24 hours. If these pilots are successful we will roll this scheme out nationally.
Coherent organisation of street management services is another key priority. Croydon's very own 'Smarter Croydon' project, with its integrated approach to local environmental management, is a great example. Newham Council is developing a 'Newlook' campaign to tackle crime, vandalism, litter, dog fouling and graffiti. And Lambeth has set up a 'Street Scene Unit' with a single telephone number for all public enquiries and complaints relating to the street environment.
Often the best way to improve an area is to raise the profile and presence of local public officials. Trusted members of the community with a role to look out for people and for their environment.
That is why we have been developing local neighbourhood warden projects. These have proved very popular in making streets, villages and towns cleaner, safer and more attractive. Following the introduction of the Super Caretakers scheme in Hartlepool recorded crime fell by 35% over three years.
Building on the success of these pilots, I can announce today that we are to triple the scale of our wardens programme. The programme, for which ??50m will be made available, will cover a further 250,000 households in total.
Let me reiterate that their role is to complement and not to substitute for the police. There is no question of them getting police powers but they will work in close co-operation with the police and the local Crime and Disorder Partnerships to prevent litter, vandalism, graffiti and other nuisances.
Above all they will be local. A problem in one neighbourhood may not be an issue in the next. It is no good officials in Whitehall, or even the Town Hall, telling people what is needed in their street.
Business Involvement and Leadership
When a neighbourhood declines, local business suffers too. Businesses, like individuals, have a major stake and role to play in improving local areas. I have already referred to the need for local leadership - I believe that it is essential that business is part of that leadership.
I can tell you today that we have decided to introduce legislation to create Business Improvement Districts. These will be similar to the successful US examples where local businesses help pay for projects that improve their local area. This will enable local authorities and local businesses to enter into contracts to provide additional services or improvements, funded by an agreed additional business rate.
Our approach will be based on consent and on partnership. Only where a majority of businesses agree with a proposal will councils be able to raise the extra revenue required to fund it. An improvement scheme will be proposed either by councils or businesses and agreed by both parties - with local businesses having a say.
Reducing Traffic Danger
There are other ways we can improve our streets. Traffic can be dangerous and intimidating too. The toll of death and injury on Britain's roads is still far too high, particularly amongst children. 6000 children are killed or seriously injured on British roads every year.
We need specific measures to tackle danger wherever children face it. The Ten Year Plan for transport provides ??60 billion for local transport improvements, including road safety and provision for walking and cycling. We have given local authorities new powers to introduce 20 mph zones and we intend to press ahead with the roll out of 30 mph speed limits for villages - where there are bureaucratic obstacles to making these improvements we will tackle them.
We can also improve street design. We have created 'Home Zones' - areas where priority is given to walking and cycling over traffic. This creates safer and higher quality street environments. DETR is currently monitoring nine pilot Home Zones and a number of local authorities are planning Home Zones as part of their Local Transport Plans. Again, we want to go further - so I can announce today that the Government will provide a new ??30 million challenge fund for new Home Zone schemes in England.
During term time, just before nine, a fifth of cars on our urban roads are doing the school run -caught in the cycle where parents feel the need to ferry their children to school by car due to worries about their safety. To cut congestion and support healthier and safer school travel, we are financing over 100 local adviser posts to help schools draw up plans. We have also doubled the funding for local authorities to spend on local transport schemes and we are encouraging greater use of school buses, including the US-style yellow school buses announced recently by John Prescott.
Creating High Quality Public Spaces
I have focused so far on how we can make our streets and public spaces clean and safe. But cities like Copenhagen, Freiburg and Portland Oregon show that streets should be much more than that.
The Government has established the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to promote high standards of design in both the public and private sectors. This summer we will be making a major policy statement about heritage and the built environment, covering the recommendations from English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and CABE. Our Millennium villages already showcase the best in design. We want to see many more, and plans are underway for further competitions.
Cities like Birmingham have shown the benefits of investing in high quality public art as part of wider regeneration schemes. Public art can transform local landscapes by reflecting local identity and pride. We will be looking at ways of using resources from the New Opportunities Fund and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that art happens outside as well as in concert halls, galleries and theatres.
We also want to improve the quality of green spaces in our towns and cities. Two Lottery-funded programmes - the Heritage Lottery Fund Urban Parks Programme and the New Opportunities Fund Green Spaces Initiative - are making an enormous contribution to the regeneration of our parks
and open spaces. Well over ??160 million has so far been offered under the Urban Parks Programme for the restoration of some 300 historic urban parks, producing huge benefits for the local communities they serve. And a total of ??125 million is available under the NOF Initiative.
As an example of what can be achieved, a Heritage Lottery Fund for St Peter's Gardens in Wolverhampton has helped restore this prominent town-centre, and enable the Gardens to stay open throughout the evening.
The economist J. K. Galbraith has pointed out how public squalor can undermine the benefits of private affluence. Run-down and demoralised public services reduce people's quality of life, even though they may be getting richer. They are better off as consumers, but worse off as citizens.
Improving the state of our schools and hospitals is a major part of this equation. That is why we have prioritised investment in education and health. But the one public service we all use all the time is the streets where we live. And in too many places, streets and public spaces have become dirty, ugly and dangerous.
Britain needs to feel proud of its public spaces, not ashamed. We need to make it safer for children to walk or cycle to school in safety. We need local parks which are well looked-after and easily reached with a pushchair. We need streets to be free of litter, dog mess and mindless vandalism.
This will not only make life better for people. It is also good for business. Inward investment, whether to a town or a country, requires the creation of places and spaces where people want to live and work.
To deliver this we have to tackle the small concerns, which can turn into big problems. It is important that we break the sense of fatalism about parts of our public sphere - everywhere we can make a start will make a difference.
That is why we are addressing low-level crime and disorder and local environmental degradation alongside serious crime and pollution.
We need to support local leadership and decision-making with the resources and powers to get the job done.
That is why we are giving local authorities new powers and funding.
And we need the business community to contribute management skills and funds to locally defined projects.
That is why we are introducing Business Improvement Districts and involving businesses in Local Strategic Partnerships.
Health, education, crime and the economy will continue to be people's top concerns. They will remain our top priorities. But that must go hand-in-hand with improving our local quality of life and strengthening our communities
We have made a start but there is plenty more to do.