A year after race riots, Britain still trying to reduce tensions

One year after rioting up and down the grimy streets of Toxteth astounded Britain, wounded 781 policemen, and caused damage worth (STR)3.3 million ($5.7 million), efforts to prevent more violence are gathering speed - slowly.

The most positive aspect to report yet is that there has been no repeat of the fierceness or scale of last July's rampaging, which saw half a million pounds worth of goods looted and cost police (STR)4.4 million ($7.4 million) to subdue.

Police have tried hard to reach out to schools and young people, and to take patrolmen out of cars and put them back on the street. Some blacks acknowledge better relations but strongly object to a special action patrol group that comes in from other areas when trouble threatens.

On the worrying side, the weather is hot, tension has begun to build along the drab and dreary streets, and blacks like Delroy Burris, a young, handsome Liverpool-born son of a Jamaican father, say they are ''touching wood'' that there will be no more outbreaks.

On recent summer nights, youngsters between the ages of 10 and 16, both black and white, have burned cars and stoned police vehicles. Local residents say children have also thrown the occasional Molotov cocktail.

The question is whether the strenuous efforts being made by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to upgrade Toxteth, reduce unemployment, and offer more opportunities here can begin to pay off soon enough.

''It takes time, I'm afraid,'' said the Cabinet minister in charge of the overall effort, Michael Heseltine, in an interview. ''We have a raft of plans in the works. Over the next six months they will begin to show results. . . .

Mr. Heseltine's formal title is minister for the environment, but he is the man who tells local governments around Britain how much of the national budget they can expect from the government. Mrs. Thatcher is cutting public spending, and he is the man who must tell local governments to cut their budgets.

At the same time Mrs. Thatcher put him in charge of a crash program to ease tensions in Toxteth and the entire Merseyside area after last year's rioting.

After spending an unprecedented 2 1/2 weeks in the Merseyside area, listening virtually to anyone who approached him, he set up a Merseyside Task Force combining a range of local and regional leaders.

Progress has been made, but the obstacles have been formidable. They include the overall challenge of easing joblessness in the midst of a recession, the long history of industrial decline in the once-mighty port of Liverpool as a whole, sharp local political infighting between city and Merseyside County councils, and cumbersome, time-consuming planning and approval procedures still found across Britain.

Racial tensions lie close to the surface between West Indian and African descendants, and between them and the police. Second- and third-generation blacks demand to be treated as equals. Like Delroy Burris, they insist that Mr. Heseltine has not consulted with them sufficiently.

Sources close to the interior minister reply that at least 84 separate local spokesmen claim to speak for housing, voluntary, community, and other groups in Toxteth alone. Trying to establish priorities among them is at worst baffling and at best time-consuming.

Toxteth is a rundown area of slum houses and down-at-heel shops where 1981 national census figures (just beginning to appear) confirm that every third person is out of work.

Once fashionable, the area declined after World War II as the South Docks on the Mersey River, where big liners from the US once tied up, lost business as part of a general shift of trade away from Liverpool itself to ports closer to Europe.

Today, as many as 60 percent of the people there live in public housing. Crime is rife.

Last year's riots were only partially caused by racial tensions, but blacks are ultrasensitive to methods used by local police, who are almost all white. Rioting began last year when police stopped a black youth riding a motorcycle to see if it had been stolen.

The chaos that followed led to only one death (a man run over by a police vehicle). No firearms were involved.

Local politics and complex planning and approval procedures have slowed Mr. Heseltine down. ''It's coming along,'' he told the Monitor, ''but everyone has to work together. We have to change the image of Merseyside itself.''

This was a careful way of saying what other sources made plain in private: He has run into blocking tactics by Labour members of Liverpool City Council. No single party has had a majority on that council since it was created in 1974.

That means vigorous city leadership is extremely difficult, and small numbers of votes can block or delay key projects. Toxteth sees new money coming in from Mr. Heseltine - while the city council cuts voluntary organizations such as the local community relations council to meet his demands for local council cuts across the country.

But Mr. Heseltine says he has to work through elected local authorities. He clearly hopes for more cooperation between them, but local sources say it will be difficult.

The head of his Merseyside Task Force, Eric Sorensen, acknowledges delays.

In an interview, he said no one could expect deep-seated problems to be solved overnight, or even in a few months. He ticked off a range of action taken so far to help Toxteth.

They included (c) 20 million earmarked to improve housing, better management of housing estates (public housing), (c) 7.5 million over three years to improve housing along a main thoroughfare, a plan to upgrade shop-fronts, the planting of trees and grass in ugly waste and public areas, government aid of (c) 1 million matching (c) 1 million more from private sources for new sports and recreation projects, and four separate plans to train young people in new skills.

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