British cities tense over rising joblessness

Brixton . . . Toxteth . . . Handsworth. Until the 1980s few people outside these respective London, Liverpool, and Birmingham communities had heard of them. Today they're internationally known as major flashpoints of urban violence in Britain.

In April 1981, 210 were injured in the Brixton riots in south London. Then, in July of the same year, more than 200 policemen were injured in even worse street violence in Toxteth, Liverpool. Early last week, two Asians were killed and some 50 shops and offices gutted when 400 youths, most of whom were black, went on a rampage in the Handsworth district of Birmingham.

Although each community has a distinct identity, they all have several things in common: very high unemployment, very high concentrations of immigrant population, and very high degrees of social deprivation.

In each incident, the spark that ignited the violence was some form of police action -- questioning or arresting individuals or groups of people. In Toxteth, and now in Handsworth, police were stunned by the violence, believing that they had good relations with the community.

It is this common thread that makes community workers in other areas feel that more violence could occur if something is not done to eradicate decay in Britain's inner urban areas and ease the tensions that are the byproduct of bad conditions.

Unemployment, well over 3 million, has left many areas of industrial Britain desolate, with shops closed and industries collapsed.

In Birmingham unemployment is now at some 20 percent, triple what it was in 1978. In Handsworth the figure is as high as 38 percent. Among Birmingham school-leavers only 9 out of 100 are expected to find jobs. For blacks the expectation is as low as 4 out of 100.

Community workers now refer to the long-term unemployed as the ``underworking'' class and see such situations as serious. The number of hard-core unemployed (out of work for longer than a year) has risen from 400,000 in 1980 to 1.316 million in 1985.

Churchmen and newspaper editors in the north of England have begun to wonder if there's too much stress on social and economic differences between the poorer north and the more affluent south. As they see it, the more critical division today is between the haves and the have-nots in both parts of the country.

Local authorities worry over government curbs on public expenditure. There was a sharp decline in money for public housing, despite shortages of accommodation resulting in a rise in the number of homeless.

An official of Sheffield City Council said recently, ``Some kids in Sheffield go to crummy schools, their home environment is crummy, and their prospects are cummy. All their lives are blighted by that combination.''

Civil leaders in Glasgow, which has the largest stock of public housing in Europe, are looking for 40 million (about $54 million) this year just to maintain and repair existing public housing.

While there has been considerable renewal of houses in Handsworth, with many backing onto delightful gardens, 1 in 12 still has no bathroom or inside toilet. In some communities, conditions are worsening. For example, the community of Craig Millar in Edinburgh was the first in Britain to receive an OXFAM grant for urban renewal.

The area does have staggering problems. Ena McLatchie, principal of Craig Millar Primary School, says conditions have definitely gotten worse in the six years she's been there. What troubles her particularly is the violent atmosphere in the community.

``The whole area is filled with aggression. The parents are aggressive -- the way they talk to you. If a child stumbles and knocks into another child accidentally, there is the most enormous explosion. Nobody is given the benefit of the doubt. They go straight for the throat.''

Her assistant for early education, Joan Hillyer, commenting on the violence and social deprivation in the community, says, ``We have this terrible unease about society -- that some kind of explosion is going to happen.''

According to Prof. Corwen Trevarthen of Edinburgh University, a specialist on early childhood development, ``The negative aspects of poverty, the violence, are adaptations to circumstances. ``Persistent poverty leads to broken families and violence.''

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