Following a series of disturbances in the north of England (specifically Bradford, Burnley and Oldham) during the summer of 2001, enquiries were held, review groups established and reports produced by both government and non-government organisations to try and establish why community cohesion had broken down in those areas. The subsequent events of September 11 and others on the world stage, plus greater media focus on immigration meant that these concerns became relevant to all communities, not just those in the north. A particular problem was identified in several of those reports- namely that the government approach of area-based regeneration funding enhanced divisions and tension rather than bringing about the intended improvement to the population as a whole.
A common misconception is that racial tension arises due to there being too high a proportion of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) residents in an area that traditionally sees itself as a white community. However, this is easily discredited by looking at the figures- cities such as Leicester or Birmingham did not experience disturbances despite having larger Asian populations than the areas which did. Rather, to explain why divisions emerged in, for example, Oldham, it is necessary to look at the economic climate. Whilst the collapse of traditional industry (often only a single industry such as textiles accounted for most of the employment in a given town) affected both white and minority workers alike, economic hardship amongst the white population was inaccurately blamed on the most visible ethnic minority group, with the belief that "they come over here and take our jobs" despite Asians originally entering the industry to take up jobs or wages that the existing communities weren't prepared to accept.
Social trends have also influenced the experience of poverty within England. For example, unemployment figures are roughly comparable with those of the 1970s, but changes in social structure (more single home owners or single parent families) mean that a greater number of homes lack a source of income. The UK is the only EU country in which households with children are more likely than households without children to include no one with a job. This is attributed to the high proportion of UK lone parents without a job. (from the Social Inclusion National Action Plan)
The other problematic issue is that of levels of integration/segregation. Again there is a perception within the established white community that minority communities do not do enough to integrate into what they see as British culture or society, instead forming a separate community (a view which seems at odds with the observed "white flight" when such integration is attempted). Yet to an extent segregation will always occur through choice- whether naturally gravitating towards people who share your views or seeking minority-specific facilities such as places of worship or particular shops and services that would not be financially viable in a more dispersed community- and this is not necessarily a cause for concern. The Cantle Independant Review team notes:
"we do not see ‘integration’ and ‘segregation’ as necessarily opposed. The complete
separation of communities based on religion, education, housing, culture, employment etc., will, however mean that the lack of contact with, and absence of knowledge about, each other’s communities will lead to the growth of fear and conflict. The more levels upon which a community is divided, the more necessary and extensive will be the need to foster understanding and acceptance of diversity."
Thus segregation along housing lines alone need not inhibit integration and thus the creation of cohesive communities with a shared sense of identity. But the Oldham review observed that segregated housing fed into segregation in the workplace and particularly education, with catchment areas becoming comprised of individial ethnic groups, or, where a multi-cultural intake could arise, white parents tending to send their children to predominantly white schools instead. It is often the case that where segregated housing arises, the ethnic minority community finds itself in the poorest quality accomodation.
Thus the scene is set for community tension- communities divided along ethnic lines and experiencing financial hardship. It is recognised by government that tackling this hardship will improve cohesion as prosperous communities are less likely to seek scapegoats- but the approach taken, of area based regeneration, actually serves to increase division. This is because, with ethnic groups concentrated in a given area, funding for an area is perceived as being for an ethnic group. This perception of preferential treatment is held by all groups, but is more pronounced amongst the white community as the most run-down areas which attract the most regeneration funding tend to be those in which BME communities have had to establish themselves.
This problem is particularly well illustrated by the case of Burnley. It is generally agreed that the initial dispute which led to the disturbances was due to criminal interests, not racial ones- a conflict arose between two groups over drugs, and it happened that one group was white, the other Asian. This was then seized upon by racist elements (both within Burnley and beyond) to motivate crime on the basis of race. A reduction in crime would reduce the potential for such triggers, but without the background of distrust and resentment amongst the communities racists would have nothing to work with. This is bourne out by the public responses to the Burnley Task Force- whilst 5% mentioned the need for improved housing / employment or to tackle drink/drugs issues, 14% were of the opinion that "differences in treatment (need) to stop". Ironically, the desire to tackle crime tends to be common across all communities and would be part of a shared vision, yet the belief that other ethnic groups are getting better treatment overshadows this.
The Bradford review pointed out further shortcomings of area-based regeneration. It tends to operate at a ward level, with the result that areas of need within otherwise prosperous wards can be overlooked, again leading to resentment. It also does little for community pride, with each ward needing to portray itself as being "more deprived and dreadful than the next" in order to attract funding. Poorer white communities sometimes feel left out; whilst some BMEs identified a lack of sufficient differentiation and felt that they were being "problematised". Similar issues arise within the voluntary sector; instead of working together to provide a uniform high level of service, voluntary and community groups have to compete against each other for funding and resources such as youth centres are seen as belonging to particular ethnic groups.
Finally, a breakdown in communication between "the government and the governed" is blamed for allowing this view of area based regeneration to persist. In Oldham it was found that the ‘bidding culture’ whereby the council was more involved in attracting government funding than determining where best it was needed meant that regeneration was fragmented and haphazard (this also extended to health care). Short-term initiatives lacked a long-term framework in which their effect could be examined and so were more likely to be perceived as favouring particular groups, or to create the impression that little was achieved due to standalone projects lacking the depth of impact that such a framework would have. In Burnley Councillors tended to have very close links with their communities- but this lead to a lack of perceived overall political leadership and divisions between areas were reinforced rather than the reasons being clarified. Media coverage often tried to spin a positive discrimination angle, further skewing the picture. The Cantle Review points out that
"The most consistent and vocal concern was expressed about the damaging impact of different communities bidding against each other and the difficulty of being able to convince them about the fairness of the present approach. Indeed, many community leaders were themselves far from convinced about the coherence of the many centrally driven initiatives, often with different timescales, boundaries and objectives. Reference was constantly made to the fact that new initiatives are constantly being introduced, even before old ones have been completed; that national schemes, with national derived targets and priorities, disempower local communities; and that the complexity of bidding and funding arrangements take up disproportionate amounts of time. It may be possible for local community leaders to provide a better overall vision in which they can then locate these programmes, but success will be limited without further change."
In Burnley concerns were expressed over a reluctance to discuss issues or challenge fixed belief amongst young people, combined with a greater tendency to express racist views in the wake of the disturbances. However, other reports placed considerably more optimism in the potential for young people to build more cohesive communities, given appropriate support (as most youth services are non-statutory in nature and so often suffer when budget cuts are required). Yet consensus amongst the reports can be found that it is vital that, if community cohesion is to be achieved, the "us and them" mentality is eliminated and area-based funding is seen as just that, rather than advantages for a particular ethnic group over another.
These views are my own and not necessarily held by government at any level and as such should not be taken as an indication of policy present or future. They are based upon a series of reports available to the public, of particular relevance being: