Hundreds of "white enclaves" across the UK have been chosen to receive special funding from the Government, in an effort to curb the spread of racist extremism among the working classes.
Ministers are to spend £12m reassuring 130 "traditional communities" across the country that immigrants and non-white residents are not unfairly taking their jobs and houses. The community initiative follows growing concerns that extremist groups such as the BNP are feeding on fears and myths that the white working classes are victims of social injustice. Yesterday, John Denham, the Communities Secretary, named the first 27 districts that would benefit from the money.
But critics attacked the plan as pandering to the BNP at the expense of minority communities, where there is evidence of real, rather than perceived, discrimination. The initiative received a mixed response from ethnic minority groups and taxpayer representatives.
Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesperson at the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "The Government has a duty of care to all communities so that none feels abandoned or neglected. At the same time, it should be recognised that there has been a lot of misinformation and half-truths put out by the far right, seeking to polarise communities and raise community tensions."
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "It's true that many taxpayers feel abandoned by the main political parties, and while it's important to re-engage with them, this initiative looks more like a political gimmick in the run up to an election than meaningful action.
"Further, the Government should be tackling extremism in all its forms, not through central government diktat but through activists on the ground who know where the threat lies. Targeting one racial group over others has been proven in the past to be ineffective, costly, and counter-productive."
Julia Goldsworthy, Liberal Democrats spokesman on communities, said: "John Denham risks making the same mistake Gordon Brown made when he called for 'British jobs for British workers'. A lot of issues about extremism, whether Islamic or white fascist, boil down to poverty. The Government should have turned its attention to regenerating and developing our poorest communities over the last 12 years, rather than in its dying days."
But Mr Denham said if nothing was done to address the concerns of white communities it would create a vacuum filled by "those who want to exploit it for destructive and divisive reasons".
He added: "This is not, then, about Government combating the BNP. That is for political parties not the State. It is about addressing the legitimate fears and concerns, which, neglected, can prove fertile territory for extremism and those who would divide our communities."
Speaking at the launch of the project in London, Mr Denham said he had personally encountered one case of working class resentment over jobs given to Polish immigrants. "A new fast food franchise on the edge of a deprived estate chose to get staff from an agency much used by Polish workers. The local resentment at a lost opportunity of work outweighed the much larger number of jobs which went to local people from a new retail store," he said.
Recent changes had led to a "sense of resentment and a rise in insecurity" and created tensions in some communities, Mr Denham said. These changes included a decline in traditional jobs in predominately white areas, recent migration which was "perceived as having changed communities" and the persistent challenge of antisocial behaviour.
"Class still matters in Britain and the politics of identity ignores it at its peril. The position and growing self-confidence of minority communities can be seen as a threat to communities under pressure," he told the conference on community cohesion. "This does not mean stepping back on anti-racism or anti-discrimination."