Oldham blighted by racial tension five years after riots

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The Independent Online

Oldham has made progress since race riots engulfed the town five years ago, but the reluctance of predominantly Asian community leaders to encourage desegregation is creating deep ethnic divisions, a new report has claimed.

"[Some] community leaders... are advising their people against interacting with others and developing relationships," Professor Ted Cantle said. He was commissioned by Oldham council to investigate the town's progress, five years after heading the Home Office inquiry into the summer riots which found ethnic groups were leading "parallel lives" in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.

A "real unwillingness to interact with others" was creating "entrenched divisions", he concluded. The report details how, in contrast to multi-ethnic communities in many other parts of the country, some Asian and African ethnic groups will not even communicate with each other.

One young Muslim mother told Professor Cantle's team: "My neighbour is Indian and my Muslim community tell me off for speaking with her. They say I should speak to her if I am getting her to embrace Islam, otherwise, no."

An Asian woman said: "If the Asian communities are not cohesive how can we promote community cohesion with white groups?"

"Control" by self-appointed elders is more prevalent among the ethnic minority communities, where leaders wield more power, Professor Cantle said. But divisions are equally entrenched among some whites. "I have nothing to do with them [Asians] at my college," one young white male said. "We have nothing in common and we would not want to get involved with each other."

Though Oldham council is proud that the British National Party failed to win a seat in the town since the riots, there has been ethnic strife. Two years ago, the local MP, Phil Woolas, warned "racist" attacks by blacks and Asians on white people were being ignored.

Professor Cantle praised the upper echelons of the council for fostering multi-culturalism. But many seemed content to let the leaders "get on with it" and the professor was not convinced all councillors shared the commitment.

Some were "still uncomfortable" discussing race because they feared "a white backlash" if they caused offence, he said. In its search for answers to racial intolerance, Oldham had encountered a degree of "initiativitis" and needed to abandon some of its caution.

The initial Ritchie report into the causes of the riots condemned 20 years of municipal acquiescence which had consigned Asians to run-down ghettos. But the attitudes of some communities was still making segregated housing hard to shake off, the report found. Although 14 secondary schools have become more diverse, six primary schools are less so and much more work was needed to make schools attractive to all communities, so establishing mixed-intake schools.

In Oldham, the proportion of white people of working age is forecast to fall from 87 per cent in 2001, to 73.5 per cent by 2021.

What the residents say

Javeed Akhtar 46, Newsagent

Race relations are improved. The local people want to live together as a community. I have a laugh with my white customers and my Asian friends. People from all races work together.

Kelly Pickstone, 26, Pub landlady

There are two groups who come into my pub, Asians and whites, and they are still segregated, sitting on different sides. The whites think the Asians should do more to fit in but Asians wish the whites would respect their culture. Trouble can flare.

Angie Clarke 37, Mother of two

Oldham is a terrible place to live. The cars are constantly being vandalised. I get rubbish dumped in my garden and the police do nothing to help me. There needs to be a lot of change and I say we need more segregation.

Father Phil Sumner Priest of St Patrick's Church

I started work in Oldham on 11 September 2001. The terror attacks that day and Britain's foreign policy since has made good race relations difficult to sustain. But we are better equipped now than we were.

Afsor Uddin 39, Qualified chef

I moved to a predominantly white area after the riots. We used to get a lot of people looking at us. [But] it's good living here now because everybody is mixing well. There is more cultural understanding in the communities.

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