March 04, 2008

Fighting poverty 'key to better racial integration'

Fighting poverty is the key to better integration between whites and Asians in a town which suffered race disturbances seven years ago, MPs heard today. People in Burnley, Lancashire, still lived "parallel lives" in segregated communities but increased economic prosperity would help break down those barriers.

Burnley Council's chief executive Steve Rumbelow told a cross-party parliamentary select committee that fixing the economy was the "real issue".

The Communities and Local Government Committee completed a two-day visit to the town as part of their investigation into community cohesion and migration.

In June 2001 up to 200 white and Asian youths clashed in a night of violence which involved attacks on pubs and shops. Two years later the British National Party (BNP) won enough seats in the local elections to become the second largest party on the borough council.

The select committee has already visited Peterborough, where there has been a large influx of Eastern European migrant workers, and will next go to Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP won 11 of the 13 local election seats it contested in May 2006.

Today, the committee was told by Mr Rumbelow that community relations were better than 2001 despite raised levels of deprivation.

He said: "The real issue is fixing the economy and making sure we have opportunities for all the communities. That will deal better with cohesion issues. It is true to say that living, to a degree, in segregated communities is not in itself a problem. The biggest problem is deprivation. The most urgent need is to turn the economy around. It is not the total answer but is the biggest part of the answer."

Economic development would help people crawl out of poverty and move away from poor areas and enable them to mix better, he said.

He said the council had not always got it right in the past with communicating how and why regeneration funding was distributed but their thinking was now clear. This had previously led to a perception that poor white areas were being neglected in favour of poor Asian areas.

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield Attercliffe, asked if it was accepted different communities lived parallel lives then was there a need to integrate unless it led to a riot.

Burnley Council leader Coun Gordon Birtwistle replied: "You do have parallel lives in Burnley but providing the parallel lives meet and achieve cohesion I do not have a problem."

Shufqat Razaq, Chair of Burnley Action Partnership, told the committee the historic matter of the distribution of regeneration funds and, to a greater extent, the knock-on effects of violent acts committed by Muslim extremists were the main sources of racial tension in the town.

He agreed that the downturn in economic fortunes in Burnley was also a factor. He said: "When you speak to my parents, thing did not start out bad. They were made welcome.

"There were racial tensions in the late 60s and 70s but it was not bad. There were plenty of jobs in the factories. When the decline started the jobs disappeared. There is a correlation between the tensions building up between the communities."

Yesterday, committee chairman and Labour MP for Milton Keynes South West Dr Phyllis Starkey said she was surprised that communities in Burnley were still living separate lives as they were in 2001. She added there were not enough jobs and a lot of poor housing, and those things affected the whole community.

The committee is expected to reports its findings and recommendations to Hazel Blears, Minister for Communities and Local Government, next month.


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