Almost five years have passed since Asian and white youths clashed in Burnley, the streets of the Lancashire town ablaze with racial tension. A new report was released last week assessing how far the town has come since then.
The report highlights many of the positive initiatives underway in the town – but it also acknowledges the fundamental problems that still remain on the issue of race.
This report was not produced by so called government experts, but by the Burnley Action Partnership, a local group that brings together representatives from the public, private, voluntary and faith sectors.
The style is simple and easy to digest, and is described by the authors as “not being a political report… or taking any party line”. As such, it makes no reference to the divisive politics of the far right British National Party (BNP), which polled strongly once again in the local elections this year—taking over 30 percent of the vote in five of its target wards in the town.
The report accepts that there is a “serious race problem” in Burnley” and that there is still a threat of “spontaneous disorder, which may involve racial or criminal elements” – both chilling messages.
It finds that 52 percent of local people still don’t think that Burnley is a place where people from different backgrounds can get along. This is sad, but the figure is down from 65 percent in 2003 – which indicates that change is occurring, though very slowly.
The report counters some of the urban myths and misinformation that increased racial tension and fuelled hatred in the town at the time of the riots—many of those myths perpetuated by supporters of the BNP.
People of Asian origin do not make up a third of Burnley’s population, but in fact 8 percent. There are not more mosques than churches in the town—there are seven mosques and 40 churches. It is important that we have these facts, and not BNP fiction.
The report also outlines a host of social problems in the town. Housing conditions are poor, with 3,300 homes – some 8 percent of the housing stock – remaining empty, and house prices the lowest in the country.
Burnley has a declining population and traditional manufacturing jobs have been reduced by a third from 1984 to 2004. Attainment levels at secondary schools are below the national average.
Burnley ranks 37th out of 354 in the country’s deprivation league table – and clearly deprivation and unhappiness are the perfect breeding grounds to create jealousy and a blame culture, all capitalised on by the BNP.
The report lists many positives, such as a £200 million investment programme for education and housing in the town, as well as new initiatives over housing and education infrastructure.
There is also greater cross community activity within the town today. Building Bridges, a coalition of faith groups from across the town, has regular meetings to discuss community issues. Burnley Breaking Barriers brings youth groups from across the town to participate in joint activities.
There is also now a community festival organised by the local council which is well supported across the whole of the town. Events such as these are paramount when there is clear segregation of communities, with only three out of 15 wards being mixed.
But when we talk about cohesion, how do we accurately measure this? I find it hard to believe a report can be compiled in this town without reference to the BNP. A true measure of the state of race relations in Burnley must be inextricably linked to the support for the far right BNP.
The BNP still holds seven council seats and preaches a message of hate. This clearly indicates that we have a long journey ahead of us before cohesion of different communities is achieved across the town.
When the local football club was banning supporters for racist chanting, Burnley’s BNP organiser was defending them and arguing that “racist chanting is part of football culture… and in itself it is harmless”.
While most local councillors are working with communities and helping to bring them together, local BNP councillor Brian Turner has been convicted of racially abusing a group of Asian lads on a night out.
The way forward is to continue this community based work, and increase the interaction between young people from different communities.
The BNP’s biggest fear is this sort of interaction and exchange between the white and Asian communities. Why? Because the vast majority of people will realise that we have more in common than are our differences – and when people realise that, the BNP will start to become a distant nightmare.