Simmering mistrust between ethnic minority communities in Birmingham boiled over into violence in October 2005. The city council has since tried to heal the wounds but, as Sally Gillen discovers, some believe this is just plastering over the cracks
Maxie Hayles switched on his television and sat down to catch the news. He watched with interest a feature on Lozells, an area of Birmingham that became famous last year after violent clashes between Asian and African-Caribbean communities resulted in the deaths of two people. A year later, camera crews were revisiting, capturing scenes of people smiling and waving flags. But Hayles, a community activist, was not convinced by the apparent show of harmony. Days later, a journalist who had visited the area on the anniversary of the riots contacted him, expressing surprise that residents were going about their business as normal.
“I think he [the reporter] thought people would be throwing bricks or something. But just because people aren’t throwing bricks it doesn’t mean that all in the garden is rosy,” says Hayles.
Neither the upbeat news piece nor the belief that the area was as chaotic and violent as it had been a year earlier seemed to accurately sum up Lozells for Hayles.
In the year since the riots, which were prompted by a rumour that an African-Caribbean girl had been raped by several Asian men in a beauty parlour, Birmingham Council has worked hard to improve community relations in the area.
Lozells is an inner-city neighbourhood that grapples with problems caused by gangs and high unemployment. Figures from the Birmingham Economic Information Centre from August show an unemployment rate of 21 per cent; statistics in the 2001 census reveal that 82 per cent of the area’s population is from an ethnic minority, compared with 29 per cent in Birmingham overall.
Asians and African-Caribbeans are the two main groups living in the area but Hayles says they “coexist but do not integrate”. Jan Kimber, a Birmingham Council constituency director for Perry Bar, in which Lozells is based, is adamant that before the riots there had been no animosity between the two groups. Most of the people involved in the disturbances were from outside the area, she says.
Others disagree. Hayles cites complaints by African-Caribbeans that Asian shopkeepers were often rude to them as a sign that all was not well. “Can anybody tell me how such a rumour could take on such momentum if there was nothing wrong there?” he asks.
Mashuq Ally, head of equalities and diversity at Birmingham Council, admits the initial rumour prodded a hornet’s nest of problems related to housing, unemployment and crime and disorder.
After the riots, a perception that Asian people benefited more from regeneration cash, which turned out to be unfounded, had contributed to tensions. Money from two programmes in particular – the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and Single Regeneration Budget – were a source of resentment.
But Kimber believes that those who complained were merely “jumping on the bandwagon” to “make mischief ”. “A lot has been said about regeneration but it is a red herring. There was no connection to the trouble. We know there will always be groups who are upset because their bids are rejected. That’s nothing new.
Regeneration funding is not even distributed on ethnic grounds.” True though that may be, the problems caused by misperceptions are by now well known and it is in these cases that the council and partners must redouble their efforts to ensure communities know why money is being invested in certain areas.
Once myths about regeneration funding take root they can be difficult to dispel, which is why experts believe the key is to ensure from the outset that communities understand how the money is used. In his report into the disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, Ted Cantle identified resentment over regeneration cash as a source of tension. So frequently is this allegation made now, in September the Commission for Racial Equality launched a year-long formal investigation into the issue.
An analysis of how money had been dispersed revealed that the perception was flawed. But, says Ally: “Even though we have evidence that the money has been evenly balanced, there are some people who will continue to believe that it isn’t.”
The Lozells Partnership, whose members include representatives from the council, police, probation service and fire brigade, was formed after the unrest. A youth group called Increase the Peace, where young Asians and African-Caribbeans mix, targets issues such as gang membership.
Attempts have been made to improve the physical environment, including graffiti and rubbish clean-ups. Measures are also in place to track tensions daily, whereby the police gather intelligence so that agencies can do more to prevent conflicts.
Yet there is a sense that some of the more complex problems persist. How, for example, can the council hope to tackle the accusations of unfair treatment by Asian shopkeepers? Ally believes that to an extent it will address itself because, if shopkeepers are rude, customers will take their trade elsewhere.
Hayles advocates cultural education so that Asians and African- Caribbeans could learn more about each other, which in turn would break down mistrust and suspicion. He says changes to the national curriculum would be a good starting point. But it is difficult to see how older members of both communities could be compelled to engage in such activities.
Without some sophisticated answers there is no guarantee that the events of October 2005 will be a one-off, says Hayles, warning: “If you sweep dirt under the carpet, the carpet gets rotten.”
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