Dark days are long gone

Date published: 24 May 2011

OLDHAM RIOTS: 10 years on
THE eyes of the nation, and a sizable part of the world, were on Oldham for those three disturbing days in late May, 2001, stated the Ritchie Report.

David Ritchie’s 100-page document pointed to failings in political and corporate leadership as significant factors in the lack of community cohesion in Oldham that led to rioting.

It stated: “The town, whose main historical claim to fame was that it was once the cotton spinning capital of the world, was thrust into the limelight for the less worthy reason that it was the scene of the worst racially-motivated riots in the UK for 15 years. Every news bulletin was dominated by events in Oldham.”

He said there were few opportunities for both young people and adults to mix, declaring: “The divisions are such that we have had to ask the question whether people in the different communities actually want much to do with one another.”

There were more than 120 recommendations for improving Oldham’s future.

The main findings were:

:: Persistent failure to face up to deep-seated issues of segregation in the town since the 1970s.

:: Oldham lacked strategic direction, and a vision for the way it should develop in the future.

:: Many policies pursued by the council and other agencies have reinforced separateness between the communities.

:: Racism is not a one-way issue — there were increasing examples of racist incidents against white people in Oldham.

:: The BNP, and other racist organisations, have exploited divisions.

:: Most of the major employers have failed to diversify their workforce.

:: There are insufficient social and leisure facilities for the young.

Recommendations included:

:: Housing. A targeted programme of housing clearance and replacement of at least 300 houses a year, with the explicit aim of achieving racially-mixed schemes of private and socially rented housing.

:: Education. Between 15 and 20 per cent of places at faith secondary schools should be open to pupils of non-Christian backgrounds.

:: Employment. There is an urgent need to improve skills in the workforce, nearly 30 per cent of whom have no qualifications.

:: Council. The council will require strong and single-minded leadership.

:: Community. An Oldham Community Plan containing a 20-year forward look at where Oldham should be is necessary.

:: Communication. The release of statistics on racial violence.

:: Equality. The council and other major public sector employers should draw up a strategy for achieving a representative workforce.

:: Youth. The Youth Service needs to have a new profile in Oldham and a strategy for racially-integrated sport and recreation provision for young people.

In their response at the time, council leaders rejected the claims that they had failed to face up to segregation in the town for 30 years and blamed poverty, deprivation and social exclusion across white and minority areas for raising racial tensions.

Councillor Richard Knowles was the Oldham Council leader at the time. Tomorrow he becomes Oldham Mayor.

He says there has been much progress since 2001 — though more needs to be done.

He said: “The Ritchie Report was a series of prompts, ideas and suggestions to ways to change. It was not a detailed blueprint to do things to the letter but pointed to how things can improve.

“I think Oldham is quite a tolerant place. I think 2001 was a big shock to us and no-one saw it coming. I think we have grown from there and there’s been a general willingness among the different ethnic groups and political parties to make sure something like that never happens again.”

An Oldham Council spokesman said: “The council, police and organisations working across the borough learned lessons from the disturbances of 2001, and have gone on to create partnerships that support Oldham’s communities and provide better opportunities for them to mix and get to know one another.”

The authority cites evidence such as surveys showing improved public perceptions about community relations, with 56 per cent now believing that people from different backgrounds get on well together in their neighbourhood — compared with 46 per cent in 2003.

It points out that 20 per cent of councillors are of Asian heritage and Oldham now has its first Asian woman councillor. And it says achievements include tackling the alcohol culture to reduce violent crime by 59 per cent in four years, with hate crime reduced by 85 per cent over the decade, burglary down by 64 per cent over six years and anti-social behaviour by 29 per cent over two years.

Councillor Knowles said: “In terms of educational achievement there has been a big change. We are now above the national average five A* to C grades at GCSE with improvements over 10 consecutive years. Children are acquiring more skills and the regional science centre opens soon.

“Quite a lot has been done on the housing side. The economic slowdown has temporarily stalled that a bit but there have been 400 new and affordable homes built in the last 10 years. The investment HMR brought in was useful and made a start.

“There have been improvements in policing, with neighbourhood policing and district partnerships much more appropriate in Oldham than the previous model, which was quite remote.

“Alcohol problems in the town centre have changed quite a lot and it’s no longer the ‘Wild West’ it was a few years ago.

“Community cohesion and relationships have improved. Only 2 per cent of the council workforce were from minorities but now it’s 8 per cent.

“The most significant thing is that the BNP and extremist right wing parties, who were a large part of the problem in 2001, never got a foothold.

“The national media never got that for a long time. They thought they were a major political player but they weren’t in Oldham and there was not a single BNP candidate in May.

Mainstream political parties in Oldham have got the message over that extremism is not appropriate and does not have a part to play in Oldham.

“There’s still segregation obviously as there is in most of the former mill towns.

“The academies will make a difference, replacing five failing secondary schools and bringing together white and ethnic minorities.”

Tomorrow: How football played its part