A man with a mission to build bridges

Reporter: Richard Hooton
Date published: 25 May 2011

IT’S 10 years since Oldham hit national headlines with three days of rioting that shook the borough. In the third of a five-part series, Richard Hooton looks at the recommendations of the Cantle report into the disturbances and whether they have been fulfilled.

COMMUNITY stalwart Fazal Rahim was driving his taxi when he was caught up in the chaos of the start of Oldham’s race riots 10 years ago.

But he will never forget the support he received from white people during that night as he witnessed the violence on Park Road.

Mr Rahim went on to become a co-ordinator of Oldham Interfaith Forum, established in response to the disturbances to create cohesion between different religious groups.

It was segregation that became a key aspect of a report by leading government race adviser Professor Ted Cantle in 2001 looking at the causes of disturbances in Oldham and other mill towns.

He then published the 64-page Cantle Report in 2006 to chart the progress made in the borough.

It stated that while Oldham had come a long way — with few cities or towns doing as much to build community cohesion — divisions were still deeply entrenched.

But while the pace of change needed to be accelerated it said Oldham had risen to the challenge and there had been heroic leadership.

It added: “The community itself must accept responsibility to embrace and lead change. Reluctance to change appears to run across sections of all communities.”

Among the 11 key recommendations, the biggest priorities outlined were improving social integration and tackling segregation in housing and education — though it insisted that people should be encouraged, not forced, to mix.

Oldham’s communities should be engaged and mobilised to take greater responsibility for change, it said.

Mr Rahim says great strides have been made to engage Oldham’s diverse communities.

Educationally, he points to assisted visits to places of worship for schoolchildren to find out similarities and differences in worship, culture and history, while Imams and vicars have organised similar visits for their congregations to share and learn.

“The fruits of this work will be realised in the long-term,” says Mr Rahim.

Prof Cantle said segregation was becoming less pronounced in schools but tensions still existed in mixed schools despite positive community cohesion work. The ultimate aim must be to create more mixed intake schools and build stronger links between schools dominated by a single ethnicity, he added.

Mr Rahim points out that primary schools’ intake will come from their surrounding area but adds: “The positives are that parents want their children to have opportunities to meet and study in diverse schools.”

School linking and visits to churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are seen as crucial to learning for the borough’s youngsters.

During a visit one Ofsted inspector noted: “An outstanding example was observed when a Muslim imam and a Catholic priest from the local community came together to talk about their respective faiths with the Year 6 pupils. The occasion was handled with great good humour and insight, modelling community cohesion for the pupils.”

The Cantle report stated that Oldham had to recognise that community cohesion cannot be built by valuing only black and ethnic minority heritage. Research had highlighted resentment within the white community that their culture was being overlooked.

Mr Rahim stresses that the Festival of Light celebrates the festivities of the four major religions under one roof and there is such interest there isn’t a venue big enough to accommodate everyone wanting to take part.

He adds: “St George’s Day is celebrated as a civic event across the borough and St George’s flag is not the domain of those on the right but respected and carried by all in the borough.

“While we may have lost some indigenous local cultural activities, this is more to do with the facts that demographics have changed in parts of the borough and there are no volunteers or activists to organise cultural events. However Whit Walks take place in areas where there are active churches with passionate and energetic leadership.”

In the aftermath of the riot, subsequent elections saw a spike in voting for the BNP with a record number of candidates — but in the most recent elections there were no candidates from far right political parties.

Criticisms from Prof Cantle on civic and community leadership included that some people believed the leadership remained uncomfortable discussing race issues because of fears of a white backlash, especially by the far right.

Mr Rahim says sessions held since include hundreds of students being able to ask faith leaders any question and thoroughly enjoying the opportunity.

Soccer the universal language

THE universal language of football is helping Oldham’s youngsters embrace different cultures.

Oldham Athletic Community Trust was set up 10 years ago in a bid to repair the damage caused by the race riots.

The Trust runs a number of programmes and initiatives designed to bring youngsters from different backgrounds together to break down barriers and build relationships.

Activities such as multi-faith tournaments and skills sessions are organised through schools and community groups.

Co-ordinator James Mwale said: “We get youngsters from different backgrounds and races mixing and football is a universal language.

“If they understand each other more, they are more likely to make friends from different cultures. It’s all about raising awareness.”

Colin Moore, the Trust’s community manager, added: “The best bit for us is seeing the progression from the youngsters who are reluctant at first. They get involved and with a bit of encouragement they are embracing the message of cohesion.

“We now have four youths who started off as participants on the scheme and are now paid staff on the Trust as well as many others who volunteer at various events we run. These are teenagers who may have had a negative perception of people from other parts of Oldham but are now working alongside them and building relationships.”

After a tough start, the Trust staff say they are now starting to reap the rewards of 10 years hard work.

James said: “The youngsters we work with today are starting off with the right attitude and this will hopefully be passed down.”

Tomorrow: The Oldham Beyond vision