A tale of three cities

How did George Galloway pull off his by-election victory this week? David Goodhart's report from Bradford reveals a town still scarred by segregation and decline
June 20, 2011
H Hey & Sons woollen mill, Bradford, built circa 1894: a piece of industrial history rots away
Oldham College is a successful further education college. It is also a beacon for its racially divided town, a place where whites and Asians study in almost equal numbers. Yet as I wait in its hall on a visit in May, I notice that all the students are socialising within their own racial groups. In one corner some Asians, including two young women wearing hijabs, huddle over a laptop. Nearby three less modestly dressed white girls share a joke. They are physically close yet seem not to notice each other. It is ten years since the riots led by Muslim Asian youths in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. In the modern history of immigration, conflict is often regarded as necessary for progress. Life in Brixton improved after the 1981 riots. Yet these three northern towns are, if anything, even more divided by race and religion than in 2001. Maxine Moar, a community organiser in Oldham, says segregation in housing and schools has got worse, and that one visible sign of difference is now far more common: Asian men wearing traditional dress. Naweed Hussain, a 30-year-old British Pakistani training consultant, says this is also true in Bradford. “I actually don’t approve of wearing traditional dress, but it has increasingly become the norm.” To people used to the apparently easy mixing of races in central London or Manchester, the former textile mill towns of west Yorkshire and east Lancashire are another, startlingly segregated country. Industrial decline has made their race problems worse. According to the Office for National Statistics, men born in Burnley die four years earlier than the national average and 21 per cent of adults claim a key benefit. Bradford’s infant mortality rate is nearly twice the national average while in Oldham, 26.1 per cent of the workforce is economically inactive. Prospects are not entirely grim. The three towns have drawn some benefit from Britain’s stuttering manufacturing revival. They all have about twice the national average of employment in that sector and pockets of successful specialist manufacturing (Oldham has coin-operated technology, Bradford digital technology). And many people see hope in the young Asian women who are starting to climb the educational ladder. Moreover, everyone agrees that since 2001 the local political classes—councillors and officials, police officers, minority leaders and businesspeople—have had a more constructive and honest conversation in each place about their divisions. “Tension monitoring” has prevented further trouble and reduced street crime, no mean feat considering what has happened since the riots—including 11th September, 7/7, the rise and fall of the British National party, and a painful recession. But having spent some time in all three towns, and spoken to dozens of people from many backgrounds, I observed a chasm between official optimism and the gloomier views of ordinary people, white and Asian. Howard Sykes, the Liberal Democrat former leader of Oldham council, has broken ranks to declare that riots could break out again “on a hot summer afternoon.” The three towns present government with some of the most keenly disputed questions of public policy. Does racial segregation matter? And how do you rescue a place in relentless decline? Oldham lit the spark for the riots, which began there in late May 2001 and spread to Burnley and then Bradford. White and Asian youths fought one another and the police. Television coverage of petrol bombs hurled in the streets echoed the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The riots shocked Britain, because they showed the extent to which some immigrant communities remained separate—and potentially violent—while highlighting the unaddressed problems of economic decline. Ten years on, the three towns are still unhappy places. They are still losing manufacturing jobs, generally better paid ones, although Bradford and Oldham have until recently replaced those with new jobs in public services and finance. All three have high levels of inactivity with many people on incapacity benefits. They have some of the lowest wages and house prices in Britain. Burnley (right) which is like a big village nestling in the gentle Pennine hills, is the weakest and most isolated of the three economies. Oldham has Manchester on its doorstep and the M60 motorway link, but still suffers some of the worst rates of unemployment in the northwest. Bradford has sheer size and a cultural sector to its advantage, although there is a depressing hole in the city centre where Westfield planned a shopping centre which fell victim to the recession (it may yet be built). But it is the figures on racial mix and segregation which reflect the most intractable concerns. The white population is shrinking in all three towns and the ethnic minority population, mainly south Asian Muslims, is rising. In 2011, about one third of Bradford’s 300,000 people belong to ethnic minorities, mainly Pakistanis with a smaller group of Bangladeshis and Hindu Indians, and a few Sikhs and Afro-Caribbeans. For Oldham’s 220,000 population, the ethnic minority figure is rising towards 25 per cent and is split between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Burnley has only 85,000 people, about 12 per cent of whom are from an ethnic minority, mainly Pakistani. In a 2006 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Burnley scored the worst of any major town in Britain on an “isolation ratio” which measures housing segregation, with Oldham not far behind. All three towns are still studded with the relics of past industrial glories, empty mills and grandiose Victorian civic buildings. Today’s inhabitants can seem like people camping in the ruins of a once-great civilisation. Thanks to the wool trade, Bradford was one of the richest towns in Europe in 1910, and locals claim that in 1920 it had more Rolls Royces per head than any town in the world. In The Waste Land, TS Eliot refers to those on whom assurance sits “as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.” Oldham, famous for its cotton spinning, once ran over 360 mills and 16m spindles and paid some of the highest wages in the country as recently as the 1950s. Burnley boasted 100,000 power looms and before 1914 was one of the world’s biggest producers of cotton cloth (and Burnley FC were champions of England in 1960). The first world war, however, started a steady process of decline in the British textiles industry, as lower-cost competitors took its markets. The second world war temporarily increased demand but this tailed off after the war ended. In 1959, the government gave producers funds to upgrade equipment. But no amount of reinvestment could reverse decline. Then came the immigration. If Britain has its immigration success stories—in parts of Leicester, London and Manchester among others—it also has its failures. Bradford, Burnley and Oldham—indeed, northern mill towns in general—are at the top of that list of failures. It was not so much a failure of policy, or social engineering, for like most of postwar British immigration, it just happened. The problem lay in not noticing for 30 years, until these places exploded in the summer of 2001. What went wrong? Speaking anonymously, one Bradford academic said the mill towns got the wrong immigrants. “Let me be frank, some of the most difficult and declining towns in Britain attracted some of the most difficult to integrate immigrants—the left-behind white working class and inward-looking Muslim minorities now glower at each resentfully across no-man’s-land, it has not been a happy marriage. David Cameron talks about ‘bad’ immigration, well this is surely what he means.” In the 1950s and 1960s, as textile and other industries in these towns declined—including the Jowett car company in Bradford—the immigrants arrived: south Asians, mainly Pakistanis, and mostly from the Mirpur region of Kashmir. They came to work night shifts in textile factories as the industry struggled to remain competitive. Many of them had never been in a city before. They came from some of the most rural and conservative parts of Pakistan because they could—the 1948 British Nationality Act allowed in all citizens of the Empire and Commonwealth—and because there were well-paid jobs. Integration in these towns was never going to be easy. “White people knew the immigrants had not caused the decline of their towns, yet decline is connected to their arrival, so the whole thing got off on the wrong psychological footing,” says Graham Mahony, head of race relations in Bradford in the mid-1980s. Sher Azam, of the Bradford council of mosques, paints a poignant picture of the mole-like existence of the arrivals, mostly young men, who were not always welcome. “We worked nights and weekends. Many of us were illiterate in our own language and few could speak or read English. We knew nothing about how Britain worked. I remember once when we had a load of problems we tried to petition the lord mayor thinking he was the head man, not realising it was largely symbolic,” he recalls. Yet in retrospect this gastarbeiter (guestworker) period in the 1950s and 1960s, when everyone still thought the immigration was temporary, seems like a golden age of integration. The Mirpuris worked alongside whites, often with other immigrants, such as Poles and Ukrainians. They joined trade unions, went to pubs and sometimes had relationships with white women. Then the story changes in the three towns, in roughly the same way. For various reasons, including changes in immigration laws, the Mirpuris realised they were staying put in Britain and over came their families and the imams. The era of segregation began. Looking back, this was the time when the authorities—local and national—should have offered a clearer path to full citizenship and integration. Some limited attempts to disperse the expanded immigrant population were made, and Bradford persisted with a school bussing scheme for several years. But by the early 1980s the textile industry had all but vanished, and it had been largely accepted that the different races would live, and therefore go to school, within their own groups. This was endorsed by the emerging ideology of multiculturalism. At the soft end this meant responding to reasonable requests of the minority population for, say, halal meat in schools. But as Graham Mahony now admits “we went too far, we were making it up as we went along.” Segregation, or what Mahony calls “internal colonisation,” was, in effect, encouraged. Zaiba Malik, the Bradford-born journalist and author of a memoir of growing up in that town, We are a Muslim, please, recalls how the local authority helped to establish the council of mosques. “We Muslims became more vocal but more separate in the 1980s. It had all been about rights but it then came to be about Islam,” she says. At the beginning of the 1980s, minority politics in Bradford and in the other towns was about equal rights and fighting the National Front—symbolised by the acquittal of the Bradford 12: young Asian men who made petrol bombs to protect their streets against white racists. By the end of the 1980s the council of mosques, and men like Sher Azam (often businessmen), had taken over Asian politics and led the confrontation over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, famously burned at a demonstration in Bradford. *** By the 1990s, the “parallel lives” described by Ted Cantle, founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion, in his report on the 2001 riots had truly arrived. And the white working class and the Asians, both poorly educated and often with no qualifications at all, found it hard to adapt to the new service sector jobs on offer. The Mirpuri men, with limited English, found it especially hard to get service jobs beyond cab driving and restaurant work. The 2001 riots were mainly a clash between Asian youths and the police, although they had different features in each town. In Bradford, the riot was an old-fashioned “ruck,” led by Asian youths testing the limits of their power. Apart from the police, their target was white-owned shops and pubs in the Asian area of Manningham. In all three places, but especially Oldham and Burnley, there was a white versus Asian dimension, egged on by outsiders on both sides. In Oldham there had been some far right activity and disputes over no-go areas for both whites and Asians leading up to the riot. In Burnley it was a similar story though the trigger was a turf war between drug gangs. Today, of the three, Burnley has a less segregated feel than the larger towns. Its small size and the comparatively small numbers of the Asian/Muslim minority mean that it is harder to avoid mixing. Standing after Friday prayers outside the big mosque in Hebrew Road (the name echoing an earlier wave of immigration) I asked Wajid Khan, a bright young Labour councillor of Pakistani origin, how many of the men pouring out would have white friends. “At least half I reckon, why don’t you ask them?” he said. I then got into a debate with various people about what constitutes a friend. Shafqat Mahmood is an Asian GP in a mainly white area and says he has not experienced racism doing his job. He agrees with Khan that ten years ago both communities felt frustrated and annoyed by an unresponsive local political elite, and that lessons have been learned. Is segregation really a problem? The question goes to the heart of the debate about how to try to revive the towns. Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Burnley council, is one of many white leaders I spoke to who challenged the idea that segregation is necessarily a bad thing. “The segregation story is simplistic. People can live separately and not be polarised. No one complains about middle-class people wanting to live together. Our difficulty is that economic problems and job losses means there are fewer chances to rub along together at work,” he says. There is a big, noisy academic debate about segregation. Ludi Simpson of Manchester University has claimed that it is not increasing overall and where it is increasing it can be “good segregation.” Simpson’s research shows a national decline in white only, or almost white only, neighbourhoods. But surely what matters is the degree of mixing in housing and schooling in areas of already high immigration, such as the three riot towns. Alan Carling of Bradford University has challenged Simpson’s claim that rising segregation in Bradford is a myth and Simon Burgess of Bristol University has charted the rise of educational segregation in areas of high immigration. Ted Cantle is not a fan of Simpson. “He defines segregation to suit himself, but it’s obvious if you go to these places that segregation is getting worse, not just the northern towns but in Leicester, the Midlands and Tower Hamlets and Luton,” he says. He adds that if you are segregated in housing and education then you are less likely to mix socially or at work. Several people told me that they can no longer think of their town as a single place that in some sense belongs to them. “If I walk across town to see a friend I have to think about skirting around the Asian areas, so as to make sure I avoid trouble,” said a middle-aged white woman in Oldham. (An Ipsos-Mori poll for Oldham council in 2010 found that only one third of residents felt a sense of belonging to the borough as a whole, and almost half said that people from different backgrounds don’t get on.) Oldham gets the highest marks from Cantle on its cohesion initiatives but it also feels like the place with the most work to do. It has always been a pretty rough place and few Asians would go into the town centre at night. Tariq Rafique, who was in the thick of things in 2001 and now works for the Oldham Race Equality Partnership, says that there isn’t much mixing below “official” level. “Where are the friendships? There is a mentality of suspicion here. Whites and Asians from Oldham might meet and have a good time together in Manchester clubs, but not here,” he says. A new youth centre is opening in the centre of Oldham that aims to challenge that reflex of suspicion. Rafique says that on the streets Asians tend to win skirmishes because their extended family networks mean they can get people out more quickly than white youths. On housing he worries about white flight, and its opposite, “whites only”: the brick through the window when the first Asian family moves into a white area. He has just moved to an all-white street in an area called Lees and says that seven families are friendly and five won’t even say hello. One of the problems in all three towns is the absence of “model” middle-class zones with a well-integrated racial mix, as you find in some of Britain’s biggest cities. In these former industrial towns, the central areas now tend to be occupied by minorities and the white working class dominates the outer ring. Middle-class professionals often live outside the city—Saddleworth for Oldham, Pudsey for Bradford. Segregation is a complex and dynamic process: a mix of chosen and unintended outcomes. The US academic Thomas Schelling showed in the 1970s that even a mild preference to live among people like yourself can very quickly lead to highly segregated towns. Ludi Simpson argues that many minorities want to disperse across a town, but white flight makes it harder. But Cantle believes that Bradford council has been persuaded by Simpson that segregation doesn’t matter. Everything is bigger in Bradford and this means it has a larger ethnic-minority middle class and a thriving Asian business sector (as does Oldham). Naweed Hussain complains there is still a “brown ceiling” in the council and the university, but he is just as scathing about how the Mirpuri Pakistani clan system often excludes the brightest Asians, including himself, from political office. (All three towns now have a roughly representative number of minority councillors and Naveeda Ikram (above) became Lord Mayor of Bradford in May, the first Muslim woman in the country to hold that position. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the main parties in the towns, have been rightly criticised for failures of leadership and for their intense rivalry but they have also been among the few cross-cultural institutions.) Bradford also has correspondingly large social problems. The white schools have some of the worst results in the country (though improving), and the white underclass is probably in a worse state than its Asian counterpart. “Unlike the Asians they often can’t cook or make clothes, and have no extended family to help out,” says one Bradford University sociologist. But the Pakistanis, especially from Mirpur, have pathologies of their own. A growing number of Pakistanis, especially the better educated, now marry from within their community in Britain. Yet arranged marriages with a partner from Pakistan, often a first cousin, are still the norm and only 15 per cent of Pakistanis born in Bradford in 2009 had two parents who were also born here. That means, according to Phil Lewis, author of Young, British and Muslim, that even third and fourth generation Mirpuris can be semi-lingual in three languages when they go to school—Urdu, Pahari (spoken in Mirpur) and English—and this often hinders their academic progress. Many of them also have to do two hours of Koranic study every day after school, so have little time for homework. This has helped to create some very confused and sometimes delinquent young men, who before 2001 were often treated with impunity. They reject their parents and much of British society, although not its drugs culture. “They display a mixture of Yorkshire street culture, Mirpuri cultural chauvinism and American gangsta rap,” says Lewis who teaches at Bradford University. And they lack role models. There is a similar pattern in Burnley, says Alethea Melling of the University of Central Lancashire, and points to football. “We’ve got lots of talented young Asian footballers in the junior leagues, but virtually none have graduated to professional football because there are no examples for them.” As ever, educated people look to education for a solution. Both Burnley and Oldham have shiny new schools and colleges and improved exam results, and Oldham is in the early stages of an ambitious attempt to merge five mono-cultural secondary schools. Alun Francis is principal of Oldham College, which is sponsoring the creation of the Waterhead Academy, a new institution that will combine the pupils from a mainly white and a mainly Pakistani school into one site next year. Francis, aware that there are many who are sceptical about the merger, says it is being done as much for educational as “mixing” reasons. Francis and others in all three towns point to the new educational success of young Asian women. A campus of Huddersfield University has opened in Oldham partly with them in mind, realising many are reluctant to travel. “They are the hope of the future,” says Phil Woolas, former Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. For these women to succeed they will have to challenge some of the most conservative forces in their community. But won’t they—and other high flyers—just leave when they get decent qualifications, especially if young Pakistani men are such poor marriage prospects? Alternatively, as Oldham and Burnley decline as centres of production, can they turn themselves into thriving dormitory towns for Manchester? Oldham is getting a new Metrolink, and Burnley sits in pretty countryside and will finally get a direct train link to Manchester (thanks to a campaign started by the previous MP Kitty Ussher). At least Britain sat up and took notice when these places blew up. “Neither white working-class people nor Asians can credibly say that ‘no one pays any attention to us’ any longer,” says Woolas. Paul Thomas, of Huddersfield University, is not so sure. His research finds that white working-class young people in Oldham are less keen on mixing than Asians and are less likely to go in to further education. “Young whites feel that they are now the real outsiders,” he says. It will take more than better transport links to alleviate this sense of grievance. Far away in Westminster, mention of the mill towns usually attracts shrugs of resignation. At the radical end, some London politicians and policy makers think aloud, if privately, about how to speed up the contraction of these places and relocate people as quickly and humanely as possible. It is an extraordinary thing to contemplate for towns of such size, and one with no recent precedent. Governments may not believe in taking jobs to people, and the coalition has even closed the Regional Development Associations, but in a welfare democracy there is a sort of “right” to stay put. And there remains a strong sense of loyalty and community in the towns, even if fragmented by race. But it says something for the low self-esteem of these three towns that when I tentatively mentioned the “closure” theory to various local leaders none of them threw me out of their offices or even flinched. Of course they are exasperated that it is so hard to escape the reputational blight of the 2001 riots. Yet they all know they are in the business of managing decline, if not closure. They also know that they have failed to reinvent themselves even to the extent that, say, Leeds has done with its financial services, or Sheffield with its universities. There are only so many good service sector jobs to go round. Ted Cantle still complains that there is no strategy to manage these places—beyond turning them into better-educated dormitory towns. If you compare what happened in Germany’s declining Ruhr industrial region in the 1980s with the story in the northern mill towns, Britain looks sadly neglectful. Without some miraculous intervention—or the unpopular idea of quotas in everything from schools to workplaces—it will be many more decades before people associate these towns with something other than industrial decline and racial segregation. When I met Riaz Ahmad, who became the first Asian mayor of Oldham in 2002 and whose home was fire-bombed during the riots, he gave me a long list of improvements that had been made since 2001. But he concluded wistfully: “It did not go bad overnight and it is not going to come good in a single decade.”

Nuzhat Ali on Mirpuri Pakistanis

Nuzhat Ali (pictured above) is unusual in the patriarchal, conservative world of Mirpuri Pakistanis in Bradford. The 47 year old was, she thinks, the first woman from her background in the city to pass her driving test back in 1984. “My liberal Dad took a lot of flak for that.” She is divorced and highly educated, both also rare in her community. With a degree in education studies (she is now doing an MA in Islamic studies) she has home schooled her three children, the eldest of whom, Hizer, is at Leeds University. About 70 per cent of Britain’s 1.2m Pakistanis come from the Mirpur region of Pakistani Kashmir. The men, including Nuzhat’s father, arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s to work in factories where they could earn 30 times more than in their villages. Some were displaced when the new Mangla dam drowned their villages. Nuzhat arrived, aged one, in 1965. She worries about Mirpuris in Britain—their poor education levels and the rise in genetic defects from two generations of first-cousin marriage. Both reflect the practice of returning to Mirpur for marriage partners, also a reason for the poor English of many in school. “It didn’t matter when people did factory jobs, but to succeed in the service sector you need to speak good English not some street dialect of Punjabi and English,” she says. Mirpuri boys do badly at school and in the job market. “The girls do better but that makes them independent and so unattractive wife and daughter-in-law material,” she adds. First cousin marriage “didn’t happen much in my grandparents’ generation, but partly because of diaspora marriages it has happened a lot more in my parents’ generation and mine,” she explains. Only 3.4 per cent of babies born in Britain are of Pakistani origin, but they account for 30 per cent of children born with genetic illnesses. The Bradford Royal Infirmary is a centre of expertise. “I have seen this in my own family, and in Bradford about 30 per cent of Mirpuri children suffer from mild or severe disability. Almost half have special needs at school,” she says. The Bradford office of the council of mosques has a room for mildly disabled children and one for severely disabled. The problem may ease as more Mirpuris marry in Britain, and as more young women are educated. “There is more of a ‘yuck’ factor [about] marriage with a close relative,” she says. Nuzhat, a pious believer, thinks that better understanding of Islamic teachings on the subject would help. “Many people seem to think it’s Islamic, but if anything it’s quite unIslamic,” she says.