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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 09:16 GMT 10:16 UK
Black projects target green pastures
By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Skipper Judy Hodge with project participant
The narrowboat scheme is aimed at city-dwelling ethnic minorities

Is the countryside a no-go area for minority communities? Is there passive apartheid as Britain's race watchdog chief claims? BBC News Online reports on efforts to open UK's green spaces.

It's a bright, sunny day out on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and a group on one of the many narrow boats on the water is enjoying the experience.

The adults sit on deck enjoying the sunshine while some of the kids help the skipper steer the boat.

The only thing unusual is the attention the group attracts from other canal users and walkers on the banks as they float on by.

There are some prejudices and people don't feel welcomed so it's about kind of breaking down that barrier
Dave Bailey, NCBA

In the towns and cities of the West Midlands a group of black and Asian people would not merit a second glance, but here out on the canal which runs through leafy countryside they are a very rare sight.

"Certainly if you go out on a canal boat it tends to be middle class, white people who are out cruising and people on the banks as well," says Dave Bailey of the Birmingham-based National Community Boating Association (NCBA).

He's out on the canal with the group as part of the NCBA's Glide Project being run in association with the HF Truman Narrowboat Trust.

The project consists of taking groups on day trips and weekend courses. It is designed to encourage Birmingham's large ethnic minority population to get out of the city and enjoy the waterways and countryside.

I find my life in my village as going back to the life I had in India
Prabhat, UK

It's been long acknowledged that people of ethnic minority origin rarely venture far from their traditional urban environments.

And Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission of Racial Equality, has described the absence of black and Asian faces from the countryside as a form of "passive apartheid".

Most of the evidence is anecdotal but the annual survey of day-trippers produced for the UK's national tourism boards consistently shows only a tiny fraction of visitors to the countryside are of ethnic minority origin - just 1% in 2002/03.

Although its unclear what's behind this absence, Mr Phillips is among those who believes there is a "gradual drift towards a difficult situation" in which minorities will feel "uncomfortable" in rural settings.


Over the past 18 months the Glide Project has introduced some 150 people from Birmingham schools and community groups to rural England.

Usha Mehmi and son
Usha Mehmi took her first narrowboat trip with the Glide project
"There are some prejudices and people don't feel welcomed so it's about kind of breaking down that barrier but also some people simply don't know that it's accessible for them, " says Dave Bailey.

That's a view supported by some of the passengers.

"I think it's about culture and what your parents introduce you to," says Margaret Polack.

"Many ethnic minority parents didn't know about the canals and countryside but I've always brought my children to walk along the canals."

Fellow passenger Usha Mehmi said she was the only one of her circle of friends who had ever been on a narrow boat.

"I've been interested in canals for a long time but had never been on a canal trip before I came with my son's school group. My friends don't know much about it, so maybe more would come along if they did."

Diversity review

Nationally, the issue of why so few ethnic minorities venture outside the UK's towns and cities is one that has received little official attention over the years.

The idea of equality of opportunity and diversity of customers has come late to the countryside area
Jacqui Stearn, Countryside Agency
But the rural watchdog, the Countryside Agency, hopes to change that.

Jacqui Stearns is leading its diversity review. Her work began after the government's 2000 Rural White Paper called for agencies to improve countryside access for marginalised groups.

"One of the gaps has been lack of data to know who is and isn't going so we're addressing that through the whole review process," she says.

"The idea of equality of opportunity and diversity of customers has come late to the countryside area.

"There's been an assumption in our sector that people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds aren't interested in accessing the countryside, and the work we're doing, our national research, just blows that assumption apart."


The Rural White Paper prompted action from several countryside groups, among them the NCBA which devised its Glide Project.

Brecon Beacons national park
Few ethnic minorities visit the UK's national parks
Other responses came from the Black Environment Network, a group which aims to increase ethnic minority participation in countryside activities, and the Council for National Parks.

In 2002 they began a joint scheme designed to increase the number of national park visitors from an ethnic minority.

Project leader Jessica Nar says the visit stage of the scheme has been very successful but a rise in ethnic minority visitors - currently standing at 3% - is only part of their remit.

"We want them to get involved in volunteering, become committee members, perhaps do some sort of speaker service or presentations. We really want to get them integrated into the national parks at all levels," she says.

Dave Bailey of the NCBA says integration is also the ultimate aim of the Glide Project.

"What we're hoping to do next year is to get the people who have been identified as really interested through one of our training courses and then help them to get their own boat.

"So what we'll have done then is to have created another community boat project that's for their community to use whenever they want."

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