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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 04:36 GMT 05:36 UK
Burnley: A town badly let down
A young woman smiling at her baby. An old man with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye. A couple out shopping for the day.
But spit it out they do. "We've got to stand up for ourselves," says the young woman. "They live in this country, they should live like us," says the woman laden with shopping bags. "Too much money is going to the Asian community."
"I was born and bred here," says the elderly man. "And I feel I have no control, I feel usurped."
Sometimes when people are searching for answers, they make very bad choices. And make no mistake, the people of Burnley have every reason to be angry. Rarely can a town have been so badly let down.
And the over-riding feeling on the streets is that little has changed since clashes between white and Asian youths in the town hit the headlines last year.
The report of the Burnley Task Force, which was set up after the disturbances, seems to have made little impression on people in both communities. Many are angry, alienated from slick politics and pessimistic about the future.
They see Labour as having done little for them, locally or nationally. They say the Liberal Democrats are just Labour by another name. And this town is no Tory stronghold.
It's just that the BNP is certainly not the answer to their frustrations.
For a start, Burnley's problems have much more to do with urban neglect, with poverty, with poor housing, with unemployment, with drugs and with crime than with race.
Yet it is clear that the repugnant tactics of the BNP have made an impression among the white community here by scapegoating the Asian community, capitalising on discontent and spreading misinformation.
Just as white racists were accused of attempting to turn last year's clashes - sparked by gang warfare - into racial confrontation.
In the town centre on Wednesday, most people ignored the Anti-Nazi League demonstration on the bandstand. One woman took a leaflet and read it out loud: "Don't vote BNP!"
She turned to her friend. "Well, I am," she squawked defiantly, crumpling the piece of paper in her fist and throwing it in a bin.
Not everyone is as blatant. But the sentiments expressed by many in the town centre have a similar ring to them.
"We are all talking about the BNP," says a young woman. "Most of my friends are supporting them. We don't feel the white community get a fair deal."
"Nothing has changed," she says when asked about the impact of last year's troubles and the subsequent inquiry. "There is still a lot of tension."
Ken Sanders says that if anything, things have got worse since last year's troubles. "People are just more aware that things aren't right," he says.
Harold Bowers makes no excuse for his support for the BNP. "They ought to be given a chance. There is too much money spent on the ethnic minorities."
It is a claim repeated with depressing regularity, even among those who said they were not voting BNP on Thursday.
The facts about how money is spent in Burnley fail, of course, to back up the claims of unfairness to white areas.
Much of the money available to the area can only be spent according to strict rules and is spread across the borough of 91,000 people.
In Stoneyholme, part of the predominantly Asian Daneshouse ward, the community is also concerned that little has changed since last year's violence. There is the same sense of powerlessness, that no-one is listening.
"Some of the leaders are not bad," says a man working on his car. "But collectively, they have not done enough. They must work harder."
"They all promised changes," says a young woman peering from behind her front door. "But we haven't seen any really. I hope this year they really mean what they say."
For Rafique Malik, Burnley's deputy mayor and a Daneshouse councillor, this goes to the heart of the problem.
"Information is not getting down to the grassroots," he says. "There are a lot of good projects, but many people don't know what is happening, who is doing what.
"We want more power from central government. They are on the right path by talking about regional assemblies, but it has to move down to the grassroots."
He talks about councils for every ward, with budgets of around £50,000 a year and the power to make decisions about the area where they live.
Attempts clearly are being made, of course, to address the recommendations of the Burnley Task Force, headed by Lord Tony Clarke.
The report called on national and local government to pay more attention to the needs of the community in Burnley, to improve the way information is delivered, to take urgent action to improve housing and to promote better community relations.
There have been more improvements in housing. The town's Community Alliance is bringing groups from across the community together. New ways of delivering information, such as a new magazine, Burnley Life, are being examined.
There are also signs that money earmarked for regeneration in the town is taking effect: a new bus station almost finished, canalside developments, a new shopping complex.
Yet no-one would pretend that any of this disguises Burnley's very real problems. There are pockets of very high unemployment, while wages for those in work are low.
In inner Burnley 15% of properties are vacant, 27% are unfit as homes. Forty percent of homes rely on some form of state benefit. Poverty is a serious problem, as is ill health, drug and alcohol misuse and crime.
"It's not race that's the problem, mate," says a young white teenager hunched on his bike at the top of one of the sloping terraced streets of Danehouse.
"It's the criminals, it's the drugs. The people who go shoplifting, the ones who rob houses. Nothing to do with race. Whites do it, Asians do it."
A taxi driver passing rows of boarded up houses on the other side of town says the same. "If I come on a job up here, it will be about drugs," he says. "That's the real problem."
On the other side of the Pennines, a short train journey away, Bradford also saw disturbances last year.
Many there say little has changed since, yet the city seems somehow more self confident than Burnley. The vibrant city centre is filled with adverts for its bid to become European City of Culture in 2008.
Everyone recognises the city has problems, but somehow you get the feeling that Bradford will make it through a difficult period.
It contrasts sharply with the sense of weariness and powerlessness on the bleak streets of Burnley.
Change will take time, of course and last year's clashes at least brought the scale of the problem into sharp focus.
Amir Mirza, writing in the latest issue of Burnley Life, sums up the challenge facing the town.
"I love Burnley, even with all its sham, drudgery and broken windows; it can still be a beautiful place.
"If there is one all-important finding of the task force, it is this - the future of our town is in our hands. The question is, do we care enough to make a difference?"
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