Comment: 10 years on from the Oldham race riots

This month marks the 10th anniversary of events that shook Oldham, revealing segregated communities who were deeply suspicious of each other and locked in competition for scarce economic resources.

In May 2001 that division manifested itself in the ugliest of ways when racial tensions erupted in violence in Glodwick and the surrounding area.

So how has Oldham changed in the intervening 10 years?  How central is housing to the issue?  And what role can housing organisations play in helping with changes?

It’s clear to me that Oldham is changing for the better.  But that change can best be described as  work in progress with a great deal of work still to do.

Aksa housing association director Mushtaq Khan

The complex situation that led to the riots didn’t develop overnight.  It’s hard to believe sometimes that Oldham was once a global centre of industry.  But its steady decline over almost a century helped incubate many of the tensions that sparked violence on that day.  Healing the economic and social decline of the borough therefore is not a quick fix but a longer term project.

Oldham Borough Council is now taking a far more pro-active approach to the issue of community cohesion and is showing good leadership as the merging of the previously segregated Counthill and Breeze Hill schools showed last year.

Investment is also helping to change the area.  The extension of the Metrolink network to Oldham opens up opportunities across the sub-region, allowing people to commute into central Manchester and developments like the new regional science centre are providing better education opportunities.

However, large parts of the borough have a dysfunctional housing market highlighted by a lack of affordable housing or better quality homes.  Asian communities prop up the housing market in central Oldham dominated by some poor quality terraced housing. Similarly there are large areas where the white community is as disadvantaged in housing terms – if not more so – than minority communities.  Sustainable employment and worklessness also continue to be a problem across communities.

The demise of the housing market renewal programme – a long term project to transform housing provision in the borough can only have a detrimental effect.

Here at Aksa we are changing the ethos of the organisation and these changes are really a microcosm of what’s happening in Oldham as a whole.

Originally set up as a housing association to provide affordable homes for the local population at a time of overt discrimination and overwhelming housing need, we have developed over time to provide housing for all.  An increasing proportion of our tenants are white and Aksa is now moving towards being a local community organisation with a renewed focus on building cohesive and sustainable communities – not just homes.

This means engaging with and understanding the communities we serve, working in close partnership with other agencies to improve neighbourhoods and getting people back into work.  We have recently won a contract to work with the council in bringing empty homes across the borough back into use, to provide much-needed housing for local people.

Our ‘Into Work’ programme helps people into sustainable employment through training and we continue to work with other associations on cohesion initiatives including events and joint working.

The conclusion has to be that Oldham remains a work in progress where housing is a just one of a number of key issues at play.  It’s an exciting time to be working in an area where there’s a real sense that things are improving and people working together.

Whatever happens, we must continue to bring communities together, and make sure local people can access new economic opportunities so that the events of 2001 are never repeated.

 Mushtaq Khan is a Director at Aksa Housing Association

This article is reproduced courtesy of 24Dash.com.

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