Fresh hopes to rid areas of rural tension

The towns and villages of East Anglia are more likely to be home to racial tensions than towns like Bradford and Oldham whose names are linked with riots, according to a new report. Sarah Brealey looks at the proposals for making us all get along.

Will the next Bradford riots be in Wisbech or Yarmouth? It seems unlikely, but a new report is warning that our quiet rural communities now have some of the greatest ethnic tensions.

The task force set up after the July 7 bombings in London says that more work needs to be done to help people get on with each other - possibly including contracts for migrants, cultural briefing packs, more community facilities and propaganda to attack myths about immigrants getting fast-track access to housing or health services.

The new report from the Commission on Integration and Cohesion shows that parts of the east of England are some of the worst bits of the country - alongside the area around Greater Manchester and south Yorkshire - for how well people think they get on with each other.

Yarmouth, Breckland, and King's Lynn and west Norfolk were the worst places in Norfolk, alongside Fenland and parts of Lincolnshire around the Wash.

The report finds that tensions are most likely in three kinds of areas:

those beginning to experience diversity, such as in the East of England, often with migrants from eastern Europe. It says these are often less affluent and migrants are often working in agriculture and food processing.

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urban areas beginning to experience diversity, such as outer London boroughs and commuter towns in the south-east.

inner cities which are already diverse but are experiencing migration from new areas.

The report says the tensions are not just caused by the numbers of ethnic minorities, but are complex and related to factors like deprivation and how happy people feel with their area.

Although it says immigration has had many positive effects, it says action needs to be taken to improve how people feel about each other. More English lessons and less translation, more action from local authorities, including a ban on comments from councillors likely to inflame tensions, school twinning programmes, including between faith and non-faith schools, are among the suggestions. It also says employers need to do more to help and suggests welcome packs - already provided in some areas, such as west Norfolk - active rebuttal of myths about migrants and a national community week.

One of the bodies named in the report as an example of good practice is Meta, or Mobile Europeans Taking Action, a service based at the Keystone Development Trust in Thetford to help migrant workers find jobs and manage their lives.

The report praises Meta's belief in self-help and the classes that prepare people for formal ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.

According to Elisa Pinto, who is behind Meta, learning English is the foundation stone that helps different communities to get on together.

She said: “Language is the priority because that will help them to integrate and help themselves. We help people with letters and making phone calls, which once they know English they can sort out for themselves. Interpretation in person rather than translation is still important - if it is a medical or a police matter which may be complex, they need to understand it. But translating posters is often a waste of money.”

And she said that tensions between different communities were often caused by the lack of a shared language.

“If you don't speak the language it is more difficult to approach neighbours or go to the shops. People want to integrate, but it takes a while. Language is not something you learn in a few weeks.”

Two years ago a Community Cohesion Strategic Group was set up in Norfolk to make sure that the county's major organisations were working to minimise tensions. Its chairman is Lisa Christensen, who is also head of Norfolk's childrens' services.

She said: “The strategic group will be looking at the report with great interest. Norfolk has a very long history of welcoming people into the county. There are challenges for everyone at times when we get jumps in migration. When we look at the last few years it has been a very positive picture.”

She said it was too early to say whether the county council might provide welcome packs or cut back on its translation services, adding: “We would always want to take effective action to help them make their homes here and contribute to the life of the community.”

The group is part of the County Strategic Group, which is headed by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James. He said more work is being done in the county, including plans for a community cohesion officer.

He said: “I haven't seen the commission's report but I've been impressed by Norfolk's ability to cope with rising numbers of migrant workers without a great increase in social tensions. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent. The County Strategic Partnership has agreed to fund projects which support community cohesion and to undertake research so we know better what's happening in a fast changing situation. All this alongside the future appointment of a community cohesion officer indicates that the County Strategic Partnership here is well placed to respond to the commission's report.”

One of the commission's suggestions - that cultural packs could tell immigrants about British ways - has already drawn some criticism. A commission spokesman said they might include “that we like to queue at the post office and the bus stop and we don't really like spitting in the street”, adding: “Things like that sound very simple but can drive members of the settled community barmy - when it might be that new arrivals just don't know about things like that.”

At Yarmouth-based Gyros, which works to help immigrants settle and integrate into their new communities, support manager Des McKeating was not impressed. He said: “I think it's a bit childish to suggest that other cultures don't queue and do spit in the street.”

He said that translation work was important, particularly for new migrants, and that it was unrealistic to cut it back without more funding for English lessons and recognition that migrants working long hours may struggle to attend lessons.

The East of England Development Agency works to help migrant workers integrate, and is creating a “migrant gateway” which will provide information in other languages. But it said this should go hand in hand with English classes, which it provides free for many migrants.

A spokesman said: “When people first arrive in the east of England they need information in their own language so that they can understand their rights and responsibilities, but one of the key reasons for migrant workers coming to the UK as opposed to other member states is actually to learn English, so it is a priority for them to learn the language too.”

The report reminds us all, and not just those in places like Thetford, or Yarmouth, or Dereham, where new communities are growing, that we have our own part to play in welcoming their new neighbours. It can be as simple as telling people when the rubbish collection days are, rather than getting annoyed that they have left their bins out at the wrong time.

It says: “It is not solely about new migrants learning the norms of behaviour within particular communities. It is about one person reaching out to another, or one community reaching out to another.”

It is a process that is not always perfect, but that people and organisations across East Anglia are already doing.

DEREHAM

At O Brinquinho, a Portuguese delicatessen shop in Dereham, everything looks spotlessly clean and the food tantalisingly fresh.

The name of the store will remind the 7,000 Portuguese living in and around the Norfolk market town of a popular folk dance in the sunny island of Madeira. But this is where the links with the Mediterranean country stop.

For Maria Rodrigues, the owner of the store, believes that Dereham is her new home - the place where she and her family have found happiness and wellbeing.

“In Dereham I have found a large family, where everybody helps everybody and where people don't feel singled out because they're immigrants,” she said.

“I have lots of Portuguese friends who came to Norfolk in search of a better life and better education for their children and they have found here a home. I don't think it's more difficult for people to integrate in rural areas than in bigger places such as Birmingham, London or Manchester, on the contrary.”

Mrs Rodrigues arrived in England seven years ago, encouraged by the possibility of earning a better living here than in her home country.

“I have found many friendly faces here who are always happy to help, out in the street, in the bank or anywhere you go.”

THETFORD

Thetford is getting used to receiving mass migrations.

Back in the 1950s, the small rural town became part of the London overspill project, which doubled its population and saw the creation of huge housing estates and the introduction of large edge of town factories.

In the 21st century, Thetford has seen two waves of immigration. First there was the Portuguese, which now number around 8,000, and now the town is seeing more Polish and eastern Europeans in search of new lives and employment opportunities.

It has all added to the multi-cultural mix of the town with Portuguese, Polish and Lithuanian restaurants, cafes and delicatessens dotted about the town centre.

The town will never forget the night of football related violence in 2004 where 200 England thugs attacked a Portuguese pub and its patrons. However, the isolated incident shocked so many residents that it brought the two communities closer together.

YARMOUTH

Mothers and fathers clutching flowers and gripping small hands thronged into Yarmouth's St Mary's Catholic Church in a moving show of solidarity for Madeleine McCann.

Last month's television images of Portuguese, English and Greek Cypriot parents united by tragedy sent a reassuring message of racial harmony in Norfolk's biggest seaside town.

And that impression is only confirmed by another story to have received national media coverage in recent weeks: the fairytale rise to Lithuanian celebrity of PC Gary Pettengell, the Yarmouth bobby who received a top award in the Baltic state for learning the language and setting up a website to help immigrants.

These shining examples put in true perspective the continued but insignificant National Front presence at elections in the borough.

Apart from one horrific assault four years ago when a Portuguese man was badly beaten up in Regent Road, Yarmouth, there have been few racially-motivated attacks.

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