Published on November 4th, 2016 | by Gaelle Finley1
SUSAN GREEN’S RESPONSE TO AN ARTICLE ON 2 NOVEMBER 2016 IN THE GUARDIAN (‘SEGREGATION ISN’T THE PROBLEM IN BRITAIN’S INNER CITIES – IT’S OLD FASHIONED RACISM’, by Kehinde Andrews).
‘Handsworth, for instance, features some of the nicest houses in Birmingham; so it is the people in the neighbourhood who are the reason for white flight, not the housing.’
‘The problems facing ethnic minority communities are not down to a lack of white people, but to a lack of investment.’
Andrews is correct. Handsworth has some of the finest housing stock in Birmingham. That’s why I moved here. I am one of the 7.2 % white British living here cited in this article. It is or was a beautiful Edwardian suburb. ‘People’ may have been a reason for white flight in the 70’s but it is much less relevant today if at all than the impact of Council and Government policies and expenditure over the last twenty years nor is it simply a lack of investment.
Birmingham Council has been operating an unofficial policy of absorbing new population growth into areas like Handsworth with complete disregard for the impact upon infrastructure and resources like education health & environment. Middle class people regardless of ethnicity know this. Good schools, a clean pleasant environment, low crime levels, decent health provision, this is what matters most to people. Because of Council policies we have become the go to place for housing people no one else wants to live next door to. We currently have over one hundred hostels for hard to house people like ex offenders, those with alcohol and drug addictions & those on bail providing highly lucrative business opportunities for those who run them. We were a prime target when the old mental hospital closed down for so called Care in the Community (or don’t care in the community as we know it) so we have had to absorb an over large population of those with special needs in group homes. Social workers dealing with housing for elderly, especially single men, tell me that hostels in Handsworth are where they place their most difficult clients likewise Housing Associations. All of this has been supported by the Council & local politicians who have encouraged expansion of said hostels and multi occupancy through planning. It is this social engineering that has for instance driven aspirational Black & Asian families away from Handsworth who rightly fear that their kids will be tainted by postcode discrimination and are at much greater risk of being dragged into low level criminal activity in this area than in middle class areas.
This isn’t about race it’s about class. It is this sort of social & economic engineering that historically deterred white, asian & black liberal middle class people I know from buying beautiful homes here at low prices in the nineties; though being liberal middle class they do love to claim some sort of connection with Handsworth as a ‘cultural place’. Now they would be hard pressed to find anywhere to buy; so many good family homes have been bought up cheap frequently at auction, often forcibly sold by the Council to fund elderly care home fees, bought up by business people who have available capital, who live elsewhere and are now rented out as multi occupancy with an ever increasing transient population of newcomers passing through on their way to a better life in Britain. The most recent addition to this list are hostels for asylum seekers and refugees which are more lucrative than housing the elderly hence the recent trend in conversions of what were residential homes for elderly to hostels. The city council has been an active facilitator of this. Add in the habit of house sales happening informally & privately between members of communities as a strand of community self help and the result is very few properties now on the open market. NB If white people discriminated positively in favour of their own in this manner they would be called out for being racist but within the BAME communities it is seen as a strength; growing and supporting your own community.
Non of this just happened. It was made this way. It is a testament to the excellent quality and range of housing stock here and those families who have been my neighbours for over twenty years that Handsworth remains a good place to live despite the best efforts of Birmingham City Council, and the local Labour Party who rule the roost here to make it otherwise. It was these people who had control over hundreds of millions of pounds worth of extra regeneration cash; SRB & Pathfinder to name just two, that was pumped in during the Blair Brown years to tackle some of our challenges. It was a massive investment so I would challenge Kehinde Andrews that lack of investment is at the core of the challenges we face. This investment produced a population density that is three times the city average with increased pressure on schools health and environment. A population high in newcomers, those overly dependent on public services with high needs many of whom are transient with no stake in the local community. Where did all the money go? New schools? No. New health centres? No. A clean environment? No. Clean air? No. Spaces to play? No. Youth Centres? No. Leisure & Recreation facilities? No. Jobs? No. Training? No. Where some of it went was obvious to me. It went into the wage packets of a small army of public & third sector workers and consultants and contractors; some well intentioned, who lived elsewhere and who were employed to ‘ regenerate’ my neighbourhood. In the early noughties I sat on the Handsworth Neighbourhood Management Board. At one of my first meetings I sat and counted up how much it was costing the tax payer. There were eighteen people at this meeting including two Police Inspectors, Health managers, Councillors, Housing managers, Environmental managers, our newly appointed Neighbourhood Manager and her Assistant, plus the Council local District Manager and District Executive. Representing the community; bear in mind that this is supposed to be about devolved power and Neighbourhoods managing their own affairs, there was myself, a local housing association worker and a local church representative. I was the only one not being paid to be there and who actually lived in the Neighbourhood. For a two hour meeting I reckoned it was costing in excess of ten thousand quid in salaries including travel and preparation time. With ten grand my local residents group could have made a real impact upon the problem of local rubbish dumping; a perennial problem. But we were never allowed near those sorts of budgets. Politicians and Public sector workers did not want to give power away to those of us living here they wanted to control the investment themselves. They were frequently patronising and ignorant. Pound signs flashing in their eyes, they all chased the extra money from one scheme to another from committee to committee to bolster their own budgets and pet schemes. In just one example the local police were able to grab eight thousand pounds of community neighbourhood funds to help buy a new car under the heading ‘Driving down Crime’. Not one that I dealt with had any experience, skills or knowledge of facilitating local empowerment or participation. Indeed they did not want to do this, the community was something that was seen as an obstacle to their plans that they efficiently neutralised by running numerous community consultations the results of which they totally ignored. Clean Green spaces were listed as desirable in the top three concerns of local folks in every consultation I participated in. Since 2000 every little corner of green space has been built upon, including our local allotments. They also increased divisions in the neighbourhood by channelling funds through faith and ethnic community groups encouraging a feeling that this BAME group or that group was getting more support. I encountered this all the time especially amongst those in the Afro Caribbean community who would frequently complain that the ‘ Asians’ get preferential treatment. This focus on ‘faith’ groups continues today at the expense of solidarity amongst those who live here in relation to the ‘place’ we live and how it can be improved for all of us. Divide & Rule, it’s the oldest trick in the book.
Local Councillors get their vote out and hang onto power through faith networks and organisations in exchange for assisting members of this or that community. They operate in a ‘ real politic’ world by quietly assuring they will prioritise the needs of whichever BAME group they are dealing with at any point in time. Years back one of my neighbours was assured by a local Councillor that he could ensure planning permission for a fast food takeaway next to a local school and in exchange my neighbour would of course be expected to ensure that his large extended family and members of his local mosque would vote for said Councillor at the next election. Locally the residents group successfully objected on the grounds that we already had seventeen outlets within a five minute walk of said school selling take away food and we have some of the highest rates of childhood obesity and diabetes in the UK. My neighbour was very upset at the outcome. He said to me that one of the reasons for coming to Britain was to get away from what he saw as the sort of patronage and corruption of power that blighted his home country. He wasn’t happy about our intervention, without which said Councillor may well have secured his planning permission, but he was more unhappy about the deal the councillor expected him to make and he did reluctantly concede that the residents group was trying to act in the best interest of all local children unlike our local Councillors and their Council colleagues. Our one crowning glory, a regeneration success in a sea of failures is our local park. Its future was secured not by politicians and public regeneration professionals but by a committed group of local activists; predominantly older white and British, who worked entirely voluntarily and secured Heritage Lottery monies for its restoration.
Hundreds of millions of regeneration pounds that could have been used to build resources, capacity and resilience in our area, was instead used to bolster the public sector. Now the money has gone. The public sector jobs have been cut and we are left struggling with the challenges & outcomes that the huge increase in population, newcomers, the needy, the less well off, that these schemes nurtured and delivered. All of our local services are stretched to the limit.
So I disagree entirely with the assertion that it is racism or lack of investment that is the main factor that stops better off people from staying here or settling in Handsworth. Of far greater significance is Class. Middle class people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in Birmingham know what has happened and what continues to happen here. They know about and indeed some benefit economically from the City Council & government policies that shape our environment. They are happy to own rental properties, run businesses, and worship here but choose to live elsewhere if their finances allow.
To assert that it is simply racism or lack of investment lets politicians, community leaders and public sector do gooders off the hook; individually and as a professional group. Cantle et al annoy me because in his earlier report on the regeneration outcomes locally he at no point tackles this elephant in the room, namely that it was the policies and methodologies of the Council and their Partners who failed miserably to meet and sustain their regeneration targets and who wasted the massive financial investment gifted to them by the new labour government. Nor does he dare tackle the collaboration and co operation of local ethnic community leaders and politicians in this process for fear of being called racist. Until someone takes a hard look at where all the money went, how it was spent & distributed and who was influential in the process we will continue to be blind sided by spurious arguments about racism and or lack of investment that ignore the local context, political expediencies, class and economic realities that shape my inner city suburb of Handsworth.
Susan Green, Handsworth resident.
The GRA perceptive map was the brainchild of local artist and community activist Sue Green. Content was workshopped with local residents and the final map was drawn up by commissioned artist Hunt Emerson.