A housing association in Stoke-on-Trent is taking a new approach to integrating communities

Since the Cantle Report into the unrest in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, the benefits of multiculturalism have been increasingly called into question. The report painted a gloomy picture of communities that failed to interact on any level and concluded that this segregation had created an environment in which friction between these communities could thrive.

Sarfraz Hussain, director of Blue Mountain Housing Association (BMHA) believes that social housing providers can be at the forefront of efforts to reduce patterns of segregation but that this is only half the battle in the fight to build more integrated and cohesive communities.

“As the Cantle report makes clear, it is the scarcity of services and a public perception of inequality in access to them which is at the root of the racial tension we saw in the Northern mill towns. Segregation does not create the problem, but it does allow myths and misunderstandings to be perpetuated.”

A subsidiary of Staffordshire Housing Association (SHA), Blue Mountain was established in 1993 specifically to cater for the housing needs of the black and minority ethnic (BME) community in North Staffordshire.

Blue Mountain’s most recent initiative also focuses on improving integration. The Bridging Communities project is housing refugees in areas adjacent to traditionally BME areas and providing support that includes introductions to their neighbours and help in finding local services. So far, there are 32 properties being operated under the scheme, sited in clusters to allow for the creation of small informal support networks.

Houses are purchased on the open market, often in poor repair, and renovated to a good standard using local tradesman. Rents have been reduced by an average of 30%, which, in turn leads to savings for the council’s benefit department. So far, the project has seen almost £4 million invested back into the community in areas identified as having weak housing markets. The final phase of the project will see Blue Mountain take possession of a further eight properties in the near future.

Hussain is optimistic that the plan will pay long-term dividends. “What Bridging Communities is doing is creating an overlap between communities that would have previously remained separate. The idea is that creating small networks of BME households will pave the way for the shops and services which cater to them and the gradual diversification of the area,” he says.

Funded jointly by the Housing Corporation and Staffordshire Housing Association, Bridging Communities is already showing early signs of success. Turnover of clients is very low, take up of education is high and employment amongst Bridging Communities refugee tenants currently stands at sixty percent. Tenants are gaining independence and empowerment and their children are integrating well into local schools and with the rest of the community. Initial concerns that placing the new clients outside of BME communities would put them at risk of racism proved unfounded and public response has been generally good. Rebecca, who has lived next door to a family from Ethiopia for two years, says: “We get on very well. It’s been really good to have nice neighbours.”

Hussain accepts that there is a long way to go: “A recent report from a House of Lords Select Committee clearly showed the economic benefits of immigration. However, until the wider community sees this wealth channelled back into improving local services in areas that have a high number of immigrants, the competition for these services is bound to create friction," he says. "Only through significant investment, not just in housing but in all our public services, can we hope to build truly cohesive communities.”

A sharp increase in migrants from Poland has opened up a new challenge for Blue Mountain. Hussain says demand for quality and affordable accommodation in Stoke, as in other cities, far exceeds supply. He says that, along with providing housing, his organisation’s key priorities for helping new arrivals fit in are:

1. Influencing the local authority to acknowledge the scale of the increase of new migrants and construct an appropriate policy response

At the end of last year councils asked central government for £250 million to deal with new immigration. Hussain says: "The council here is playing catch-up. It’s still getting to grips with the needs of the long-term BME community and recently arrived refugees. The new arrivals from Poland aren’t fully on the agenda yet. For example, accession state nationals aren’t served by any Supporting People service provision." Hussain is using his position on the council’s BME Housing Strategy Group to try to change this.

2. Advice & information

There is confusion and an element of fear about the rights and entitlements of migrants amongst local housing staff, according to Hussain. Blue Mountain has run a one-day course for other larger housing providers to help frontline officers gain knowledge on migrant’s basic rights. Hussain says: "The course was a huge success and many officers felt better equipped to deal with queries from new migrants. We hope to repeat the course every six months until the migrant housing issues become second nature to people making decisions."

3. Capacity building

"New arrivals want to help themselves and their fellow country people," says Hussain. ‘"We initially advertised properties in Polish shops, now people turn up by word of mouth referrals. We have also spent a lot of officer time building links with emerging Polish groups. We helped one group by allowing them the use of our premises as a 'care of' address to prepare a successful £5,000 bid for funding from the Local Strategic Partnership."