Just which are the British values, exactly, that I am not supposed to agree with?” Abbas Najib asked testily. “They tell us we ought to integrate, but how integrated do we have to be to show that we belong here? Do we need to be seen drinking beer and eating bacon sandwiches?”
The aggravation is heartfelt because Najib is chairing a local initiative in Bradford intended to bring diverse communities together around their shared values. And he’s doing it largely in the name of faith.
The management committee of the Greenmoor Big Local project that he chairs is made up of Muslims, Christians and those of no religion, working together for the benefit of the whole community. There are youngish business people and accountants. Najib himself is a former policeman and lawyer. At the meeting I attended, the discussion focused on whether it was worth keeping local city councillors on the committee when they never attended meetings.
Big Local was devised as a way of attracting National Lottery funds to 150 of the country’s most poverty-stricken areas which had not benefited before – though the residents of those areas had certainly contributed enough in terms of buying lottery tickets. The result is that each community receives £1m over 10 years to spend on improving their neighbourhoods. Each community decides on local priorities and how to manage the money, whether for tidying up the area, setting up job clubs and youth activities, advising on debt problems, or renovating the housing stock.
Now into their fourth or fifth years, some projects have been more enterprising and successful than others. Many of them have faith group involvement. It is not a case of religious groups seizing control of the money or using it to proselytise: they are specifically forbidden from doing that. The groups I visited across the Midlands and north of England – to write a pamphlet for Local Trust, the body which oversees the scheme – disavowed it as an intention. It is more that in many inner-city estates, churches and sometimes mosques are the only community buildings – so faith leaders such as vicars are the only people locally with the experience and knowledge to organise groups, manage money and challenge the authorities.
Many of the groups actually view the National Lottery as a form of gambling and disapprove of it – but believe that, if the money is available, it ought to be put back into the communities from which it has been leached. “My building is one of the few community facilities here. In this area, one of the biggest problems is a lack of education among the under-35s. They have levels of apathy and negativity I have found almost impossible to break through,” says one vicar. “People here find paperwork and organisation difficult. I qualify as a resident and have skill sets that are difficult to find in others, so I had to take the project on.”
That is not the case in Bradford. The group Najib chairs is unusual in that its management committee is largely made up of young Muslim professionals.
They have not moved out of the area as some of their white counterparts have done elsewhere, but still live near to their families, some of whom came to Bradford from India and Pakistan 50 years ago to work in the mills and factories.
One of the projects Greenmoor Big Local is sponsoring is a weekly lunch club, held in St Wilfrid’s Church of England parish hall, for older Sikhs and Hindus, many of whom, especially the women, still cannot speak much English after decades in Britain. Their needs – local doctors and public transport – are just the same as those of other older residents.
It is up to each group to organise itself, consult locals and manage the projects it runs. In Collyhurst, a historically deprived inner-city estate north of Manchester, the priority has been tackling debt issues, with an advice centre set up in the local parish church on the initiative of the vicar, the Rev Chris Fallone. The trained volunteers have managed to reduce the debts of local residents from an estimated £1.3m to £700,000 in just a year.
North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, attracted national coverage two years ago when it was discovered that G4S had painted front doors of houses set aside for asylum seekers bright red. This led to houses being targeted, and following the scandal, the company repainted the doors a variety of colours.
The area is full of streets of small Victorian terrace houses, many dilapidated and most privately rented. They are among the cheapest in Britain: they cost about £20,000 and many have been bought by absentee landlords. Here, Big Local is buying up and renovating properties to be rented to responsible tenants. “I want the people of the parish to live in decent homes in a good community,” says local vicar Dominic Black. “What faith groups do is offer hope in what otherwise might be a hopeless situation.”
In Bradford, the motivation is the same. Says Najib: “Religion is one of the motivators of volunteering. We give our time as a religious duty. There is a belief that the Almighty appreciates activism in the community. It’s part of the motivation to get involved and effect change.”
Greenmoor’s priorities include lobbying for improved local amenities: allotments, community gardens, an IT club for older residents, unemployment advice and improved health facilities: in other words, exactly the same sort of priorities as other faith groups involved in Big Local. The Rev Al Barrett, chairing Big Local in the Hodge Hill area of Birmingham, says: “We had a struggle to persuade people that the church was not interested in the money. What we are interested in is building the local community, across genders, faiths and generations. We are not arguing about how to spend the money for the church, but for our neighbourhoods.”
Stephen Bates’s pamphlet Community Spirits is published by Local Trust
• This article was amended on 27 June 2018. An earlier version said that in Middlesbrough, G4S painted front doors of houses set aside for asylum seekers bright red “to identify them”, and that the doors had since been painted green. The company has said that it had not been done deliberately, and the doors have since been painted a variety a colours, not just green.
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