On the eastern, Olympic Stadium side of the line is Newham, officially Britain’s least white borough. According to the 2011 Census results published this week, just 16.7 per cent of Newham residents defined themselves as white British. Almost a quarter of all Newham households have no one who speaks English as their first language. The new arrivals are not just Pakistanis, and Caribbeans, or people from the old British Empire. They’re from everywhere now – from the Congo, Latin America, Kazakhstan, places with no historic links to Britain at all.
Yet in Forest Gate, which is more than 90 per cent non-white, a giant Union Jack flutters above the streets. Ethnic-language newspapers have been removed from all the local libraries. The council says it no longer funds any group that serves only one race or faith. (eg the megamosque)
Sir Robin Wales, the directly elected Labour mayor of Newham. “We really value diversity, but what we’ve said is that we are part of one English, or British, society. The people who have come here want the benefits of British society. Public funds should go to bring people together, not drive them apart.” Newham is opening a language lab to teach its residents English. Anyone can have English classes for £1 a lesson. “If you can’t speak English, you’re not going to work,” says Wales. “You can’t be part of this society.”
In what may be a unique programme, every Year Five child in Newham gets free music lessons at school and a free musical instrument – which they can keep if they finish the course. The instruments available are the trumpet, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, flute, guitar or keyboard – essentially Western instruments – and the music they learn is predominantly Western.
Alan Craig was until recently a Newham councillor for the Christian People’s Alliance, and leader of the opposition in the borough. “I give Robin Wales no credit for anything, as you know,” he says. “But I think he does mean it [about integration]. My concern is not with the council. They keep doing the right stuff. My concern as a resident is the rapid growth of very traditional Islam. More and more women are wearing the full veil. I simply can’t buy non-halal meat here any more, I have to go to one of the supermarkets.”
Across the border, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, the demographics are fairly similar, and so are the problems. But the approach is completely different. The mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has close links with an Islamic extremist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe, based at the large East London Mosque, which believes in turning Europe into a sharia state. He was deselected by the Labour Party for these links and was elected mayor as an independent, on a tiny turnout, with the heavy assistance of the IFE.
Mr Rahman’s ruling council cabinet is 100 per cent Bengali, in a borough where Bengalis make up only about a third of the population. While Newham will not fund projects aimed at just one community, Tower Hamlets pours enormous sums into Bengali-only drugs projects, arts projects, youth projects and lunch clubs – many of them run by front organisations of the IFE. Other groups are funded too, though less generously, but again more often in racial and faith silos than on any kind of general, community-wide basis.
While Newham pays for recent immigrants to learn English, Tower Hamlets, incredibly, pays enormous sums for British-born children, who have grown up speaking English, to learn Bengali. Since his election two years ago, Mr Rahman has sought to “Islamicise” Tower Hamlets, clamping down on strip clubs and a gay pub. And he has just launched a “community faith buildings support scheme” to pour further millions into religious organisations – substantially, though not exclusively, mosques.
Robin Wales, like many other Labour people, will not deal with Rahman and admits that what he sees across the border has helped spur his policy in Newham. “You look at the community faith buildings grants and you ask yourself, what’s going on?” he says. “Lutfur is following policies that will not benefit anyone in the future. I’m extremely worried that you create an enclave, and whenever you have segregation it is an unmitigated disaster.”
Last month came perhaps the most important litmus test yet for the council’s approach. A fundamentalist Islamic sect, Tablighi Jamaat, sought planning permission for a hugely controversial “megamosque,” with space for more than 12,000 worshippers, on a site in West Ham. It could have become the Newham equivalent of the IFE’s East London Mosque, in Tower Hamlets.
Planning permission was refused.