The two ends of Cowley road: Diversity and its challenges

Kerem Öktem is one of the co-authors of the recently published booklet, Freedom in Diversity. Ten Lessons for Public Policy from Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States. Here, for openDemocracy, he brings the lessons close to home.

Kerem Oktem
5 December 2013

Shops on Cowley Road, Oxford, 2005. Wikimedia/Kamyar Adl. Some rights reserved.

Cowley Road is the multicultural landmark of Oxford: Only a few minutes by foot from the dreaming spires, it is a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood with an appealing mix of students, middle class residents, Oxford University dons and ethnic minorities.

Members of established and more recent immigrant communities mix with locals and occasional tourists in dozens of cafés and restaurants. Kosovar Albanians, North African immigrants and recent Syrian refugees gather at Cafe Nero and Coffee Republic. Turkish and Central Asian students visit Bodrum Kebab and the Oxford Grill, and a Lebanese restaurant owned by a Syrian and a Kurdish chef attracts visitors from across the city. Add to this the many East Asian eateries, a "Polski Sklep", a Korean Soup kitchen and Indian and Nepalese restaurants and local pubs, and the temples of worship to complete the picture. In the last decades, churches of many denominations have been joined by a House of the Jewish Orthodox Chabad society, two mosques and a 'Seekers hub' for those interested in Islam. The East Oxford Community Centre is a meeting place for many African communities.

This is multicultural Britain at its best. Diversity here extends not only to ethnicity, religion and culture, but also to class, at least for now. Cowley is a cosmopolitan place that benefits greatly from the contributions of the members of all the communities present there. For the left-wing liberal in me, it is pretty close to the perfect mix between old-established communities and newcomers, between Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and non-religious people. Over the years, the neighbourhood has also lost most of its rough edges and is now generally considered as safe and carefree. Occasional stabbings and rape cases can easily be ignored, particularly if you belong to the more fortunate residents of the area, who live in the western parts close to the city centre.

Until recently, I was one of them, and I never felt particularly threatened. Nor did I really notice the many men and women with serious mental health issues and drug addiction problems, or teenage mums, with their sometimes neglected babies. It is not that I did not see them, but I chose to think of them as part of the merry diversity of Cowley Road, rather than as disadvantaged and disheartened people struggling for survival at the margins of society.

I have become much more aware of their presence after moving to the eastern margins of Cowley Road, about two miles from Oxford city centre. There, diversity takes on a distinctly different and more desperate feel. Unlike the pretty lawns of the gentrified terraces of central Cowley, the front yards there are filled with garbage, used mattresses and fridges. In the house next to the one I moved into a few months ago, about ten immigrants from Sri Lanka share only three bedrooms. My friends have complained to the council several times about the health and safety challenges emanating from the overcrowded house next door. Every now and then indeed, a council official or policeman comes over to check up on it, but little changes. Living next to such a house is an inconvenience for my friends. For the elderly ladies, who also live in the neighbourhood, the encounter might feel more threatening, more like a tragedy of the commons.

Many houses in this part are used for shared accommodation by recent immigrants, increasingly from Spain, Poland and southern Europe. Their residents work mostly in the restaurants, cafes and shops of central Oxford, a fact you cannot miss when you take the bus line Nr. 1 from central Oxford in the late evening. Next to the students of Oxford's two universities, you see exhausted service workers on their return home. They will not have the energy and time to tend their front lawns on the weekends, or to dispose of their garbage in the prescribed ways.

That not all is well with Cowley's allure as a multicultural figurehead came to national prominence this summer, when a grooming ring preying on vulnerable young girls was brought to prosecution. What was particularly alarming was the ethno-cultural background of the perpetrators and the victims, the former belonging to the Pakistani Muslim community, and the latter being exclusively white, English girls. The abuse they endured took place in houses and seedy bed and breakfasts around Cowley Road and amidst not so benign neglect by the welfare services and the police.

Such neglect by the council extends to many areas of life in Cowley. When I searched for a flat there last year, I followed an advertisement in Oxford's 'Dailyinfo' website. The advertisement promised dead cheap bedsits in the neighbourhood. I was taken aback when I met the representative of the business renting out those bedsits. He was a middle-aged man of East Asian origin in Shalwar Kameez and a long beard, sitting in a less than comfortable room with a big box containing keys tagged with the addresses of the rooms on offer. After happily acknowledging my Muslim roots, and refusing to shake the hand of my uncovered, female and Turkish housemate, he explained how his business works: "We are like a family here. There is no council tax. That is all being taken care of. You also won't need a bank transfer: we will be collecting the rent at the beginning of the month. We do things differently here, not like the English. This is all built on trust, brother, you can trust us."

Even though my friend did not quite trust the owner, I requested to see a few of the available rooms. As we drove from one shabby bedsit to the other, the owner's son told us that these were unregistered rooms in privately owned houses, which the agent rented out to third parties. He was paying a fee to the owners, and kept a part to himself, all based on mutual trust and agreement, of course. The whole business appeared to be a completely illegal operation unfolding pretty much in full view of the council. When I asked around whether I should bring this to the attention of the authorities, I was told to write a message to the city's housing services, but not to mention my name.


Old houses in Cowley Road, 2006. Wikimedia Commons/ceridwen. Some rights reserved.

If housing on the eastern margins of Cowley Road is a challenge for policy makers and residents alike, so is schooling. Just off the main drag, the Oxford Spires Academy serves one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, with more than 50% of students speaking English as a foreign language and some speaking no English at all. Replacing the struggling Oxford Community School in 2011, the head teacher has been able to turn the school around and make it a truly inspirational place for teachers and students alike. GSCE results have been outstanding in 2012, if not as impressive in 2013. Meanwhile, another school in the area, the Oxford Academy, was the country's worst performing secondary school in 2012. It has just recently avoided classification as a failing school, after it reached the government's floor target of student success. Success and failure are relative and the two are often much close to each other than it may appear.

Now, over a double espresso in Rick's Café, in the happy parts of Cowley Road, before the return to its Far East, I can muse on the beauties and challenges of diversity. As long as you see the multicultural setup as a decor for your liberal left-wing desires, it works well. From a more conservative angle, you could also argue that over all the Big Society seems to work well and people appear to live reasonably happy lives, apart maybe, but not in constant conflict either. Yet, on Cowley Road, the Big Society is not a social reality but the name of a posh Burger joint that opened last year. And there are quite a lot of charity shops. Beyond that, however, and when looked at in its entirety, there is more poverty, destitution and deprivation than could possibly be good for any community.

It would be easy to blame the city council and the law enforcement agencies. Are they not responsible for looking the other way, whether in the case of the grooming ring, the illegal housing operations or the conflicts arising from the inappropriate use of houses? Is this British pragmatism gone wild - leave it to the communities and look the other way as long as there is no unavoidable conflict? Maybe. But what are the options for the council? Cash-strapped and understaffed, it can barely cope with running the city as it is. Any additional demand puts extra strains on its capacity.

So it is less pragmatism than the necessity of priority setting under extremely tight budgetary constraints that leads to the high levels of inaction and invisibility of the local state. One could add one more aspect: Neoliberal restructuring and austerity measures in the UK have not only led to more limited services. They have also facilitated the deregulation of the labour market and made it one of the most liberal in the world. Oxford's service economy depends on cheap immigrant labour and cheap housing, which happens to be available on Cowley Road's eastern end. It would therefore not be in the city's interest to intervene in the first place.

We could also try to blame the victims for their misery, as is often done on the continent, and occasionally here too. Is it culture or religion that leads to sexual abuse, uneasy neighbourly relations and low educational achievement? Diverse cultural and religious backgrounds are a challenge for sure. Multiculturalist policies in the UK have for too long invested too much in separate communities and too little in what binds residents and citizens beyond their primordial concerns. But still, culture only shapes the forms of abuse and exploitation, which are prevalent in our societies. When we hear that some members of the Oxford grooming ring were regular attendees of the main mosque in Cowley, we should be able to remember the countless cases of child pornography rings which involved the occasional churchgoer. When I was confronted with the parallel bedsit market in the neighbourhood, I was reminded of my experience with a very established real estate agency three years ago, when I first moved to Cowley. The agent told my prospective housemates and me to increase the offer for a rented house by a hundred pounds, if we were really interested. Not to buy, but to rent. Considering the options, we did oblige.

If no one is to blame, I can only conclude that these are the conditions of the neoliberal age and global capitalism under which we all have to operate. But what about diversity? How can we ensure that the multicultural vibrancy, which we instantly feel in Cowley West, is more than just a lively façade for the culturally eager middle classes? We need a lot of commitment to live together in freedom and diversity, I would say, but also more resources for the council, the social services, law enforcement, education and mental health, so that they are empowered not to ignore the real problems. And many more projects that bind communities together and remind them of the insurmountable fact that this is the best of worlds we have at our disposal.

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