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Beware the wrath of a tabloid agenda - as Tower Hamlets discovered, very much to their cost, says John Goldup ...
Beware the wrath of a tabloid agenda - as Tower Hamlets discovered, very much to their cost, says John Goldup

a 1998 report on community care services for black and ethnic minority older people, one of the Department of Health's key messages to councils was to show greater confidence in developing targeted and specific services, and to be less preoccupied with the charge that 'this means special treatment for black elders'.

Our recent experience at Tower Hamlets LBC is a case study in how that kind of service development and innovation can get hijacked and distorted by a tabloid press agenda. If the issue is confidence, then it has been a powerful reminder both of the pressures that can be brought to bear on that confidence and of how critical it is to sustain it under that pressure.

We have made a major commitment in the last few years to the development of extra care sheltered housing as an alternative to traditional residential care, halving the numbers going into institutional care in the process. Three brand new schemes, providing between them 120 places, have opened in the last two years. What provoked the recent press storm was that the fourth scheme, Sonali Gardens, which will open later this year, is particularly targeted at meeting the needs of Bangladeshi older people, with a Bangladeshi care team and an environment designed to reflect the particular religious and cultural needs of this community.

The case for this is of course quite straightforward - a huge and continuing increase in the number of Bangladeshi older people in the borough. They do not easily access services. This is as much to do with the services on offer as it is to do with barriers of language and culture. In Tower Hamlets, because we've invested heavily with the community to develop targeted services in those areas, the proportion of Bangladeshi people in our home care and day care services reflects their representation in the wider population. But in our existing extra care schemes, or in access to residen tial or nursing home care when that is what is needed, that is most emphatically not the case. Sonali Gardens is a terrific opportunity to begin to redress that balance.

Three weeks ago, The London Evening Standard ran an article on Sonali Gardens with the headline: 'New homes block is for Asians only'. Shadow home secretary David Davis was quoted thus: 'This is the sort of thoughtless policy that feeds extremism.' The article implied that the Commission for Racial Equality had launched an immediate investigation - 'Race watchdog to investigate housing for Muslim elders' - which came, needless to say, as a surprise to the CRE. Neither did the newspaper mention that this is a council with beacon status for its work in promoting community cohesion.

The initial trigger for The Evening Standard's interest appeared to be the idea that some link could be made between this 'story' and Trevor Phillips' recent speech about multiculturalism, implicitly echoed in the comment ascribed to Mr Davis: 'we should look to achieve integration rather than segregation in our society'. The next day the story was recycled in The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express and The Star. The changes in emphasis, though, were interesting. What had been 'Asians only' in The Standard headline had become 'Old people's home built for Muslims' in The Mail. The Sun and The Express both had the piece as part of two-page spreads on, in The Express' words: 'The migrant chaos facing Britain'. The Star, which announced in its leader column that Tower Hamlets was building an 'Asian-only housing estate', said it was the sort of thing that would turn Britain into the deep south of the US or apartheid South Africa, and concluded by demanding in bold type: 'This scheme must be knocked down.'

A few strident pieces about a non-story will quickly blow over, although the damage locally can't be underestimated. What they do, though, is hide some of the real challenges about developing more accessible services. You cannot simply transplant a model of care that w orks in one context and expect it to be gratefully embraced in another. The whole concept of receiving care from strangers is both unfamiliar and unacceptable to many Bangladeshi older people. So, working with the mosques, the community, and Circle 33 and the EPIC Trust as our partner providers, we have had to be far more flexible about our offer - developing different models, for example, of shared care with families within the scheme. What the council has consistently said in responding to the press coverage of Sonali Gardens is that this scheme is about opening services up to give equal access to all, not about keeping anybody out. Taking that challenge seriously demands some rather more complex thinking than the polarised debate which at least some elements of the media seem to prefer.

John Goldup

Head of adult services, Tower Hamlets LBC

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