• Wednesday, September 28, 2022

News

Council leader’s comments criticised in racism review

Torbay council leader Steve Darling.

By: Joe Ives

THE chair of a review into racism in Torbay says he “would find it very hard to continue” if he were in Steve Darling’s position – the Liberal Democrat leader who made comments about ethnicity in the Bay area last week.

Cllr Darling found himself in hot water after suggesting Torbay’s ethnic mix wouldn’t be suitable for Afghan refugees, whom he said would be without support networks if they accepted public sector housing in the Bay.

Cllr Darling, who is leader of the governing Lib Dem and Independent coalition – and the Liberal Democrat councillor for Barton with Watcombe – claimed the council can’t provide public housing for Afghan citizens because of the Bay’s own housing crisis. “We’re sadly not in a position to help those in desperate need coming from Afghanistan,” he said.

“The other thing we’re reflecting on is that if you’re having refugees, you really need the support network for them, of people from similar communities – and we simply don’t have that diversity in Torbay.

“So even if we had accommodation, we would still be facing challenges compared to other ethnically diverse parts of the UK.”

He said Torbay’s housing situation is so dire the council is forced to offer Torbay residents housing in places far away such as Weston-super-Mare and Glastonbury.

Whilst coming under heavy criticism from some quarters, the Lib Dem leader was also strongly supported in others. The Daily Express wrote that “[Torbay] Council has been praised for refusing to take any Afghan refugees – because it wants to prioritise its own “crisis situation for its own people.”

Cllr Darling subsequently apologised for his original comments, and the council has since encouraged landlords who have an empty property available for a minimum of one year to step forward to assist.

Now the chair of the council’s racism review panel, Councillor Jermaine Atiya-Alla, who is also a Liberal Democrat, has welcomed the apology and the policy to ask landlords to help, but added: “As someone who is leading the council’s work on race and equality I cannot defend his original comments. In certain parts of the BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] they would certainly find it deeply offensive.

“While I do welcome the decision that they have decided to allow refugees in, the apology to me, at the end of the day, is great but to others, I’m not sure how they will take it because of the original wording in the first place.

“I can’t really defend his original comments. I just can’t. As someone from a BAME background myself who’s leading a review into racism and into the challenges of what the BAME community face I can’t praise him, I just simply cannot praise him.”

Asked if he was still backing the leader, Councillor Atiya-Alla, who became the Bay’s first black councillor in 2019, said: “It’s great that the council have actually started positive work but, personally, as a person of colour, as someone from a BAME background I’ve gone through a range of emotions on this.

“Put it this way: if you were in any other public sector organisation and you came out the way the comments did, if I was in that position or in councillor Darling’s position I would find it very hard to continue to be the frontman.”

In a personal statement published on the council’s website on Thursday 19 August, Cllr Darling said it was not his belief that Afghans wouldn’t be welcome because of their ethnic background, adding: “I am deeply sorry if these comments offended anyone.” He said he was trying to argue that the council would need more funding from the government to help refugees settle into the community.

The council’s racism review panel was originally proposed by Cllr Darling in response to racial incidents in the Bay in 2020 following the death of George Floyd in the United States and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests around the world, incluidng in Torbay. The review, called ‘How do we make black, Asian and minority ethnic lives matter in Torbay?’ was initially meant to take six months. It quickly added Muslim, Jewish, Polish and Eastern European communities to its scope.

Councillor Jack Dart (Liberal Democrat, Ellacombe) speaking after Cllr Darling’s original statements said: “Steve’s made his own comments in his own way.

“I certainly don’t agree with what he said. It doesn’t paint Torbay in a very good picture. We’re a small seaside town that doesn’t have much diversity, but that doesn’t mean that Torbay isn’t open to more diversity and isn’t welcoming, I believe we absolutely are.

“It’s not my position to say if his position is tenable or not. He’s made his own comments and done it in his own way and now he’s got to face what’s coming. What happens, whether he stays there is up to him.

“I still believe the Lib Dems locally do a really good job. We’re spending a lot of money locally improving the Bay and I’m really proud of our record over the last two years. That’s something that has come from Steve’s leadership. There will always be things we disagree on. What’s happening with Steve at the moment is up to Steve to sort out.

Councillor Lee Howgate (Liberal Democrat, Goodrington with Roselands), who last week said he was “appalled” by the council’s announcement that it would not be taking Afghan refugees, welcomed the new policy and council leader Darling’s apology.

He said: “I welcome the fact that Cllr Darling apologised for his comments last week and made clear Torbay would respond positively, like other areas of the country, to the government’s call for help. We are already exploring how we might help further, by for example looking at how several hard-to-let properties could be made available quickly using Torbay Council’s help.”

He also said the UK government must do more to help with housing the refugees.

According to Devon Home Choice, the council’s social housing platform, more than 1.400 households needed accommodation in Torbay last month, up from 1,157 in 2019.

Immediately following Torbay’s announcement that it wouldn’t be housing refugees, Cllr Jack Dart described the decision as “tone-deaf” and pointed out that the council has a £10 million underspend that could be used.

He has since said that he backs the council’s hastily announced policy of asking landlords to provide housing, but still thinks the council can do more. He said: “As a local authority we should pick up the baton, lead from the front and do everything we can to help them.”

Cllr Atiya-Alla agreed: “Where we have the capacity and where it’s possible, that would be great. Torbay should be an open place for BAME communities. We are talking about the most vulnerable people in the world right now.

“They would take absolutely anything, even if it was a single bedroom in a four-bedroom house, they would take it given their situation.”

He asked those who were against this idea to reflect on their position: “What if the Taliban were running amok in Torbay and they were killing your innocent friends and family because you’re standing against them, then what would you do?

“The natural thing would be on the next train to the next place of safety where possible and you would take any form of accommodation that you were given.”

(Local Democracy Reporting Service)

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