he municipalists of Lancashire could have done themselves a favour by describing the official they sought to employ as a community relations officer, or something featuring the term "cohesion". But every specialty has its buzzwords and so they advertised last month for someone to lead a "mythbusting project" to promote harmony and counter slurs about migrants. Soon they were taking fire. Mayday, Mayday.
"Anger at £30,000 plan for race 'myth-buster'," said the Daily Express. "Pointless non-jobs," said Richard Littlejohn. Another harrumph from the Taxpayers' Alliance. And predictably, across the internet, ridicule and outrage.
But spend some time in Lancaster or Morecambe and the idea hardly seems outrageous. You quickly find out that it isn't a council initiative. It involves many agencies, including the police and the fire service. The county council, Tory-led, mind, is providing admin but isn't paying. There's a grant from a government pot, funded by the cost of visas.
Yes, mythbuster is a funny job description, but what do you do when faced with a leaflet saying that Muslims in the region are responsible for all the drugs? Or that English workers are unemployed/homeless/under-educated/unhappy because of the Poles? When BNP extremists become MEPs and win a seat on Lancashire county council? The air needs clearing. Someone has to do it.
Liz Neat of the National Coalition Building Institute shows me around the west end of Morecambe with Magda, a tireless liaison worker. Magda is employed by the fire service but, with a smile for everyone, she's a bridge between officialdom and Poles in the area.
Things are happening in the west end, new shops, community facilities being built. There's tension between the settled and the recently arrived, but there are also attempts help them interact. Cultural events are good; anything involving food especially so. It's the social glue. Volunteers work in a drop-in centre, newsletters are crafted. People are trying to build.
But it's difficult, especially when perceptions are set, prejudices fed, and the air is rendered toxic. If a mythbuster helps Lancashire breath more easily, what's £30,000? It's a snip.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 9th October 2009.