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I Regenerist: How a new breed of young people are breathing life in Britain’s most deprived areas

Posted 20th April 2010.

UK-based EMICA Consulting Ltd., under its CEO and Founder Alyas Khan, is bringing the style of connectivity, mixing enterprise, charity and self-help, into new thinking about how to revive threatened high streets up and down the UK.
Alyas cut his teeth as Britains youngest SRB co-ordinator, and latterly as one of a new generation of up-coming UK born Asian Muslims working for Grimleys and other consultancies during the regeneration boom. Now EMICA, which, when he set up in 2006 was primarily a fundraising consultancy, is bristling with new ideas for Britains regeneration scene.
When I took over, we initially continued with our core activity of fundraising in which we were able to properly represent the interests of the various communities in which we were working, says Alyas. Understanding how to overcome barriers of language and culture was second nature to us, as was the need to confront and oppose the in-built marginalization of diasporic communities. It was also natural for him to work and think internationally, supporting charities in India and Pakistan, while extending mainstream advisory work in the UK into Housing Management and Health. In so doing, EMICA was beginning to overcome the barriers between the international Development fields and home-based services, and take a generally much more international outlook.
So now EMICA can happily be talking to investors in the Middle East and Asia about setting up a vehicle to bring much-needed funds into run-down areas of UK cities, while setting up its UK Housing advisory to compliment its fundraising services, and at the same time ploughing profits into a Burnley venture which combines retailing, residential, and free meals for the elderly and after -school kids in a run-down area with deep ethnic divisions.
These kind of synergies were evident in the Castlemere community centre project which Alyas supported from 2000 onwards. Resident families maintained initiative and ownership by contributing £250 each at the beginning, and eventually ESF, SRB and local authority, Healthy Living and Sure Start funding took the project into a development valued at over £3m with and annual income of over £300,000. But it was the almost instinctive ability of the communities which were involved (perhaps based on years of struggle for survival without support) to link up elements such as community dentistry and childcare and community conferencing resources, which was remarkable.
Alyas is now turning his attention to the UK High Street and asking whether the present mixture of empty and charity shops couldnt be revitalized by bringing into them an Asian-style mix of enterprise, charity and incredibly low cost goods and services. Shoppers from the Asian quarters of Burnley dont tend to use the usual mix of budget shops in the town centre, not so much because of any spatial segregation, as because even they are much more expensive that the communitys own stores. Could direct investment, and trade, from the massive economies of India and China be brought directly like this into Britains run-down High Streets? Could this also bring with it the enterprise opportunities which they are so successful in developing? Wages are obviously lower, but so are the costs of living especially where underpinned by strong community self-support.
This idea may seem, on the face of it, quite crazy, a throw back to what existed in the UK at a former state of development. But are our High Streets now totally redundant or could they be brought back to life by parallel cultures in other global regions? And will they inevitably disappear in a more developed world, or could another, less destructive, pattern for progress be evolved in a second- chance scenario?
Crazy or not, Alyas thinking brings many fresh new ideas and insights into the problem, and the realities as experienced by our extensive pattern of settled BME communities . For example, he feels that institutional resistance from planners and other policy makers to multiculturalism runs counter to the realities of globalization. There is a presumption that growing and thriving minority ethnic communities must be contained, while nearby traditional British High Streets remain dying and empty: they cant go on channeling it all he says.
There is a housing shortage, so why not bring back families living above shops and bring town centers back to life? This lifestyle prevails in India and China but has virtually disappeared in the UK: why? Much of the clothing in the big supermarkets is imported, for example, from Bangladesh and India, but directly connected small traders could undercut them in the High Street in a way that the typical Asian quarter have long been doing.
In a move which conjures up an invitation to a new wave of Indian corner shop owners (where most of the first wave of proprietors have now gone on to bigger and better things), Alyas vision is that much more attention should be given to the potential for British Asians and Chinese who have now settled here to bring in energy and investment from contacts and partners in their countries of origin, to which they remain strongly linked. We are bringing doctors and other professionals, so why not High Street entrepreneurs?
When questioned about the likely political reaction to the take-over of Britains traditional areas, he explains that care and balance are needed, but that the Asian ethos of all hands and family members to the task is infectious and could draw in the involvement of many who are currently disillusioned and disengaged. Again , witness, for example, the surprising number of traditional Lancashire people who have in effect joined the Asian communities in the Pennines as wives, husbands and business partners.
This vision is entirely different from the mass migrations of the last century in which thousands came to provide cheap labour in Britains ailing factories, while minority supporting communities were allowed to come and set up, as it were by default. Alyas sees the potential now for starting with high-profile campaigns in which public education on the huge potential benefits of stronger direct global links plays a significant part. He also experiences at first hand the remaining very strong links between diasporic communities and their countries of origin (remember the massive responses to the Pakistan Earthquakes only three years ago). The huge potential for harnessing these trade links is being consistently ignored by our trading and enterprise institutions. He sees that Chambers of Commerce could be playing a key role in setting up exchanges with people in the big economies of Asia, via local links, to explore the possibilities, and that such an initiative could be piloted in places like Burnley. Overlays of carbon neutral and fair trading could be applied.
Change, dereliction, imbalance, globalization, cultural conflict and many other issues are the ingredients of the day: agree or disagree with Alyas, his thinking and vision as one of the first generation of British born Asian Muslims to come to the cutting edge of the regeneration scene is highly provocative and thought -provoking!