BLACKBURN is one of the most ethnically divided towns in the country - and segregation is increasing, according to a major report.

The shock conclusions follow a six-month study involving hundreds of people from across the borough.

Ted Cantle, a leading authority on community cohesion who led the Government 's review into the race riots of 2001, called for an urgent "step change" in the way the authorities tackle the problem to break down the barriers.

His stark warning includes a range of recommendations in an attempt to bring white and Asian people together in neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces.

These included faith schools reconsidering their admissions policies, and he warned that unless action was taken the borough would end up with completely segregated schools.

He also recommended using planning strategies to create mixed housing estates and taking steps to help Asian families feel safer in 'white areas'.

And Mr Cantle called for the creation of public spaces where all people could feel safe, initiatives to bring different communities together and a campaign to promote the benefits of greater integration in schools.

Council bosses have vowed to join forces with all sections of the community and act on the report to implement Mr Cantle's aims.

But the message went out to the people of Blackburn that is them who really need to help bring about the change.

On the deepening segregation, Mr Cantle said: "This isn't something a council has done, but the people who have done it are the people of Blackburn. This is the challenge to the people of Blackburn.

"Do we want to see children growing up in separate communities in 2009 where they have no understanding of people from a different faith?

"They are growing up in a global world so it is essential we provide children with these opportunities.

"Blackburn with Darwen has done some things correctly, but there is now an opportunity for further improvement. Young people are demanding change.

"They want opportunities to move across the community and have contact with different people and not feel restricted by some older generations.

"There is an opportunity for Blackburn with Darwen to be a national leader but it does depend on the community support."

Launching a summary of his report at Ewood Park yesterday, Mr Cantle said people from different backgrounds were separated in every area of their lives.

The borough's schools were more segregated than the communities they represented, he said, with half of pupils being selected on the grounds of faith.

Mr Cantle reported that "white flight" - the relocation of white residents from some parts of town - was still taking place.

Communities continued to live "parallel lives", not coming into contact with each other, he said.

Mr Cantle praised some of the council's recent initiatives aimed at bringing people together, but said more had to be done.

He cited a number of 'tensions' which were making things worse, including deprivation, police action to tackle violent extremism, the growing impact of the recession and the rapid increase in the Asian population.

Mr Cantle said: "There are growing levels of segregation and division in the population. These divisions have been growing over decades and will take some decades to deal with.

"Many of the communities have the tendency to live in separate worlds and have no contact with people from other backgrounds and people grow up suspicious and in fear other others.

"They are there, they are large, they are apparent.

"We have to grasp the nettle and break down these divisions.

"That isn't just divisions between white and Asian people but between ages and different parts of Blackburn and between minority communities, such as Indian and Pakistani communities."

On the problems facing the borough's children, he said: "Segregation in schools is very, very noticeable and it's increasing year by year. Unless we take some action now we will end up with almost completely segregated schools.

"It's possible to say that in future, people really won't have the choice."

Mr Cantle, who will release the full version of his report next month, called on the council's multimillion pound Building Schools for the Future programme to bring students from different backgrounds together, and criticised faith schools, which he said were "automatically a source of division which have to be overcome."

In his report he singled out older community leaders as being a barrier to young people and women mixing between communities, branding them "gate keepers".

The recession facing the country is making things worse, Mr Cantle said: "Tensions can become quite severe if parts of the community think they're being hard done-by."

Blackburn with Darwen Council chief executive Graham Burgess praised the jobs" target="_blank">work of his council and said they had commissioned the report because they wanted to go from 'good to excellent'.

He said the report would provide "a springboard for action."

He said: "We have always worked hard, but nevertheless we know if we do not change, we will get into trouble.

"I am confident we can rise to the challenge."

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: "This is a really important report with a lot of strong recommendations, but I don't think we should be panicked about this.

"There is a good deal for us to be pleased about with jobs" target="_blank">work that is already going on but we must not be complacent and we must build on this. "

Blackburn's police commander Superintendent Andy Rhodes said: "I think the report gives a very accurate reflection of how complex the communities in Blackburn are and it raises some very good points about how the public authorities engage with people on the broadest level. "

Council leader Mike Lee said: "I think it is a good report and a lot of it we were already aware of.

"I think we will find it a challenege but it is not just about the council.

It is also the local strategic partnership and the people as well."