Britain disunited, by Mark Conrad

15 Sep 05
The London bombings are putting long-established 'community cohesion' policies to the test and threatening to hijack them in the name of a quick fix for terrorism.

16 September 2005

The London bombings are putting long-established 'community cohesion' policies to the test – and threatening to hijack them in the name of a quick fix for terrorism.

Calls for improved 'community cohesion' began just minutes after the first suicide bomber temporarily shattered London's reputation for inclusiveness around 8:50am on July 7.

By the time a nerve-racked British public watched armed police arrest the July 21 bomb suspects, the policy had become inextricably linked with those nightmarish events and their continuing fallout in terms of rising Islamaphobia and violent attacks on people from ethnic minorities. In fact, community cohesion has so quickly become synonymous with those July events that this long-standing national policy is in danger of being turned into something incoherent.

The Home Office, the lead Whitehall department on cohesion issues, published guidance last year outlining the ideals of a truly united community (which were backed by the Local Government Association and the Commission for Racial Equality). This vision states that: there must be a sense of belonging for all communities; diversity of people's backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, schools and across neighbourhoods.

At grass-roots level, community cohesion is about tackling long-term problems around diversity and equality.

But, as LGA deputy chair Sir Jeremy Beecham has warned, it could become devalued if the events of July are misinterpreted. 'Community cohesion could become bogged down with considerations only of extremism-linked ethnicity… that may also have geo-political ramifications. The events of July highlighted certain social and racial cohesion issues in the way that the Stephen Lawrence case and the Scarman report [into the inner-city riots of 1981] did.

'But community cohesion policies need to continue to focus on ethnicity, age, occupation, disability, gender and much more.'

Ruby Dixon, head of programmes (Beacons and services) at the Improvement and Development Agency, agrees: 'It is about dealing adequately with multiculturalism, and extends to all areas of national and, particularly, local public policy from education and housing regeneration, to employment and economic development.'

The last time community cohesion was pushed to the top of the political agenda was after the 2001 race riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. Independent reports into those events identified a lack of interaction between heavily segregated cultural, religious and racial groups.

Both central and local government have since come under fire for their lack of progress in implementing successful cohesion policies. Mohammed Azam of the Oldham Development Agency for Community Action, has criticised responses as 'slow and disjointed'. Now, after the July events, attention is again focused on the problems of segregation.

Four years on from the riots, a Home Office admission, tucked away in its on-line cohesion literature, states: 'Evidence of what is actually working in transforming fragmented communities into cohesive communities is still scarce.'

Dixon, who advises authorities and the Home Office on the fine details of community cohesion policy, is far from convinced that government responses to 2001 were ideal, but she says there were reasons to be cautious. In post-riot Burnley, the British National Party was gaining a foothold on the council by playing on the local white population's fears that people from ethnic minorities were suddenly the beneficiaries of all local investment – something an ill-informed or misplaced debate could have made worse. In the 2003 elections, the BNP increased its councillor numbers from one to eight.

But in the wake of the London bombings, Lee Jasper, London Mayor Ken Livingstone's adviser on cohesion and race relations, has told Public Finance that 'public organisations need to be clear about what their cohesion policies mean, how to tackle problems or improve matters and then get on with the hard work of realising it.' He warns: 'Partially in the wake of July… cohesion policy has led to a real mismatch of local and national government views and initiatives.' And there is still confusion over who should take the lead on community cohesion and how to take often fragmented programmes forward.

The Home Office defines its core focus as security, policing and citizenship issues. It intends to publish a new 'communities action plan' later this year, which will provide fresh guidance to public bodies on how to combat the threat of extremism across Britain and better integrate communities.

Home Office minister Hazel Blears last week met with political, police and community leaders in Leeds – home to three of the Al-Qa'eda-linked July 7 suicide bombers – including faith leaders from the Muslim community, to discuss the extremist threat. It was the fourth of eight meetings in cities and towns considered to be potential extremist hotspots (the others are Oldham, Burnley, Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and London). Responses will feed into the plan being devised by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

The Home Office has also set up seven working groups to discuss issues relating largely to Islamic extremism and radicalisation, including one to discuss 'imam training and accreditation and the roles of mosques as a resource for the whole community', amid accusations that some radical clerics are grooming 'domestic' extremists.

Confronting extremism, of course, remains an issue of great national importance. But questions are being asked about the Home Office's inclination to tie the issue so directly to wider cohesion goals.

Privately, some councillors contacted by PF expressed concerns that the government's inter-ministerial group on community cohesion is chaired by the Home Office and not the council-co-ordinating Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, deemed by one senior councillor a 'more obvious choice because of its localist focus'.

Councillor Mohammed Iqbal, who represents the Beeston ward in Leeds, in which one of the July 7 bombers lived, says: 'What the Home Office is doing is slightly reactionary and I'm not sure what benefits will follow, though that's not to say there won't be any.

'I'm cautious about the government's response to what is essentially extremism. We need to be proactive about integrating communities on a wider basis and about tackling economic and social inequalities on a local level.'

Dixon adopts a similar line on meeting cohesion goals. 'Communities and not the state must ultimately provide the answers,' she says. 'You need central support, of course, and cohesion can't be achieved by councils alone – it relies on cross-sector partners and communities taking responsibility themselves.'

Iqbal says that there needs to be a greater focus on 'diversity education' across Britain's schools and other public and voluntary organisations. He wants assurances from the Home Office that it will co-ordinate future reforms with the Department for Education and Skills and the ODPM to ensure that 'lasting, co-ordinated and effective' policies evolve.

The Home Office is keeping details of its plan under wraps, but a spokeswoman says: 'Ministers are looking at ways of improving the whole communities integration and cohesion agenda, and an integral part of that involves discussions with our government partners, such as the DfES, the ODPM and local partners such as faith groups.'

The department points out, for example, that one of its seven post-July 7 working groups will look at providing 'a range of education services that meet the needs of the Muslim community'.

But Lord Herman Ouseley, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and author of the report on Bradford in 2001, fears that central government could wash its hands of cohesion tasks that proved difficult to overcome, such as tackling the extent of the economic deprivation faced by some communities.

'My fear is that, post July 7, the political response will be to look at segregated groups, like certain Muslim communities, and say this is a problem that has grown up in your segregated community – you have to solve your problem,' he says.

Devolving responsibility would naturally switch the emphasis to the role of local authorities. But Ouseley warns that councils involved in the 2001 riots, for example, would need to improve on their past records. He says that while Bradford has 'made some progress', he remains frustrated by its failure to address inequalities faced by some local communities adequately.

'If you look at the situation in 2001… it was clear that there was a lack of cohesion about the way that local authorities related to and communicated with different local communities and that created resentment between black and white populations.

'No-one was dealing with that – especially the local authorities and other local agencies. They provided no direction beyond the superficial,' he warns.

Dixon says the councils involved in 2001 suffered from 'weak leadership' and bemoans the fact that, until this year, local authorities could achieve an Audit Commission Comprehensive Performance Assessment rating of 'excellent', 'without having been focused on diversity issues'.

But she says that there have been pockets of improvements nationally since 2001. With the assistance of the IDA, council officers in Burnley have been 'dragged out of the rut', Dixon claims, and have implemented a plan tying the transparent use of public funds to cohesion schemes for housing, economic regeneration and education.

The Audit Commission acknowledged Burnley's improvements in its 2004 CPA assessment, which rated the council as 'good'. A beefed-up CPA from 2006, which requires councils to build a heavy cohesion and racial equality emphasis into both their corporate and service assessments, should help more authorities, Dixon says.

But she acknowledges that many councils still face tough battles. One reason is a lack of funding for cohesion projects nationally. Dixon's office is one of the most vital resources in the UK, yet she is assisted by just one part-time member of staff and has an annual budget of £40,000.

The ODPM also has only limited funds for direct cohesion projects, although many of its other schemes involve elements of the policy. Housing 'pathfinder' schemes, for example, provide regeneration and renewal of homes. The ODPM has also started a Beacon councils scheme, which has so far identified six authorities as leaders on community cohesion issues (including Leicester and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets) to help spread best practice.

The Home Office's Community Cohesion Unit recently invested £6m in 14 pathfinder projects, also to support creativity and best practice by councils.

However, the complex bid processes for the limited cash available to local authorities are 'often ridiculous', Ouseley says. They require authorities to go 'cap in hand' to central government and show that they are so much worse at dealing with racial diversity issues, for example, than neighbouring authorities. 'Governments also move on from these agendas very quickly and we need to make sure that the cash flows into… communities consistently and that these temporary projects are not just part of a bandwagon.'

But even if financial support continues, will policy makers still be able to find the solutions that have eluded them – especially as the events of July risk skewing priorities?

'We had a very detailed set of strategies and work laid out before the bombings,' says Lee Jasper. 'We'll look at what it is that we're seeking to achieve on behalf of deprived economic groups and the wider community – be that attacking the massive and unsustainable unemployment rates among the capital's Muslim community, or to increase political representation across under-represented groups – and try to build long-term sustainability.'

London's focus is on overcoming supply-side issues. It is currently undertaking its largest number of construction projects since the 1950s, fuelled by the successful 2012 Olympic bid. The mayoral team hope this will help Livingstone confront the social and economic problems that Jasper has identified: skills and educational underdevelopment, training and diversity issues.

Through a programme called Diversity Works, they have drawn on the experience of the 1996 Olympic's host city, Atlanta. There, a scheme focused on black and ethnic minority firms increased the proportion of contracts awarded to them from 11% to 38% in eight years.

'We see something similar as a key method of bringing black and Asian businesses actively into the realm of economic regeneration, engaging them further in their community,' Jasper says.

For example, London has targets for black and ethnic minority businesses at borough level, along with diversity targets for local employers, such as the Metropolitan Police Service and Transport for London. Nationally, such targets form a key part of the LGA's cohesion guidance, which is due to be overhauled in November.

Beecham also stresses the importance of improved political representation for groups such as Britain's Muslim community. 'If we're talking about reasons for the “disengagement” of some communities with the political or democratic process – which we have heard cited regularly since the London bombings – then I'm part of the problem: the white, middle-aged, middle-class councillor,' he says. 'There's a need for people like me, but government and local government has to branch out and engage and physically represent our communities.'

But while practitioners agree that solutions must be created at a local level, some believe they don't just have to emerge from within existing borough boundaries. Jasper says: 'Operating some cohesion policies on a borough-by-borough basis has, we believe, led to silo working by local authorities, often confusing funding streams and it can also defeat people's will to get things done.'

The Home Office and the ODPM have funded experiments with a sub-regional approach. The West London Alliance combined London boroughs' resources and expertise to deliver improvements in housing conditions for asylum seekers.

But whatever the problems with the cohesion policy, as Ouseley says: 'It has taken us 50 years to get to where we are right now, so the problems are not going to go away in two or three years.'

But he says that policy makers need to listen to communities to prevent them from misinterpreting the events of July. 'Most of all, public bodies need to engage with people. Often they put a lot of effort into getting the bureaucracy right, having a code of practice in place, guidance notes, race relations advisers and such – but that won't necessarily translate into day-to-day interaction that will engage communities.'