19 June 2008
It is time to turn community cohesion policy into action, but diversity is not solely a matter of race, nationality or religion – age, disability and income are factors too
A year on from the publication of the Commission for Integration and Cohesion's final report – and it's time to deliver. That is the conclusion of Darra Singh, the London Borough of Ealing chief executive who chaired the commission.
'We need now to stop talking, stop conferring and get on with the day job, which is delivering more resilient, more positive and more confident communities and building stronger interaction between those who are different,' Singh told a conference on community cohesion hosted by the Improvement and Development Agency last week. 'We know this terrain. It's all about acting locally and getting on with it.'
Singh's report, published on June 14 last year, set out a series of practical proposals for building cohesion and integration at the local level. Angela Mason, national adviser on equality and diversity at the IDA, hailed it as having made a 'real impact on [local government] thinking and practice'.
Central government responded with £50m in earmarked funding over the next three years and the promise of specialist cohesion teams to advise and support local authorities through the challenges they face. But it is local councils themselves that have the solutions, says cohesion minister Parmjit Dhanda.
'In government, one of the things that we have learnt is that cohesion is best driven locally,' he told delegates at the conference on June 12. 'It will be different in different areas; it will be different in Ealing to Gloucester. Our job is to support that work.'
Cohesion represents a huge challenge for local authorities. New waves of migrants – whether economic migrants from Eastern Europe or refugees from war zones and repressive regimes in the wider world – continue to arrive with the aim of making new lives for themselves in the UK. It falls to local authorities to ensure that relations between these new arrivals and more settled communities are harmonious and constructive.
In Lancashire, scene of some of the race-related riots that broke out in 2001, the cohesion agenda is fast-moving and the county council has responded with some innovative practice.
It has developed a series of workshops for councillors and staff, as well as a practical guide to ensure that cohesion opportunities occur across all aspects of the council's work.
Jane Abdulla, senior policy officer for equalities and cohesion in Lancashire, explains that the council wanted to create opportunities for interaction between different communities. For example, the environment directorate provided funding for a community group, with members from different racial backgrounds who have come together to develop a derelict piece of land. 'So it's not only promoted interaction between different groups of people, it's also improved the quality of the environment in that neighbourhood,' she tells Public Finance.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the community cohesion agenda is solely about promoting good relations between people of different races, faiths or nationalities. Divisions between people can be based on sexuality, disability, age and income.
It is really difficult to get the cohesion debate away from the issue of race and faith, says Rose Doran, community cohesion adviser at the IDA. The message the agency is trying to get across to councils is that while they might be dealing now with migration from new European Union member states, that might not be what is affecting their communities in five or ten years time, she tells PF.
'Some of the more rural two-tier areas have got this big issue with the majority of the local population over working age, and that really skews the local economy. Older people and EU-accession migrants are pretty much the main demographic. It creates all sorts of issues where you've got two very different communities that are not only from different backgrounds but are different ages as well.'
Abdulla agrees that cohesion issues take many different forms across the county. While on the eastern edge of Lancashire it is race that is the rubbing point, in other areas it is inter-generational issues or the exclusion faced by disabled people.
In preparation for Lancashire's second-generation Local Area Agreement, the council asked people what was important to them. 'What was interesting was that cohesion was a priority right across the county, both in areas with low black and minority ethnic populations and areas of high BME populations,' Abdulla says.
But the challenge could be exacerbated by the economic downturn. Nothing fuels divisions between communities like economic inequality – and figures suggest that in terms of personal wealth we are becoming less equal, not more so.
Government statistics published last week show that the numbers of children and pensioners living in poverty have risen for the second year running. Angela Mason told last week's conference that not only do we live in an ageing society and a more ethnically diverse one, but income inequality is widening and social mobility is declining. The credit crunch and looming recession would only exacerbate these problems, she said.
Singh agrees that deprivation can have a huge impact on cohesion, highlighting the ill feeling uncovered by the commission that could be sharpened by economic downturn.
'Where there are people thinking that other groups are freeloading, getting easier and better access to more public services, better housing, better education than settled communities, we're going to have to redouble our efforts in terms of engaging with people locally in order to explain the rationale behind our decisions,' he warned delegates.
'Otherwise it could be quite explosive.'