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CAROL GRANT - PIECING THINGS TOGETHER

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I'm just back from house-sitting for a friend in a village in southern Spain. This was a fascinating place where th...
I'm just back from house-sitting for a friend in a village in southern Spain. This was a fascinating place where the site of the civil war mass grave could be found behind the municipal rubbish tip and the local drug dealer could be seen dispensing her wares in the square under the sleepy eyes of the local policeman.

Spain in August yields a feast of culture, most of it subsidised by local councils and the regional government. Many areas attract big names. In our small village, we got a Sunday evening performance by the Bromley Concert Band. A group of sweating, grey-haired English musicians set up in the main square and delivered passable versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Don't cry for me, Argentina to a group of bemused elderly Spanish villagers who sat on plastic chairs fanning themselves and talking noisily throughout. Meanwhile, contemptuous young people sped past on scooters, presumably in search of the displaced drug dealer.

When my friend returned we travelled down to the Costa del Sol. While there, I saw an advertisement for an Indian restaurant which promoted itself as the place to go for a 'Real English Curry'. I had to try this, and as I watched the Eastern European waiter walking past with a huge tray of curry and chips, it fuelled my worst prejudices about the English abroad. That's until I turned around to see it served up to a table of young British Asians.

It was therefore interesting to observe the launch of Ruth Kelly's new Commission on Integration & Cohesion from a distance. I dipped into the British media periodically and it came at the end of a month dominated by a strange brew of stories about whether the UK was about to be overrun with Romanians, airport security nightmares, and whether two Muslim students from Manchester should have been turfed off a flight from Malaga for talking in Arabic, wearing thick jumpers and looking at their watches too much.

The hysterical tone of the British media on race and immigration was in direct contrast to the more measured and humane coverage in the Spanish press about their own immigration challenge: the thousands of emigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who are staggering into the tiny EU gateway of the Canary Islands after braving long and treacherous sea journeys.

When responsibility for cohesion and integration was uncoupled from the Home Office and hitched on to the new Department for Communities & Local Government, it felt like just another random decision in a rushed reshuffle. But I can now see the merit in taking the policy responsibility out of a department that also has to deal with immigration and security issues.

Whether the commission can be more than yet another well meaning talking shop will be up to the chairman, Ealing chief executive Darra Singh. But the signs are good. Mr Singh has excellent credentials and most commission members have direct experience of the issues. At least half are either local authority members or officers working in the public sector, while the others have a strong track record in the voluntary sector.

Councils are well placed to take the local pulse and Mr Singh has already said that he wants to see a model of integration that can accommodate differences in local experience and can be 'as readily understood in rural Gloucestershire as it is in the Northern mill towns'. By linking it closely to issues around funding and allocation of services, regeneration and community leadership, there is more chance that we can have the reasoned, honest debate that Ms Kelly aspires to.

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