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FEATURES - MAKING SOCIETY GEL

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Against the backdrop of facing up to today's challenges of stopping terrorism and dealing with the issues arising f...
Against the backdrop of facing up to today's challenges of stopping terrorism and dealing with the issues arising from immigration, Richard Vize chairs a debate on community cohesion - what it means and how it can be achieved

Richard Vize, editor, LGC: Could you describe, Ruth, what you're looking for with community cohesion. What do you understand by the term, what are we trying

to achieve?

Ruth Kelly, communities and local

government secretary: Community cohesion is a really simple idea. It's just about a community where people get along together, where there aren't tensions and frictions, where people in different groups or from different backgrounds and cultures understand each other. They don't feel they're in competition with each other but they're working towards common ends and shared goals. Where they feel part of something which is bigger than themselves. It's really a community, a society, at ease with itself.

Rodney Green, chief executive, Leicester City Council: I'm sure that's right and I think the way that you generally approach this topic, Ruth, is really positive because what you've just described is something that's an asset to society.

There are hard edges to it, though. A cohesive unit is one that can tolerate irreconcilable differences. There are irreconcilable differences between faith communities.

And there's a pretty strong economic dimension. I may feel I'm disadvantaged but I've got to feel I can get back on the track - that there's access to learning and schools, education, and there isn't prejudice.

Gareth Daniel, chief executive, Brent LBC: My experience of local government is based on west London and is conditioned by the fact that London has got a relatively buoyant economy. So I do think there is an economic dimension to all of this. I think the competition over resources and employment and jobs and all the rest of it is quite a powerful factor. And I think it's been one of the things that's helped to facilitate immigration in west London.

I think it's about people getting along pretty well together, getting on with their lives, not making a big deal about it. That doesn't mean that everybody's meeting up socially with everybody else from all the other different communities. There's old guys from the Caribbean who play dominoes in Harlesden. You will not see a white face in a dominoes club in Harlesden. But I don't see that as a problem and nor do they.

Richard Vize: Ruth, what are the respective roles of local and national government? How do you work together to achieve cohesive communities across the country?

Ruth Kelly: There are certain things that can only be done by central government, and people need to understand there are rules of the game that are fair. And they're fair to people no matter what their backgrounds or histories or cultures. For example, rules on immigration. Those are set by government. They need to be transparent and understood by everyone as fair.

There are other national policy issues which could contribute or conversely not contribute to community cohesion if we don't get them right. It's very important that we do, in all sorts of areas. In fact there's hardly anything that government does which doesn't in one way or another contribute to building cohesive communities. Just think in this department - planning, housing, regeneration - those are all areas which are clearly important and it's right central government thinks in those terms as well as more generally about the role of community cohesion. In this department I've asked our teams to think about how they contribute to community cohesion

objectives. Having said that, it's almost impossible for Whitehall to create the conditions locally that will engender a really cohesive community. There are things that can only be done locally. We have to help

local authorities foster those conditions.

Rodney Green: Communities have to consent to all of this and so encouraging local communities to be self-governing to me is about devolving government's role, not for it to be a top-down motive from people who haven't experienced the trauma and the transitions some of our communities have.

Can I just challenge a little more around this setting of the immigration levels which, as you say, is clearly a government role. And just ask the question whether there should be a stronger link between the level of immigration allowed and the direct government policies that should follow from that.

I'll just give you two or three examples of gaps that I'm suggesting in government policy. Number one, there is no formula for dealing with massive surges of migration. If a flood comes into my city, there is a Bellwin Scheme that will enable me to get some kind of funding to help me deal with the catastrophe. If 10,000 immigrants arrive in my city there is no funding formula for that.

Second, if there are major surges of migration, there is no mechanism by which we can set up a centre that is assessment, cohesion, support, to help people.

And perhaps a third issue is to do with the fact that many in our community feel that foreign policy in England is developed very much in a London-centric way. Whereas the expertise around Kashmir or Iran or Iraq or whatever is actually dispersed in many different communities here. So the question really I'm asking is, could there be a more direct link between government saying 'right, this is the level that we think migration can be tolerated in Britain' and give us a raft of policies that would .

Ruth Kelly: You've wrapped up

a number of issues in there, in that challenge. So to take the first one, which is about how we determine immigration policy. Quite simply, immigration has been an incredibly powerful net contributor to Britain's economy. And we draw strength from our diversity and welcome the contribution new groups make.

Now, there is an issue about how different places deal with sudden changes. And it's well understood, I hope, the government is looking at this very carefully at the moment and the Office for National Statistics are thinking about how they measure population statistics and so forth. There is a huge amount of good practice out there and quite sudden changes can be handled incredibly effectively by local communities and local authorities when they think through what their challenges are, what their responses are going to be and when they try and create a situation in which people do

understand each other.

The second is how do we welcome and integrate and make sure that immigrants know what their rights but also what their responsibilities are. And again that's something the Commission on Integration & Cohesion has been talking to people about.

Now the third challenge was?

Rodney Green: The third challenge was the irritation I sense in the community around foreign policy and the reluctance to talk about it, and to say 'community cohesion is about this and we don't want to get involved in a contentious debate about foreign policy' when sitting in the room there is a whole network of expertise about the nuances in foreign affairs which they would like to contribute to.

Ruth Kelly: It's really important local communities have a place where they can talk through issues. And they get the opportunity to air their grievances as well as contribute to the debate.

Gareth Daniel: I think my experience seems more mundane in a way. I think what people are looking for is access to resources and access to influence over decisions that impact on their lives. That's one area where the neighbourhood agenda has real importance.

I think there is a backcloth around foreign policy and immigration - but actually London has been a very successful example of a cosmopolitan city that absorbs immigration. That's been the history of London over hundreds of years, it's not just a recent phenomenon.

Ruth Kelly: We're talking about creating the conditions in which people feel they can contribute to a common goal, common good of their local town or place.

But just on the point about extremism, because I know that this is our most incredibly challenging agenda. It's come upon us over the last few years and I think government itself is just beginning to understand the complex nature of that challenge.

One of the things that has most struck me in this debate is you can have an apparently cohesive community where people are all the measures that you might look for - get along well, they may be fairly prosperous - and yet find there are young people who are particularly susceptible to a form of violent extremism.

So while you might, for all the reasons that we're talking about, concentrate on promoting community cohesion, it would not be sufficient in order to deal with this particular threat from Islamist extremism. And we need to tackle both. And some of the measures we might need to win hearts and minds in the Muslim community might be exactly the same measures to promote community cohesion. We also have to think about how we build the capacity of the Muslim community to meet these challenges.

We can't accept the characterisation of those who try to draw a wedge between Muslims and the rest. We have to draw the line between those who hold those common and shared values, which you so rightly portray, and the tiny extremist element which is a very significant threat.

Rodney Green: How do you do that, Ruth, in circumstances where I may feel tarnished merely by you discussing something that you call extremism and then in the next sentence you're talking about the Muslim community?

Ruth Kelly: One of the things that's absolutely basic in politics, and in civic leadership, is you have to be honest. And people respect you for being honest. We have to be honest with the Muslim community about the specific and particular challenge that is being faced at the moment.

Rodney Green: My answer to the question would be to try and make a clearer distinction between terror and extremism. Extremism to me is a reasonably healthy part of society.

Richard Vize: Has local government got the sophistication of touch to meet these challenges?

In my talks around the country with councillors and officers, there's been an astonishing range of ability in terms of intellect, understanding of the issues, understanding of local communities and trying to see a way through the complexity of it.

Rodney Green: Nobody else can do this. Local government is the only one that has got the political legitimacy, that understands the community, that isn't going to walk away from the community, that can integrate different levels in.

And what's missing isn't the capacity to do it but sometimes the will to have a real strategy around community cohesion that focuses on developing local leadership within the communities that are vulnerable, that focuses on children and young people.

And let's be clear, the average age of an Al Qaeda recruit is male and 25. We need to understand that age group is particularly vulnerable and we need to have strategies for dealing with that.

Richard Vize: To round up, what crucial things do local authorities need to be doing to develop cohesive communities?

Gareth Daniel: Community leadership and mainstreaming service delivery,

I think. The politicians particularly, but also the officer core, have a role in setting a framework, creating a local small 'p' political environment in which people understand community cohesion is a legitimate aim and needs to prioritised and resourced.

But I also think it's about recognising that we need to avoid simplistic stereotypes. There's a real danger in all of this discussion that we talk about Muslim communities, for example, as a homogeneous grouping.

It certainly isn't in Brent and I don't believe it is anywhere else.

Rodney Green: First of all, know your communities. A local authority that really cares about its community spends time trying to understand its differences to

understand what its needsare.

Secondly I'd want to see representative leadership - councillors and officers.

Ruth Kelly: From this discussion it's clear every area ought to think more about the challenges in their local area and mainstream community cohesion.

Secondly, to build up a sense of shared values in that community.

The third issue is to understand and know your communities and identify the future leaders in those communities, nurture them and give them the opportunity to contribute and to develop, not only themselves, but also to bring others with them.

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