A comprehensive approach pairs the government’s Prevent strategy with local partnerships
- Project: Building Stronger Communities
- Objectives: Promote and enable equality and cohesion; Develop civic pride and identity based on shared Luton values; Counter prejudice, hatred and extremism in all its forms; Strengthen community resilience; Safeguard communities and vulnerable individual
- Timescale: 2018-23
- Cost to authority: Staffing costs and government grants
- Number of staff working on project: 10-12 core staff
- Outcomes: A stronger, safer, cohesive and resilient community
- Officer contact details: Nicola Monk
Luton is a diverse town where more than 130 languages and dialects are spoken, 55% of the population are of non-white British origin, and significant Asian, African, Caribbean, Irish and Eastern European communities live.
In our last perceptions survey, 84% of residents said they felt Luton was a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This cultural mix makes Luton a fantastic and exciting place to live, work and visit.
However, the town’s vibrancy brings challenges such as integration and cohesion. Factors like the 30-50% churn in population in the last seven years, the housing crisis related to our high population density, and the quarter of households living in poverty mean Luton has a lot of potentially vulnerable people.
Unfair, sensationalist and disproportionate headlines haven’t helped, but we’ve never hidden away from the challenge Luton faces in tackling extremism. We have been a national priority area for Prevent and counter-extremist policies for several years.
From IRA activity during the 1980s to modern day extremist groups such as Al-Muhajiroun and the English Defence League, which was founded in Luton by former leader Tommy Robinson, Luton has a long, complex relationship with extremism.
Lately we’ve also had unwelcome visits from groups such as Britain First. But Bedfordshire Police, working with the council and community partners, successfully obtained a court injunction preventing this far-right group from demonstrating in our town centre, and banning them from all mosques in England and Wales.
But obtaining court orders is only part of a solution. Our efforts spread much wider.
Among the key strategies to safeguarding Luton against extremism is our use of the Prevent programme.
Prevent is a key part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, updated recently in response to the evolving threat from terrorism in the UK and abroad. Luton is a pioneer in this area: the Home Office telling us our Prevent programme is “one of the best in the country, consistently outstanding and recognised internationally as an exemplar of good practice”.
Fundamentally it is about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals against the threat of being drawn into terrorism. In Luton we’ve ensured it is part of the council leader’s portfolio and have set up a dedicated cross-party Prevent member group.
The work we do with our statutory and community partners safeguards those vulnerable to radicalisation in a similar way to safeguarding processes designed to protect people from gangs, drug abuse, and physical and sexual abuse.
The council organises a series of Luton in Harmony events
With widespread misrepresentations and inaccuracies about Prevent and the Channel referral process, our community engagement work is essential in dispelling myths. Likewise, there is some fantastic grassroots work being done in Luton to protect vulnerable people from radicalisation.
Among the organisations Luton BC works with is Luton Tigers, which works with children to build their resilience to the threat of extremism. From sports classes to school workshops, it empowers children of all backgrounds to find their own voice and address identity and belonging – key vulnerabilities extremists exploit.
It also raises awareness of extremist ideology, providing powerful counter arguments. Its campaigns and videos aim to show why differences need not divide a community, and the importance of a shared Lutonian identity.
Another partnership project is the Luton Mothers Circle. Sustained and overseen by influential local female activists, the programme plays a vital role in preventing extremism by bringing mothers together in a safe space to lead by example in combatting intolerance and hate. The women gain confidence to effectively protect their children from violent, extremist ideologies, touted by online recruiters and within their communities.
Kikit Pathways, another Prevent project, likewise raises awareness of radicalisation and supports people who may be vulnerable to it. There are also other projects delivered in schools by our partners to build children’s resilience against radicalising factors.
As evinced by our range of partners, we no longer deliver our Prevent programme in isolation.
Civic pride, community cohesion, and counterextremism are vital areas of focus, but programmes were too often delivered in isolation and by different services. We now take a more strategic view, placing them under the banner of building ‘stronger communities’, a key strategic objective within our corporate plan and investment framework.
The arrow diagram summarises our flexible strategy, highlighting how our objectives and approach can adapt when necessary depending on the associated risk and vulnerabilities.
Increasingly targeted intervention work mentioned above is visualised near its tip. The left of the arrow represents our daily work around cohesion and civic pride across the community, which comprises several programmes.
Luton in Harmony, for instance, is a community-fronted campaign which celebrates the town’s diversity and brings communities closer together. Tens of thousands of residents have supported the campaign by signing a pledge to promote peace and harmony, and committing to learn more about people from different backgrounds. The campaign publicly challenges all forms of hatred and extremism, proactively and reactively.
We organise events each year such as the annual This is Luton festival, which celebrates different cultures through music, dance and food. Luton in Harmony is also showcased every year through the Luton International Carnival, the UK’s largest one-day carnival, which has representation from almost all Luton communities.
A partnership with Luton Town FC and Football for Peace culminated in a tournament for young ambassadors
Other Luton in Harmony supported events include a recent women’s conference, which showed what women from different backgrounds have in common and aimed to make local women feel positive, confident and empowered. The Big Iftar, another event, was a large gathering open to all communities to learn about the Muslim faith.
In other developments, we have partnered with Luton Town FC’s Community Trust, and the global charity Football for Peace through the Building a Stronger Britain Together programme, to deliver a project supporting young people to work together within communities to create greater mutual understanding and respect, while developing personal skills in the process.
While learning sports leadership skills, young ambassadors from across the town attended a variety of workshops looking at issues such as equality, diversity, prejudice, hate crime and extremism.
The programme culminated with a Football for Peace tournament organised by the young ambassadors, where pupils from various schools were shuffled into different teams to learn to relate to people from other backgrounds and cultures.
What makes Luton different to other areas is that our risks and threats are complex and enduring. We understand the dynamic nature of our communities, and work with them along the risk continuum to build resilience and support.
While individual projects have considerable value, it’s how the whole system works together to build leadership, partnerships, shared values and honest communications which is so captivating.
It’s important that local government, academia and non-governmental organisations work together to share good practice and innovate in this area. Luton is now co-chairing with Leeds City Council the national Special Interest Group on Countering Extremism, and would encourage likeminded authorities to join the programme of research, seminars and training.
But our reach goes beyond the UK, and we are now being asked to present our work in the US and Europe. At a recent conference of Swedish municipalities, a colleague said that he was ‘energised’ by Luton’s approach and had shared our stronger communities model with partners in Colombia – high praise indeed!
Nicola Monk, service director for policy and engagement, Luton BC