Cohesion officers are battling to close the economic and social gaps that open up between communities competing over public services and funding. But tensions continue to flare. One officer reports local difficulties between Asian and African Caribbean communities. 'It is an on-the-ground issue and not related to government policy,' explains one. 'It has been simmering away for some time. The tensions are there because of the differences in position that these communities hold, both economically and socially. The Africans are still suffering from huge unemployment while the Asians are continuing to move ahead.'
Some councils are drafting cohesion plans for each individual community to see if there are common challenges that can help bring them together.
Meanwhile, officers complain that government policy is too narrowly focused on promoting cohesion between Muslim and other communities. And ministers' approach is, unfortunately, reactive rather than seeking to prevent tensions arising in the first place. 'The Muslim communities need to be given space,' says one. 'There is an internal community cohesion issue [within Muslim communities] as there are tensions between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as well as tensions between Muslims and the rest of society.'
Government officials have been busy getting out and about to meet Muslim leaders. Now cohesion officers want the officials to help them set up pilot projects to take forward the local government white paper's recommendations on better engagement. But they warn that government should only help get these projects off the ground locally and resist trying to interfere in the running of them.
Strength in partnership
The local government white paper painted a rosy picture of councils' prospects to strengthen devolution through local partnerships. The intentions are there but councils are concerned that the government might fail to use the partnerships as an opportunity for making communities more cohesive.
'I hope the promises in the white paper come to fruition and that our local area agreement has targets that reflect neighbourhoods' priorities in terms of community cohesion rather than centrally prescribed targets,' groans one. Another officer says he wishes government would align the work of Job Centres more closely with the priorities for getting disadvantaged groups back into employment. He explains: 'At the moment it is a struggle to access their data and we need the deprived area fund to align with the priority areas chosen by our local strategic partnership.'
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