If a week is a long time in politics then the events of summer 2001 will seem like ancient history to some. Even so, the rioting and public disturbances, most widely reported in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, alerted us to the real problems of divided communities in some areas of Britain. The fact that last summer passed without incident should not fool us into believing that those problems have been dealt with or that it was all a storm in a teacup. Far from it, we still have much to learn and much to do in tackling tensions and conflicts between and within communities and in building a more integrated and cohesive society.
The tensions and anxieties that exist within and between different communities are undoubtedly heightened at times such as this, with war in the Middle East and the threat of terrorist activity closer to home. Combined with other global conflicts which impact on community tensions in Britain - Kashmir, Palestine and Gujerat spring to mind - there are many different global issues which have the potential to spark conflict and confrontation within a multi-cultural society such as ours. The forthcoming local elections and the likely increase in the numbers of far right candidates standing in those elections (LGC, 28 March) serves to remind us that there
within our society for their own political ends.
It is local government's role, as the key democratically accountable community leader at local level, to work across communities to facilitate conflict resolution and to help to build community cohesion where it is lacking and to maintain it where it exists. The 'Guidance on Community Cohesion', launched at Local Government House in December, sets out the basis on which authorities, working with relevant partners, should be establishing and mainstreaming work aimed at bu ilding community cohesion. The guidance also offers advice on initiatives that might assist in bringing communities together, breaking down barriers and building community relations.
It is important in the short term, and particularly in the current climate, for councils to be putting in place contingency plans that allow for a rapid response to a terrorist attack, an incident of public disorder or any other event that may trigger or exacerbate community conflict. For this reason I invited council leaders and chief executives to Local Government House last week to share experiences and to hear from a range of key speakers their views on who we should be engaging with at local level, how we should be doing so and what we can do to reassure communities that may feel excluded or under threat.
At that meeting the Home Office minister, Lord Filkin, said: 'It is crucial all local council leaders and chief executives make sure that they have in place strong communications networks with communities and contingency plans to deal with any incident that may arise that requires an instant response to alleviate and avoid conflicts between communities'.
I urge councils to ensure that these networks are, as far as possible, all inclusive of the diversity of your local community and that they involve your public sector partners who will be crucial to developing co-ordinated responses to incidents.
You should also seek to engage local media in the development of such plans, as local press in particular can play a key role in shaping public opinion and understanding of events in their area. The power of the press in directing or informing public opinion can be both a positive or a negative force where community cohesion is concerned but it is a power that local government should not ignore.
Whatever our political opinions or our views on world conflicts, our priorities as local government leaders must focus on the social well-being of our local communities. We can do little to alter events elsewhere in the world but we can do much to affect their impact on the well-being of our communities here in Britain. I urge my colleagues in councils up and down the country to ensure that your authority is being ever vigilant in monitoring the tensions within and across communities and in taking action to alleviate these and to bring increasingly diverse communities together to break down barriers, to address conflicts and to highlight the common values of our humanity.
n 'Guidance on Community Cohesion' can be downloaded from www.lga.gov.uk and from the dedicated government website www.communitycohesion.gov.uk
Sir Jeremy Beecham