Individual councils cannot act alone as the front line against local extremism, writes the LSE’s Tony Travers
Concern about the radicalisation of British citizens has returned to the news as Islamic State (ISIS) has extended its grip on sections of Iraq and Syria. The UK government, under pressure to step up its response, has decided its approach should for the time being involve no troops on the ground.
On the other hand, the home secretary has come up with a number of proposals, which include: ‘asbos for terrorists’, banning organisations that promote extremism and, possibly, the placing of a legal obligation on councils and other state-funded organisations to combat extremists. Other MPs and the mayor of London have called for more radical options.
The government published a counter-terrorism policy, entitled Contest, in 2006. A related strategy, called Prevent, which was subsequently modified by the coalition, gives local authorities a responsibility to work with local partners to plan, implement, and review schemes designed to counter radicalisation and prevent violent extremism. But this must be done achieving ‘value for money’.
In a 2011 document, which retained the previous government’s name, Contest, the coalition outlined its approach. “Whilst counter-terrorism remains a national priority for government… the devolution of power and responsibility from central government departments, will shape how some aspects of Contest will be delivered in the future… the abolition of regional tiers of government will mean that this now takes place at a more local level,” it said.
The Centre for Public Scrutiny published a helpful summary of policy during 2013. Late last year, in accepting the report of a taskforce set up after the killing of Lee Rigby, Theresa May said that she would, among other things: be “taking steps to ensure local authorities are supporting people on the front line of tackling extremism, and intervening where they are not taking the problem seriously”.
Given the complexity of countering terrorism and the many government departments and local bodies involved, it is not easy to see how far individual councils can act alone as the front line against local radicalisation.
The government will need to make very clear to local authorities what they are supposed to be doing and how. There is a role for localism here, but it surely needs substantial help from central agencies.
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics