Local government leaderships are familiar with difficult balancing acts. Diminishing resources have to be divided between competing services, all of whose claims have merit, and compromise must be reached to meet local priorities when Whitehall forever insists its rules must be followed.
However, finding the right balance in doing the utmost to prevent violent extremism but at the same time allowing freedom of thought and ensuring community cohesion presents some of the gravest dilemmas with which public officials have to grapple. It is no exaggeration to say lives, liberty and community are at stake.
It was to help chart a national path through such dilemmas that the prime minister on Monday launched the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy. It seeks to counter extremist ideology, support mainstream voices in faith communities, disrupt extremists and build cohesive communities. While these are laudable objectives, there are very real practical difficulties in ensuring – for instance – that radical preachers are identified and tackled without making the Muslim community feel scapegoated and damaging community cohesion.
The strategy says councils have “a powerful role to play in combating extremism” but warns that some have “failed to confront extremism as fully as they should have done”. Overall, it says little of the barriers councils face trying to make a success of their duty to preventing extremism.
LGC this week reveals a growing viewpoint in local government that the conduct of central bodies hampers their ability to fulfil this role. Robin Tuddenham, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers’ spokesman on Prevent, said there was a “real worry” that central agencies were not sharing information. LGC has heard a number of chief executives privately complain police and security services expect one-way information traffic from local government. And such restrictions are placed on the use of any information that it becomes very difficult to make it useful for those on the frontline – the people best placed to pull back troubled youngsters from the brink or support families in difficulties. It is also the case that successive governments’ defenestration of councils from local education and the rise of faith, academy and free schools leads to a culture in which individual schools are harder to monitor, more divided along religious or ethnic lines and less likely to foster a sense of cross-community togetherness.
In the same way that ministers have rightly realised that partnership with councils is the best means of driving growth, there needs to be acknowledgement of the fact that councils are the bodies best placed to tackle extremism and build cohesive communities. Local government needs more trust from the centre and leverage in education to make a success of this vitally important role.