It’s one of the most challenging conversations that you can ever have in local government: a senior police colleague advises you of the disappearance of a young man to Syria who becomes a suicide bomber.
Working in east London at the time, my phone rang at 6.45am on 10 August 2006 and the Borough Commander told me to put on the television. The airline bomb plot was unravelling. Half of those arrested were local residents.
My awareness of the risks of violent extremism has never dissipated since.
I’m now working in Calderdale, and the focus is back on the risks of extremism and the role of local agencies in tackling it. This comes as earlier this month we marked the 10th anniversary of 7/7, and as preventing extremism became a statutory duty for local government and partners. This is an immense challenge in a time of fiscal restraint, and all part of a Prevent agenda that has become associated with stigmatisation of young Muslims.
There is debate about the Prevent agenda, and its tendency to reduce a disparate range of risk factors and grievances to a problem of ideology. In local government we have a role to address the push and pull factors towards extremism.
The previously established notions of pathways to extremism are fast becoming redundant. A 17-year-old boy who is doing well at school, with a stable set of friends and supportive family, can also be living an online life that is real to him and he could set everything aside to fight for Isis. What does tackling this extremism look like?
There are three key elements to an effective response.
First, build a robust risk assessment. The current counterterrorism local profiles have little information of value to local agencies. The risk assessment must be a locally developed document representing the voices of those who live and work in the place.
Second, develop a clear plan setting out how to do a few things well. In Calderdale, we have developed a resource pack for schools to encourage debate, enable challenging conversations about the pull factors towards extremism, and enhancing understanding between different cultures.
Finally, local government must undertake proactive engagement with different communities to help foster greater resilience. We have commissioned work to support parents to identify the risks of online grooming of young people into extremism, and to become ambassadors within their networks to ask the ‘unaskable’.
We are still learning how local government can help to counter extremism, but there are possibilities we must seize. If central government and security services empower us beyond the rhetoric, we might be able to show the impact of our local relationships.
Robin Tuddenham, director of communities and service support, Calderdale MBC