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Martin Esom: Councils must invest in tackling the causes of extremism

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The people of Waltham Forest know the damage and pain that terrorism brings. Both victims and perpetrators have lived in the borough, and I have seen first-hand the devastating effect this has on our communities, not to mention the area’s identity.

After last year’s savage attacks in London and Manchester, David Anderson’s independent review on terrorism legislation showed that several of those who committed recent acts of terror had been on the security services’ radar. More recently, the government published in June the long awaited fourth edition of the Contest strategy, calling for multi-agency working to disrupt and reduce the terror threat.

The new strategy looks to boost the impact at a local level. In practice this means the security services will look to share the names of those identified or formerly under investigation with local authorities.

It is then proposed that local authorities, acting with their partners, assist in reducing the risk that may be posed by these individuals. This approach is currently being tested by multi-agency centre (MAC) pilot areas in East London, Manchester and the West Midlands.

I know that some authorities will find this challenging: we are not in the business of the intelligence services. We are, however, in the business of keeping our communities safe, and we often feel frustrated when information is withheld which might help us understand the risks.

As a chief executive of a local authority involved in developing and testing the MAC pilot, I believe we should see this openness as a positive step forward. True multi-agency working must be more than designing a process for the names of individuals to be passed from a highly protected space to local authorities.

There needs to be proper engagement, trust building and co-working by agencies that have had little or no contact in the past. The key to the success of this stage will be the ability and willingness to develop and share the richest picture possible of these individuals.

This will enable local authorities to understand best the local risk and potentially design the best intervention.

This requires trust and partnership. Developing partnerships is nothing new to local authorities, who have been doing this successfully for decades. In health, crime and transport we have well-developed relationships based on the utilisation of all our assets. We get things done together.

But this can only be achieved where there is shared purpose and understanding. The difference here is that, while we have a shared interest in the security of our communities, the security services and local government have no shared history or understanding of our respective structures, accountability and culture.

This has practical implications. From working with elected officials to sharing information we have a completely different rulebook, which may lead to misunderstandings and false starts.

We are in the early stages of the pilots and need to work through issues and learnings with the other pilot areas to make a model that can be rolled out nationally. Creating flexibility to meet the myriad local differences we have, while maintaining a coherent model, is a challenge – one which both parties, as well as government, need to understand.

The Contest strategy shows the direction of travel, and it’s clear that the government sees a bigger role for local authorities in tackling extremism and preventing terrorism in future.

The transfer of information should be relatively easy to resolve. The bigger challenge is what local authorities do with this information when it is received.

Clearly safeguarding risks will be responded to in our normal way, and dealt with proportionately to the risk. Our biggest challenge will be those cases where a new type of intervention or response is appropriate or expected.

While this will be picked up as part of the pilot, to have lasting impact we must all be willing to change, investing in tackling the causes and behaviours that lead to risk. And government must truly believe that durable solutions lie in local areas, delivered by local government and their communities.

Martin Esom, chief executive, Waltham Forest LBC

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