Local government was thrust to the fore of Britain’s terrorism prevention drive in the wake of the 2005 London bombings but the role has not always been one that councils have been comfortable with.
Under the Prevent programme, councils were given responsibility for building communities that were less susceptible to extremist ideologies after the government acknowledged Whitehall was too distant to identify local leaders who could help achieve this.
The programme set out to specifically identify and support vulnerable individuals, helping communities to reject ideas that inspire terrorism.
However, many officers and councillors, as well as community activists, feared Muslims were being singled out with the risk that local populations would be stigmatised.
Little wonder then that many councils serving areas deemed by the Home Office to be at risk of extremism refused to select a national indicator to “build resilience” to violent extremism (6 March 2008 - Fears over extremism role).
But progress has been made - about 1,000 projects are now up and running nationwide. Changes in the government’s emphasis and a growing awareness among the Muslim community that extremism has to be tackled have led to a sense of common purpose.
The Connecting Communities programme will reach well over 100 communities where we are trying to undercut the roots of that extremism too
John Denham, Communities secretary
Communities secretary John Denham told a communities and local government select committee hearing last month that he and the home secretary had written to councils urging them to drop the label “preventing violent extremism” because it was seen as antagonistic.
Mr Denham has stressed the Prevent programme should be “owned” by Muslim communities and not be seen as being imposed on them. And he has broadened the focus of councils’ work to targeting people susceptible to white racist extremism, giving £20m to mainly white working-class communities.
“We have developed an organisational focus on other forms of extremism, particularly the dangers of white racist extremism.
“The Connecting Communities programme will reach well over 100 communities where we are trying to undercut the roots of that extremism too,” he told MPs.
Anna Turley, the deputy director of the New Local Government Network who wrote a report on Prevent last year, says: “They are trying to support not just areas with high proportions of Muslims but areas with threats from the BNP. There’s been a big shift of emphasis.”
Mehboob Khan (Lab), leader of Kirklees Council and one of Britain’s most senior Muslim councillors, credits Mr Denham and his junior minister Shahid Malik with spreading a message across government that Muslim communities should not be singled out.
He says that now the Prevent programme has bedded in, some councils have built strong relationships with Muslim communities, offering opportunities for their members to speak directly to officers and councillors.
However, Cllr Khan fears the programme may fall victim to the cross-government austerity drive, just as it is bearing fruit.
“If there is a cut in local government funding then programmes such as Prevent won’t receive the same priority as adult social care and housing is likely to be affected.”
In practice: Tower Hamlets LBC
The east London council, with a 36% Muslim population, has been allocated £1.3m over three years to tackle extremism and prevent radicalisation.
It has launched a training initiative for vulnerable young people and has piloted the Faith in the City project to develop community champions against extremism and the Muslim Media project to tackle negative perceptions of Islam in the press.
It has also set up a Muslim debating society, encouraging young people to articulate their views to policymakers, schools conferences targeting “playground radicalisation” and a Muslim Youth Council.
Michael Keating, Tower Hamlets service head for scrutiny and equalities, says the council is focusing on local organisations.
“We need to get the ownership of the community to take these projects forward,” he says.
“Tower Hamlets is somewhere where there’s real anxiety around Prevent, and fears it is about spying or Islamophobia. But there is a recognition we need to engage with it.”
Mr Keating admits it is hard to measure the outcomes of projects. “Given that Prevent is a new area of council work, it’s right to say that at this stage we aren’t 100% sure what success looks like locally.”