Today I was delighted to launch the long awaited Integration Strategy “Creating the Conditions” – the Coalition’s blueprint for improving community cohesion and developing neighbourhoods and communities across the country. Last summer’s riots gave a severe jolt to any thought that social alienation was a thing of the past. Couple that with the tide of marches and demonstrations by the far-right English Defence League and it is clear there are still enduring problems of cohesion and integration in communities up and down the land. If we fail to tackle those problems we not only face more flash points, we will also be leaving another generation in those neighbourhoods completely stuck: socially isolated and economically unproductive.
The Coalition is working towards a free, fair and responsible society. A free society as power is handed down through localism. A fair society because we are committed to improving social mobility and equality. A responsible society where people come together to build better places. That’s what the Integration Strategy and the series of projects I will be launching over the next few weeks will attempt to accomplish. That starts today with the launch of MAMA – Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks – a ground breaking national project providing support to victims and witnesses of anti-Muslim hate crime, recording incidents and highlighting the true scale and scope of anti-Muslim attacks across the UK.
Whilst Britain is a place where people from all walks of life can get on well with each other, it is not always the case that they do get on well with each other. Lib Dems have long acknowledged that the situation we face is complex, with one size never fitting all, and we must always recognise there are challenges, tensions and missed opportunities. But we do believe that a cohesive community is a community at ease with itself and accepting of the differences between its members. It is also one that recognises it shares common basic values which bond the community together. And a cohesive community will be a healthier and more prospering one too.
Step one is to recognise that each community is different, with different strengths and opportunities, and very different problems and barriers to face. Burnley is different to Brixton. Southwark isn’t the same as Southampton. And a three-generation white council estate isn’t the same as the newly-arrived Somalian enclave next door. Completely different again is the three-generation South Asian neighbourhood nearby. Obvious to everyone, of course, except policy makers.
Just as there are differences in the makeup of our communities around the country, there are differing economic experiences and resulting outcomes. There is clearly a relationship between poverty and economic opportunity of both migrants and the communities into which they have moved, and cohesion and integration. Low rates of poverty and unemployment in the community, as well as greater employment opportunities for migrants result in greater cohesion and integration. Where jobs are scarce, unemployment high, competition for housing and other resources fierce, then the resulting tensions tend to undermine cohesion and integration.
So we need to put that right. In Creating the Conditions, we have set out a new approach that will help local communities grow and develop according to their own need. We need to:
- Emphasise what we have in common, rather than what divides us
- Emphasise the responsibilities we have to each other and to society
- Enable people to realise their potential to get on in life
- Give people the opportunities to come together, play an active role, be heard and take decisions
- Ensure that threats – whether discrimination, extremism or disorder – are robustly challenged.
Whilst there is certainly a role for central government, and we will take action where necessary, we strongly recognise that we will not achieve an integrated society through a top-down, centrally designed and implemented approach designed in Whitehall. What we will do is encourage local areas to take the lead, giving them the power, knowledge and control that enables them to do so. But also, where appropriate, kick-starting action in partnership with communities and businesses that can rapidly become self-sustaining. And as I stated earlier, I will be bringing forward a diverse range of projects over the coming months including boosting English Language courses; tackling anti-Muslim Hate Crime, Anti-Semitic incidents and the EDL; as well as bringing together schools, youth groups and the faith communities to build bridges, boost capacity and improve cohesion in communities throughout Britain. Councils, schools and places of worship have crucial roles to play in delivering on this agenda, and I look forward to working alongside them over the coming weeks to set the wheels in motion.
* Andrew Stunell is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove, was a member of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct and is a former communities minister.