News and Comment

Decoding the new integration strategy

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Now that the government’s new strategy for achieving community integration is finally here, what can local authorities and partners do to put its broad principles into practice?

About two months ago I was talking to a civil servant involved in drafting the long-awaited Integration Strategy – the government’s position paper on how we will build a more integrated and cohesive society. I asked her about what the paper would cover, and she immediately told me not to expect a grand launch or a detailed ‘road map’ setting out exactly what local authorities and their partners need to do to create a more integrated society. It will be more of a ‘vision statement’ than a traditional white or green paper, she said, and wouldn’t be loaded with detailed policies, funded initiatives, or appendices setting out implementation timescales.

And so it transpires. The new strategy Creating the Conditions for Integration is only 23 pages long, and fairly light on detail – not a surprise for anyone who has read any recent polices from the strategy’s parent department, DCLG. Why write thousands of words, when only a few will do seems to be the guiding principle.

The policy is shaped around five main themes – common ground, responsibility, social mobility, participation and empowerment, and tackling intolerance and extremism; a simple diagram is presented in the document that denotes how all of these collectively contribute to integration. The idea is that each local area should work out what’s best in terms of putting these high level principles into practice, but where does one begin?

In some ways the lack of detail is helpful. Past policies on cohesion and equalities have tended to present this agenda in terms of multifarious and complex interlocking and disparate components – which felt rather like trying to piece together a vast jigsaw piece. Not only did planners need to get their heads around what it all meant for those of different faiths, races, sexual orientations, ages, disabilities and genders, they also had to piece together how to engineer a delivery strategy, drawing upon a pick and mix of different policies, initiatives, targets, local area agreements, partnerships and funding mechanisms.

This is not to say that integration or cohesion are simple problems that can be easily solved – they are not, but at times when resources are slight and capacity is low, it is sometimes helpful for policy officers and planners to work towards something that is simple and clear.

The trouble is that practitioners – be they local authority officers or community workers – are left with little to work with but their imagination and common sense build on past experience. This is actually the intention – to create the freedom in which local ideas and innovation can sprout forth in times of need and the retreat of government. But where to begin?

What should local authorities and their partners do?

For a start, whatever ideas come forth needs to be influenced, if not determined, by local people. It’s local people who will know if there are growing tensions, problems with extremists in their neighbourhood, or people increasingly living parallel lives – they live this as part of their daily experience. Local conversations, resident-led action research, and co-production of ideas and solutions (e.g. through collaborations between local authorities and voluntary sector and faith leaders) are the tools that help in this regard.

Secondly, local practitioners need to look at what others are doing where they face similar challenges. For instance, the paper talks about the excellent work of Luton Council in challenging the threat posed by the English Defence League – but there are many such examples. One programme OPM has been fortunate to evaluate called Sacred Spaces, for example, has successfully brought together young Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindis around arts base projects with tangible success.

Thirdly, local practitioners should seek to hand over the reigns of delivering integration projects to local people. As well as knowing where the real problems lie, local people are likely to have a good sense as to what the solutions are. They will of course need the leadership and support of statutory partners, but not for ever, and not necessarily at huge cost. At OPM some of these ideas have been articulated in our latest publication Unlocking Local Capacity, which explores how local authorities can tap into the energy, ideas and ‘natural resources’ of their local people and places. Once such example is the Taking Part Programme, implemented in Camden, which enlists mixed communities in disadvantaged communities to identify shared projects that they want to work on, and gives them the support to set up projects.

Finally, local authorities should seek to benefit as much as possible from the few funded projects and initiatives that seek to build more prosperous and integrated communities. The National Citizen Service (NCS) – which OPM are evaluating – will be expanded over the next few years, offering places to more 16 year olds across England. This programme, which seeks to empower young people to take part in social action, has the potential to expand the contribution of young people to community integration. The new Community Organisers programme is another such opportunity.

Creating the Conditions is not a tome, and for many who expected all the answers about the future of policy on cohesion, it may come as a bit of a let-down. But at least there is a statement of intent, and some broad themes to work towards. Local authorities and partners can fill in the rest – it’s there job after all, and in some ways, this absence of diktat should feel empowering.