News and Comment

It’s time for community-led community cohesion

Friday 9 December 2011

There are signals emanating from Government that we will shortly see the long awaited strategy on community integration and cohesion. This is good news, as there was a creeping sense of despair amongst some working in this field that the Government was going to abandon the commitment to this strategy completely.

Initial reports are sketchy but there is talk of a new cross-government strategy that will concentrate on four main areas:

  • A new drive against ‘anti-Muslim hatred’ in Britain and a recognition that anti-semitism is also growing.
  • Events to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympic Games that bring together different communities.
  • An online integration forum, which includes a ‘barrier-busting site’ to remove bureaucratic barriers and encourage different community and faith groups to come together.
  • An initiative to establish common ground with Gypsy and Traveller communities.

How these aims are governed, managed, delivered and measured locally is not yet known. However, if previous policies arising from this Government are anything to go by, we should not expect a detailed blueprint prescribed from the centre on how each and every element of this agenda will be delivered locally. Certainly, it is very unlikely that significant funding will be attached to this strategy.

In recent months, some local authorities have come to an almost complete standstill on promoting cohesion and integration, distracted not just by more pressing concerns about how to find savings, but also by the lack of a clear policy plan to work

Some, on the other hand, have used the absence of a central policy programme as a good opportunity to test out new ways to build more integrated and cohesive local communities. Spurred on by growing concerns about the English Defence League, the riots, and rising youth unemployment, councils are using scare resources in often highly creative ways to foster greater interaction between local communities and promote values that are common to all.

OPM are currently supporting an innovative project in Camden Council called Taking Part. Drawing inspiration from the big society agenda, community development, and elements of community budgeting, the project aims to support residents in taking forward community-led projects which encourage people to engage with and get to know others in their local area to produce improvements in the area.

As part of this project, we are facilitating a series of workshops with residents in one of Camden’s most deprived wards. The aim is to identify a small number of practical projects that they could lead and manage for the benefit of the local area. Ideas that emerged from workshops include establishing a community café, setting up a skills-swap between young people and adults which could include a mixture of job visits, mentoring and classes and a community-led website which provides information on local life and a space for residents to talk about local issues in discussion forums.

In a departure from past approaches, all of the projects will be community led and delivered, with the Council merely providing support and advice when required. Project teams will form their own action planning groups, and when the idea comes to fruition, apply for small pots of funding through the Innovation and Development Fund.

It is early days for the Taking Part programme, but the early signs are that local people are keen to get involved, and stay involved. Could this approach point to a better way of delivering cohesion in times of austerity? For more information on the project, please contact my colleague Tim Vanson.