The Government has published its approach to achieving a more integrated society and enabling everyone to live and work successfully alongside each other.
It rejects a “Whitehall-dictated approach” of nationally defined programmes focussed on specific groups in favour of one that is strongly shaped by localism and the Big Society. It challenges communities, public services, the private sector and wider civic society to come together at local level for all to contribute to achieving a more integrated society.
It identifies, and sets out Government action to address, five key factors that contribute to integration and enable local response:
- reinforcing a sense of shared aspirations, core values and common ground;
- promoting a strong sense of personal and social responsibility;
- supporting social mobility and enabling people to realise their potential;
- empowering everyone to participate in local and national life;
- tackling intolerance and extremism.
The strategy is clear about two things: integration is as local an issue as it is far-ranging. Explicitly aligned to the localism and big society agendas, and complementary to existing equality and social mobility strategies, the ‘old’ ambitions – anti-racism, multiculturalism, inclusion, diversity, cohesion – make not a single mention. They are replaced by a concept which rejects the specifics of ‘difference’ in favour of a broader sense of social dynamic: “integration is achieved when neighbourhoods, families and individuals come together on issues which matter to them”.
For politicians and policy strategists, there is much to debate. For local leaders and service providers, there is much to do. Councils are at the sharp end. How, and the extent to which, they respond is a matter for local discretion – and affordability. Consistent with the localism approach, there are few prescriptions but some important expectations:
- integration should be regarded as a local priority with actions focussed at communities rather than individuals – place is a key factor;
- local leadership is of fundamental importance in shaping integration and local authorities well-placed to take a local lead, working through existing partnerships with the police, other agencies and the business and voluntary sectors;
- the emphasis is on things ‘in common’ rather than difference, enabling bridges across and between different groups and communities
- everyone, from individuals to organisations and across sectors, has a contribution to make;
- socio-economic factors are of crucial importance – creating barriers to integration and facilitating divisions capable of exploitation (by extremists in particular) – and, therefore, require address.
A sense of continuum
In reality, the new approach is less a radical departure than a corner turned, nor are its key tenets new: shared values and aspirations, mutual commitment and obligation, social mobility, participation and empowerment and challenging extremism. They offer useful concepts around which departments, local services and local partners might review and renew their own contributions – and against which local authorities might revise overarching cohesion strategies.
The national presence
Comfort will be drawn from Government commitments to tackling extremism coherently and robustly, for example proscribing groups and banning marches. On the whole, however, the national delivery tools are a peculiarly unbalanced set of offerings with some extraordinary omissions (no mention of housing, for example). The absence of any flagship programme or national funding stream and a promise to act ”only exceptionally” compound the sense of it lacking any real national backbone.
There persists a small, but significant, section of the British public that is deeply anxious about levels of immigration and the impact on local communities. Simultaneously, socio-economic inequalities create the conditions in which extremists are able to exploit local fears over scarcity of resources and preferential treatment. How we tackle prejudice and support diverse communities requires something a little more substantial than a big lunch. National government should not be allowed to devolve with quite such abandon.
Its commitment is clear: “an integrated society is vital to building strong , prosperous sustainable communities”. It is difficult to see how this can translate itself into action without a more proactive national presence.
Local government must take advantage of Government’s request for ‘further ideas’ and insist on its delivering its commitment to ‘working with a wide range of partners to try and improve its understanding and the possible solutions’. As local authorities set about reviewing and refining the multiplicity of responses that will follow, there should be opportunities to compare and contrast, at the very least – a role for national facilitation/co-ordination if ever there was one!
The capacity of local areas and councils to deliver on this newly “localist” approach and encourage greater integration will be seriously tested in the current financial climate. There is surely some middle ground between the ‘blanket Whitehall response’ rejected by the strategy – and nothing at all.