Public order issues at the heart of community cohesion plans

Launching Community Cohesion: Building Communities
based on Trust and Respect last week, the government stressed that
cohesion was not about race relations alone.

Unfortunately, the guidance for councils, which devotes sections to
asylum seekers and faith groups while ignoring many other groups
such as disabled and older people, gives the opposite

Unsurprising perhaps given that the document came about as a result
of government reports into the riots in Bradford, Burnley and
Oldham in the summer of 2001. The reports recommended that councils
needed to examine how their policies had contributed to segregation
within communities.

Senior project officer at the Local Government Association Peter
Smith, one of the document’s authors, concedes that it does
concentrate on race, but insists that the reports on the riots were
just a “starting point”. However, its other authors – the Home
Office, the Interfaith Network, the Commission for Racial Equality
and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – have produced a guide
that does not stray far from those origins.

Although a joint effort, the guidance has an underlying emphasis on
public order issues – another section is on young people –
suggesting that the Home Office had the biggest hand in its

John Richardson, of the Disability Advocacy Network, says he is
“extremely disappointed but not surprised” that issues affecting
disabled people are not mentioned in the guidance. Assistant
director of public affairs at the Disability Rights Commission
Agnes Fletcher agrees:”Community cohesion should build stronger and
safer communities for all. Regrettably the needs of disabled people
are not specifically addressed in the new guidance.”

She says that disabled people should be included in the guidance as
they experience both social exclusion and harassment. “A 2002
national attitudes survey for the DRC showed that 21 per cent of
disabled people questioned had experienced harassment and verbal
abuse in the street in relation to their impairment.”

Others find the guidance’s focus on race less of a problem. Philip
Hume, corporate policy officer at Kirklees Council, says: “There
are a whole range of issues that could be addressed such as gender,
sexuality and disability. But I think it is right that this
guidance has a strong focus on race and ethnicity because if you
try to cram everything in there is a danger that you never end up
doing anything.”

Certainly the cohesion guidance requires a lot from councils. They
are identified as the key to building cohesion and are asked to
draw on voluntary sector knowledge. Councillors, says the guidance,
are especially important because they provide a link between what
is happening locally and council policy.

One problem with this, however, is that the switch by many councils
from the committee to the cabinet system as a result of the Local
Government Act 2000 has stripped councillors who are not in the
cabinet of their power to influence decision making.

There are also problems with the relationship between the voluntary
sector and the councils, partly because of funding issues. Susan
Frost is an information officer at the Council for Voluntary
Service in Hull, a city which has the lowest income per household
in England, and where there has been violence against asylum

She says that the link between local authorities and the sector
will need to be stronger if the needs of asylum seekers are to be
better met and understanding of why they are living in the UK

The guidance’s recommendation that a volunteering programme for
asylum seekers would help them settle and show the local community
that they are contributing is, she says, “good in theory” but would
require huge financial resources. To begin with, money would be
needed to provide English lessons for asylum seekers before they
began working.

Other areas of the guidance that are not specifically about issues
affecting certain racial or religious groups are presented in terms
of how people from the various ethnic communities relate to one
another. For example, its section on regeneration looks at
addressing misconceptions about area-based initiative funding,
identified in the riot reports as a source of resentment.

But in many of the country’s most deprived areas race or religion
may play no role in dividing communities. In Barnsley, south
Yorkshire, there is a high proportion of older white people, many
of whom suffer ill-health, a legacy of its mining past. Joe
Micheli, head of social inclusion at Barnsley Council, says that
the problems and resentments built up are between impoverished
white groups, all vying for limited regeneration funding. He
anticipates that the winding down of the single regeneration
budget, which has funded many of the city’s projects, will increase
competition between groups.

There is some way to go before the guidance achieves its aims of
advising councils on how to create places where “there is a common
sense of belonging for all communities”, partly because its vision
is limited to tackling the issues in terms of race and

Age also is an area that will need to be developed. The section on
young people identifies them as a potential threat to public order
but also, with the right education and opportunities to mix with
people from different backgrounds, as a positive force for change.
But advice on how to change the entrenched racist views held by
many adults is largely missing.

As Hume puts it: “Children may have the experience of mixing with
other children at school, but if they are going home to a family in
which there is racism what will have the stronger influence?”

On the positive side, immigration minister Beverley Hughes says the
guidance is a work in progress, adding that by this time next year
there might be a new version of it.

Perhaps a new document, which incorporates emerging knowledge about
communities, will offer a way for councils to look at producing
cohesive communities in a way that goes beyond ideas of

– Guidance from 

Cohesive community

  • There is a common vision and sense of belonging for all
  • The diversity of people’s different backgrounds and
    circumstances are positively valued.
  • Those from different backgrounds have similar life
  • Strong and positive relationships are being developed between
    people from different backgrounds in the workplace and within

Steps for councils

Local authorities should conduct a baseline assessment of how
effectively current policies and programmes promote community
cohesion for all communities and neighbourhoods throughout their

As part of the assessment councils should ask:

  • Are we clear about the regeneration needs and aspirations of
    all sections of our community?
  • Do we really listen to people who truly represent all sections
    of our community?
  • Do youth activities help to build understanding and tolerance
    between different groups?
  • Do we have effective mechanisms to listen to the views of young
    people? Do we respond to those views?
  • Do school pupils develop a tolerance and respect for the
    different cultures that make up the UK?
  • Do some groups achieve much lower levels of educational
    attainment than others?
  • What impact does the housing situation have on community
    cohesion? Do people get real choices about where they live?
  • Are sections of the community disadvantaged in the labour
    market? What can be done to address these differences?
  • Is there any evidence of religious discrimination?
  • Is racist crime or other hate crime a feature of the local
    area? What measures are being taken to address it?

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.