Statues, street signs and building names have become the crux of protests throughout the UK. Civic furniture turned into a focal point for Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations sparked by George Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis.
In Bristol, a multi-racial group of activists toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour. The statue of fellow slave trader Robert Milligan has been removed from London’s Docklands following the recommendation of police on grounds of ‘public safety’. These actions have come about because of the ethnic minority community’s sense of disenfranchisement and anger at structural inequality and racism.
At the weekend, gangs of so-called ‘football lads’ clashed with police as thousands gathered in London. These tensions are playing out against the backdrop of a calamitous economic picture, with the UK heading for the worst recession in more than 300 years triggered by the pandemic.
COVID-19 is the new backdrop to all of this, including the persistent issue of equality. Last week in its COVID-19 report - part of a five-year project on inequality – the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned the inequality gap in the UK is set to widen because of coronavirus unless the government acts to create an inclusive recovery.
It is clear from local areas and deprivation analysis by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), that the poorest are most at risk from COVID-19. Men working in the lowest skilled occupations have the highest rate of death involving COVID-19. Other ONS analysis showed that black people – and other BAME groups – had higher COVID-19 mortality rates compared to their white counterparts.
There has also been significant concern about why a key contribution by Professor Kevin Fenton - Public Health England’s (PHE) national director for health and wellbeing - to the PHE report into why BAME communities are more at risk from the disease was missing from the review when it was published at the start of this month. A second version containing the missing recommendation is now expected this week (see box). This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced ‘a cross governmental commission’ would look into discrimination against black, Asian and minority ethnic people in health, education and the criminal justice system.
Given this febrile atmosphere, how is local government engaging with the concerns highlighted by the BLM movement, and is the sector promoting cohesion and working to acknowledge and address tensions in local areas?
The latest take on this is a positive one. Writing in The MJ late last month on the latest iteration of the NLGN Leadership index, NLGN senior policy researcher Pawda Tjoa said the survey ‘records the highest levels of trust and cohesion, exceeding 70 on a scale of 0-100 for the very first time since the index started in 2018’.
She added: ‘These results paint a positive picture of the growing connections that have emerged from these grassroots initiatives in the midst of an unprecedented (coronavirus) crisis.’
The Local Government Association (LGA) has written to councils telling them to look at the issue of memorials and statutes connected to the slave trade.
In addition, around 130 Labour-led councils have said they will look at the appropriateness of statues linked to the slave trade and colonialism. Meanwhile, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has announced a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which will review public tributes including statues and other landmarks.
Cllr Carole Williams is Hackney LBC’s cabinet member for employment, skills and human resources and is the lead member for the council’s response to the Windrush scandal. She told The MJ that the death of George Floyd ‘feels like a personal attack – it’s triggering’.
She added: ‘Many of us who are councillors and on the cabinet have found it very emotionally difficult dealing with the news of the death of George Floyd, and the aftermath of that. We have taken it very personally. I have found it so incredibly difficult.’
The council’s cabinet ‘knows that our response corporately needs to deliver real change.’, said Cllr Williams. ‘That’s why we are giving really careful consideration to public demands to pull down statues. We have announced that we are going to do a review. But it’s not a review in name only. It’s a review to deliver real action and outcomes.’
She added: ‘The mayor and I have already had a couple of meetings this week with community leaders of organisations across the borough. Where we have street names, estate names and park names we’ve looked at what we can do and how we can change them. At the end of next week we are meeting with a community leader who has been calling for this for a long time.’
The council is ‘thinking about how we can commission that piece of work and who sits on that commission’, said Cllr Williams. ‘We are going to make some changes very quickly, but we can’t do it without the community. We need to do it alongside the community.’
It’s crucial ‘that the council addresses how to make change real’, she added, ‘so that it does not just become some sort of gesture politics. We’ve got to make this real.’
Belong, formerly known as The Cohesion and Integration Network has announced it will undertake a study into the impact of COVID-19 on cohesion with Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Walsall and Waltham Forest councils.
Robin Tuddenham is a trustee of Belong, chief executive of Calderdale MBC and joint policy lead on community wellbeing for Solace. Last week he chose to speak out on local media in West Yorkshire to say he ‘must do better’ on racial diversity. He has also written an open letter to council staff and others in the light of the death of George Floyd. In it he re-emphasises the council’s commitment to employing a diverse workforce and offering opportunities for BAME staff to progress.
Mr Tuddenham told The MJ that this was ‘a difficult letter to write, as you have a sense of wondering if it’s going to land well – is it going to offend people or say the wrong things’. But he said he has had a ‘powerful response’ to it - from more than 100 people. He added: ‘I think the worse thing to do is to not say anything. These are not new matters. But the COVID-19 experience has highlighted them and exposed issues around health inequalities and cohesion - and the lived experiences of staff - that they can talk about and connect to.’
He is also chair of the West Yorkshire Local Resilience Forum. How has community cohesion in the region been impacted by local feelings in reaction to the death of George Floyd? ‘We had a small protest last night in Halifax. We’ve got protests planned in Kirklees and we expect a bigger one in Leeds this coming weekend.’
He added: ‘We’re a Labour council and our Labour leader has committed to a review of statues, but then we have very few. I think it would be great if the whole sector said this is something we need to think about. It’s powerful, because these are symbols of what’s happened (in the past).’
West Yorkshire is ‘worried about the tensions’. He added: ‘I’m worried about it because of the combination of the psychological and emotional impact of the COVID lockdown. People are feeling incredibly restless, confused, angry and frightened. And there’s the combination of this with international events. Unfortunately it’s a combination of factors that’s potentially really challenging.’
But he reminds The MJ that promoting cohesion ‘has been core work for local government for the last 15 years’. And as the New Local Government Network’s Pawda Tjoa has pointed out, local government has a nimbleness of response that contrasts with the centre’s rigid approach. Now, more than ever is the time for what she calls ‘council’s critical convening role’.
BAME communities’ increased risk from COVID-19: A call for action
Last week a leak to Channel 4 News contained the missing recommendations from the Public Health England report published late last month into why BAME communities are more at risk from the disease.
Professor Kevin Fenton had spoken with thousands of stakeholders across BAME communities to inform the report. Those he engaged with told him the issue of structural racism had a major part to play. According to Channel 4 News, the review recommends:
- Comprehensive data on ethnicity must be collected
- Research into the social, cultural and structural determinants of COVID-19
- A ‘culturally competent’ risk assessment tool and education and prevention campaigns
The leaked draft of the report - now expected to be published this week – says that ‘historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work’ could make people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups less likely to ask for care or insist on having personal protective equipment’.
Crucially Professor Fenton concluded that ‘without explicit consideration of ethnicity, racism and structural disadvantage in our responses to COVID-19 and health inequalities there is a risk of partial understanding of the processes that produce poor health outcomes’.
Chief executive of Calderdale MBC and joint policy lead on community wellbeing for Solace Robin Tuddenham said Calderdale, whose BAME community makes up about 15% of residents - ‘but that’s much higher in terms of younger people’ - had been ‘very eagerly expecting’ the findings of the PHE review into the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities.
Speaking ahead of the leak to Channel 4 News, he added: ‘I was actually in the reference group that had a couple of conversations alongside some other people with Professor Fenton. I said in my letter (see main article) that it was very disappointing that for whatever reason there were no recommendations.’
The West Yorkshire health and care system which includes Calderdale is about to develop a proposal for a commission, he added. This will ‘develop a set of deliverables and a road map for action, using the (PHE) report as a national baseline, and doing a very fast review of what we know about in West Yorkshire.
‘We’ve got most of that information now. The key thing now is to take action and make a difference’.