In the midst of the current political uncertainty one of the greatest risks and challenges for local leaders involves cohesion and integration.
There has been an alarming rise in hate crime and far right activity . Local debates are increasingly toxic. Not as dramatic, but equally concerning, are low levels of social mixing ; 44% of Brits don’t spend time with people from a different ethnicity to them and one in five has no contact with someone from a different class. The UK sees itself as a deeply divided country, and most think these divisions are likely to deepen .
So in these volatile and uncertain times, how do we build a more integrated and less divided society? How do we develop a more positive set of stories about who we are as communities and as a country?
The Cohesion and Integration Network envisage communities of the future that are resilient, kind, strong and inclusive with vibrant local economies providing safe and flourishing environments in which to earn, learn and socialise.
It may feel like we are a long way from that right now. Yet across the country there are many inspiring individuals, local authorities and organisations who are making a difference to cohesion and integration through a range of activities that bring people together across ethnic, intergenerational, and socio-economic divides.
As a new membership organisation and charity we have been listening hard to what they say is required to support their work.
They tell us that local connections really matter. Demographics, politics, geography, transport, housing and education all play a part in shaping and influencing local integration and cohesion.
Strong local networks are essential to break down siloes and bring together a range of different actors from across different sectors (public, private, voluntary, community, housing and education) to collaborate on strengthening good relations across difference in a particular locality.
At the same time national and regional connections can provide new ideas, fresh insight and potential for shared learning.
Support and knowledge sharing
There is a growing body of evidence of the benefits of ‘social mixing’ (sometimes called contact theory) for reducing prejudice and promoting empathy.
An increasing number of projects and programmes are using these theories to inform strategy and design of services. But we still don’t know enough about what works, and how to scale excellent local initiatives.
Organisations and practitioners need measurement and evaluation tools, and a shared platform to disseminate best practice, toolkits, resources and guidance.
A shared voice for change
Cohesion is like the social glue; we often only notice when it is absent. It requires regular, under-the-radar work with communities; much of which has fallen away with the impact of austerity on local authority budgets.
We know from research that places that are more resilient to shock and change are the ones where there is a high degree of social capital.
The Cohesion and Integration Network will raise the profile of this vital work; putting cohesion and integration practitioners and organisations on the map. Together with our members we will lobby for policy change to address the underlying drivers of poor cohesion and integration.
The Network’s first conference ‘Leading on Integration’ and formal launch is on 10 October in Manchester. We look forward to welcoming you there or to our session at the Solace Summit on 17 October.
Jo Broadwood is CEO of the Cohesion and Integration Network