Councils’ hold the key to integration
22 June, 2007

Owen Dallison, Researcher
Regeneration and Renewal

Immigration can bring economic, social and cultural benefits to the UK, but only if immigrant communities are integrated and welcomed into our cities, towns and villages. Integration into the fabrics of our society – workplaces, pubs, schools, sports groups, festivals, local events – will provide the most likely route for successful integration. Central to these efforts will be local people, communities and Councils. Local Councils are place-shapers of communities, using powers and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens. Rather than hold on to the levers of influence central government must support local authorities to meet local challenges with local solutions.

Successful integration does not just depend on local Councils providing arenas for integration or organising events to foster greater engagement between host and migrant communities. Integration also requires ‘myth-busting’ – dispelling misconceptions of migrant community motives and norms – to encourage a friendly reception by the host community and informing new migrant communities of host community ways of living. Local Councils will also need to ensure that services meet the complex demands of new residents whilst not compromising existing levels of service. Tensions over social housing provision can be a barrier to integration just as much as poor spoken English.

Last weeks Commission on Integration and Cohesion report made some good proposals for local authority action, such as cultural briefing packs and more innovative approaches to ESOL provision, but these need to be built upon. I would, however, be cautious on the suitability of a national body for managing cohesion and integration. Integration remains an area where central micro-management could slow down forward thinking innovative Councils from implementing locally devised solutions. Proposed cuts on translation services should also be locally determined. The integration of new migrants must be led by local authorities with the support of central government.

Integration requires interaction: interaction between host communities, migrant communities, local Councils and service providers. Local Councils can facilitate greater interaction in a number of ways. The use of free festivals or other events to showcase the crafts, foods and music of different cultures is an excellent way to help build links between communities. These may be informal links but informal links maintained by residents will have long lasting effects. Other efforts to encourage interaction could be cooking classes, held in the community centre, for women of different ethnicities and nationalities in the local area. It is when people celebrate the commonalities between them that differences are respectfully acknowledged.

Providing public areas where people can mix also leads to greater interaction. Parks and common spaces must be maintained so as to encourage residents to use them. Community centres must once again be focal points for the neighbourhood and be home to community groups of different race, religion and ethnicity. Transferral of community assets to residents could be tied to obligations to provide benefits for the wider community. It is when such interaction happens that new communities become a part of the wider communities’ fabric.

There already exists a wealth of examples of innovative programmes supported or run by local authorities. Leicester City Council has supported the creation of over-arching inter-religious and inter-cultural institutions to help build dialogue and diffuse tensions. Peterborough City Council supports a ‘Refugee Week’ and learning opportunities for Women in deprived areas. There is also a joint scheme with the Portugese government who send an English speaking Portugese teacher to Peterborough to help children integrate. Bristol City Council already provides information packs to new residents informing them of the community make-up and available services. It is clear that local councils prepared to grasp the nettle can innovate but greater central government support, especially financial, will be required.

NLGN is currently conducting a research project, Devolving Diversity: the role of local authorities in managing migration, which will cover the full range of issues that have significant impacts on community cohesion. The topic must be addressed from two angles: the role local authorities have in preventing and calming any community tensions pre and post arrival, and the delivery of services that meet the expectations and needs of all residents. The two broad aims of local authorities are not mutually exclusive. Providing services with no demonstrable negative effect for existing residents will result in fewer possible causes of tension.

As part of the local authority role in community cohesion we will be analysing the possible causes of tension. The role in tensions of wages and job supply are highlighted as are the pressures placed on public services and possible detrimental effects on them. We are also going to cover cultural differences and how these can be overcome with the support of local authorities. The report will then analyse issues of local authority funding related to diverse communities and the implications this has for service delivery. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion called for the ONS to ‘reinvigorate’ its work on population statistics. We would like to see local government at the heart.

No one is pretending that this issue is not hugely complex and for that reason local government has to be at the centre of any and all solutions. Local dynamics, by their nature, vary countrywide and we would support an empowered local government rather than a national integration agency. Local authorities have demonstrated that they can innovate and integrate effectively. One size does not fit all so local authorities need the support to tailor local solutions.