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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Prosperous Economies, Cohesive Communities

Sunday, February 11, 2007

At the Local Government Association ‘Urban Conference’ held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne recently, Meg gave the Ministerial address.


Communities are under pressure, subject to forces that strain their existence but also increase their desirability and importance. Of course local communities have always been subject to change, but change happens so much more quickly today. Perhaps the last time in our history we experienced such rapid change was during the industrial revolution, which I certainly don’t remember.


The pressures on communities come from a variety of sources:

  • globalisation with its shift from ‘jobs for life’ that many in my generation left school expecting,
  • a new mass migration - London is called the ‘6th largest French city’ due to the influx from there,
  • the internet, making you closer to someone living in Australia, but further apart from the person next door, and
  • climate change, the warmest January for how many years and what’s to come?


Is it any wonder that the reaction of many is to hunker down, be suspicious of change, suspicious of others? But an approach based on ‘no change’ isn’t going to work. You can’t stop the world and get off.


What you can do is adapt where you want to, where you have to, and protect those aspects of life that are important. Success for communities will increasingly depend upon their ability to improve economic competitiveness and growth, whilst promoting economic inclusion and social justice. Strong and accountable local government is crucial to this.


Benefits and Pressures

The Local Government White Paper makes it clear that diversity has brought enormous economic and social benefits. Immigration, and our ties with countries around the world, has helped create a more dynamic economy, an economy with more jobs, new ideas and skills, improving public services and a richer cultural life. The publication today of [the LGA’s] ‘Prosperous Communities 2’ is a welcome contribution to the debate on this.


But change and migration also create pressures on public services:

  • schools having to teach many more students for whom English is not their first language,
  • cultural and religious differences can become a cause of tension, and
  • some communities can become, or remain, fragmented with groups within remaining isolated.


There are many parts of the country that are experiencing unprecedented growth in population with significant migration particularly from the recent EU accession states. There are the so called new “growth points” around the country in a number of urban areas where growth is expected to be greatest. Government investment is needed not just to increase existing services but to develop new infrastructure to cope with this.


Today’s challenge is how best to continue to draw on the benefits diversity bring, while tackling problems and the risks for community cohesion. 


Since the 2001 disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, our understanding of community cohesion has developed.  Local authorities have had a vital role in building cohesion. A number have developed strong partnerships at a local level that enable communities and community organisations to come together to generate shared ideas, about where they live and how to develop their surroundings.     


The statistics are to some extent encouraging.  Between 2003 and 2005, in 20 areas surveyed in depth, cohesion increased in 9 of the areas and decreased in only one. A MORI survey for the Commission for Racial Equality last year showed that the proportion of white people who said they would mind if a close relative married a black or Asian person fell from 33% to 12% over a five year period.   


However, the same survey suggests that many people are still intolerant of refugees and asylum seekers, still treat casual abuse of gypsies and travellers, our most excluded ethnic group, as acceptable, and still have deep unease about Muslim Britons. The problem is not confined to any one community - 61% of white Britons, and 54% of ethnic minorities, think we have too many immigrants.


What We Have in Common

We should value Britain’s diversity. But we should also re-assert the duty to integrate, and stress what we hold in common. We should respect difference, but not at the expense of having a society, and local communities, without a common purpose. The issue is one of balance - between preserving a distinctive identity and closer integration.


Integration is not about culture or lifestyle.  It is about values.  It is about shared, common unifying British values.  It isn't about what defines us as people, but as citizens, the rights and duties that go with being a member of our society. Others have spoken about common themes:

  • respect for the rule of law,
  • respect and responsibility for others,
  • freedom of speech, and
  • equality of opportunity.


My department has an important remit on inequalities and cohesion, combined with a strong relationship with local government.  We want to support local authorities as they respond to increasingly complex patterns of migration. We are aware that some local authorities with little history of receiving migrants are now beginning to host workers from the EU, many of whom come for a short period and then return home.


In response to this we have asked the Improvement and Development Agency to create a ‘Migration: Sharing Best Practice’ programme. We want to help this sharing of best practice already developed by areas with experience in settling migrant workers. We plan to have support packages for areas facing challenges in the near future. 


As outlined in the Local Government White Paper, building cohesion is now core business for local authorities, and we will provide practical support on how to promote this. Cohesion is already a mandatory indicator for local area agreements, and we will work to identify where this should be a priority and help local authorities tackle cohesion challenges. Many urban areas have for many years had race equality councils in place to tackle issues of discrimination and cohesion. Increasingly, areas are responding to today’s challenges by setting up inter-faith forums to extend support and understanding between differing faith groups.


Supporting Local Government

Much of this is about central Government supporting local government. Local authorities and their partners have, in many ways, the key role in meeting local cohesion challenges. We want to ensure that cohesion has a central role across all local delivery. By working with Beacon areas, such as Leicester, we can help local areas integrate their core policies such as education and housing. 


As you will have seen in the Local Government White Paper, important areas for the future are:

  • stronger local leadership,
  • more responsive services,
  • increased resident participation in decision-making, and
  • a stronger role for community groups. 


This includes an emphasis on the importance of promoting community cohesion through Local Strategic Partnerships and Sustainable Community Strategies.


Meeting the challenges that globalisation brings, ensuring that no group is left behind, are challenges affecting local government as well as central government. You have an important role to ensure that employment and economic opportunity benefit all people. Part of your role is ensuring that local business and trade unions are brought into discussions about the future.


Where local Chambers of Commerce are active they are potentially important partners in building healthy local communities. Chambers of Commerce are in a strong position to:

  • promote the importance for drawing on the skills of all,
  • emphasise the importance of cultural preferences in the workplace,
  • provide support and skills development for entrepreneurs, and
  • help us to maximise the social and economic benefits of our diverse communities.


My department shares the same agenda as most Muslims across the country. We are now refocusing the way we work to support those within Muslim communities to actively condemn and tackle extremism. We have asked local authority leaders to step up their efforts to work in partnership with Muslim communities to tackle extremism.


We have recently announced extra funding of £5million to support this work. This will help key local authorities gear up to tackle violent extremism in local communities by developing the skills and structures to address any such threat. Guidance for the fund will be published shortly. 


As outlined in the Local Government White Paper, we will support the establishment of local ‘forums on extremism and Islamophobia’.  We plan that by April 2008 forums will be set up in every area where there is a need.  The forums bring together local agencies and groups working with Muslim young people and women. They should lead to action to tackle disaffection and isolation in Muslim young people that may ultimately result in extremist behaviour.


The White Paper sets a framework within which the Commission on Integration and Cohesion can work.  The Commission was set up to explore how different communities in England are getting along, and what more might be done to bring people together.


The Commission has recently had a consultation process and will be publishing an interim statement shortly. This should show us how they have developed their thinking for the future. Nargis Khan, one of the Commissioners from the Commission on Integration and Cohesion will be talking next, and I am looking forward to hearing from her about their progress so far. 

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