The Commission on Integration and Cohesion finally published the findings of its year-long consultation into community cohesion this week in the report entitled ‘Shared Futures’. The Commission was announced by Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 28 June 2006 and was established as a fixed term advisory body to consider how local areas can make the most of the benefits delivered by increasing diversity. It was also set up to consider how communities might respond to the tensions that increasing diversity can sometimes cause. Its remit was to develop practical approaches that build communities’ own capacity to prevent problems, including those caused by segregation and the dissemination of extremist ideologies.

Following its year-long consultation, the report amongst other things offered a ‘new’ definition of what an integrated and cohesive community might look like. Being particularly confused about what community cohesion is, I had hoped that this might provide some insight into this for me. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and so given that community cohesion had been since the Bradford disturbances in 2001 widely employed politically as the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ (I’ll leave you to better clarify what the ‘problem’ might be) what the ‘solution’ might look like remains quite unclear.

Nonetheless, the new definition (did we have an old one?) was set out as the following six easy definable steps:

“An integrated and cohesive community is one where:

1. There is a clearly defined and widely shared sense of the contribution of different individuals and different communities to a future vision for a neighbourhood, city, region or country

2. There is a strong sense of an individual’s rights and responsibilities when living in a particular place – people know what everyone expects of them, and what they can expect in turn

3. Those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities, access to services and treatment

4. There is a strong sense of trust in institutions locally to act fairly in arbitrating between different interests and for their role and justifications to be subject to public scrutiny

5. There is a strong recognition of the contribution of both those who have newly arrived and those who already have deep attachments to a particular place, with a focus on what they have in common

6. There are strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and other institutions within neighbourhoods”

Great stuff…or is it?

Maybe unsurprisingly, the definition seems to raise many more questions than it does provide answers not least in asking ‘how’ one might measure integration and cohesion? Without this measure, how do we know if we live in an integrated and cohesive community? How can we know when we need to do something, when we need to respond, and of course, when we can sit back on our laurels and say what a good job we’ve done?

Maybe then we should ask – given that the report doesn’t answer this – ‘who’ does the measuring and when will it start?

What is interesting is that in the new definition, it states that ‘a clearly defined’ sense of contribution will be required. Again, how exactly do you measure a ‘strong sense’ of something?

Similarly, the definition also says that there will need to be a ‘strong sense of an individual’s rights and responsibilities’. Is it a good idea to have such subjective statements in a definition that is being established to offer some clarity? If you adopt the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a ‘definition’ it says that it is “a statement of the exact meaning of a word”…is that what’s on offer here?

To illustrate this point, wouldn’t the BNP say that had a strong sense of responsibility of the individual rights and responsibilities of the ‘aboriginal white communities’ (their words not mine) over and above everyone else in places such as Barking and Dagenham where they are already the official party of opposition in the council chambers?

The problem becomes compounded especially if you consider that the definition states that all in society are to ‘have similar life opportunities, access to services and treatment’. If this is the case, doesn’t this mean that there will need to be a concerted effort on behalf of the Government to address the deep-seated socio-economic inequalities that are evident across vast swathes of our society? If this is the case, then Government – both national and local – is going to be forced to address certain communities over and above others which then seems to go against previous markers of an integrated and cohesive community. The arguments about certain communities being privileged will therefore continue to exist.

And if local councils are going to be required to respond to certain communities in this way, how will that ‘strong sense of trust in institutions’ be any different from how they are now? Or should I say, before we had this ‘new definition’?

The definition therefore is a mish-mash of nice ideas but totally impractical and non-cohesive ones. Take for example how the definition suggests that there should be a ‘strong recognition of the contribution of both those who have newly arrived’. If this is so, local institutions including local government, the NHS, LEAs and so on, will all need to put in place special procedures and policies to ensure that the newly arrived can begin to make that ‘contribution’. Again though this will cause problems because it will merely reinforce the belief that certain communities are being privileged and so those that are newly arrived will continue to be perceived as being privileged.

And with this comes the crunch, the observation that in integrated and cohesive communities ‘strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and other institutions within neighbourhoods’ will exist. When schools are increasingly segregated, when newly arrived migrant workers are being thrown into jobs that local people refuse to do at the rates of pay being offered, when communities do not integrate because of the great disparities between their economic capacity to live together in equitable areas, what realistic chance does this definition offer? Is it merely idealistic and as such should be something society aspires to, or is it a blueprint for change? Given that its initial objective was to make the most of the benefits delivered by increasing diversity, consider the tensions it can sometimes cause and develop practical approaches to achieving this, it could be that ‘none of the above’ clearly applies especially when one of the ‘practical approaches’ was providing new migrants with ‘welcome packs’ that give such information as not spitting in the street and how to queue in the Post Office.

The report is therefore another high style, low substance policy document, one that has become so commonplace in the New Labour era. Constantly trying to locate the ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ have been one of the many pastimes undertaken by Blair’s regime. The problem for him though, is that despite putting forward the ‘solution’, rarely does it match or eradicate the ‘problem’.

In this broader landscape then, two additional points of interest emerge from the report. The first is that if as the report suggests it is at the local level where ‘problems’ are made and by consequence need to be solved, why are we forever being told that we need to be more ‘British’? Rather than a national British day a la Gordon Brown therefore, so let’s have national ‘local’ day where we all stress our local identities, Brummie, Geordie, Scouser and so on.

Second, where did multiculturalism go? Whilst most people will acknowledged that multiculturalism has been undergoing a long and painful terminal illness for some time now, it would be fair to assume that its actual passing – and laying to rest – did pass many by.

Given that ‘integrated and cohesive communities’ is then the new solution to the problem, I wonder if I missed that recommendation in the report for euthanasia to be legislated for at the national level? The reason I ask is because if, as would seem to be the case, integrated and cohesive communities is deemed to fail as dramatically as multiculturalism has, let’s hope that the Government can put an end o its misery sooner rather than later.

Is it too premature to offer my condolences to the Commission yet? Integration and cohesion RIP – surely a sentiment to bring us all together…

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