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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Analysis: A cohesive Britain?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

A newspaper billboard from Birmingham reporting the 2005 riots
The report urges a "long game" of investment in neighbourliness
We have had warnings of communities living parallel lives and that we may be "sleepwalking into segregation".

There are fears over the impact of the great wave of migration that has brought hundreds of thousands of Eastern European workers to the British economy.

But Darra Singh, chairman of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, rather deliberately says that the real danger is that we are "sleepwalking into simplicity".

His detailed report, published on Thursday, argues that for too long government and society has been blinded by events - panicked by race riots, worried by the rise of far-right politics in poor white communities and terrified of suicide bombings.

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If we are going to get a grip on the super-diversity of modern Britain, to use the technical lingo, then we need to think beyond these crises, he says, and understand the very delicate, local nature of building ties that bind.

So it's time to invest heavily in local action to get neighbours of different backgrounds talking to each other, says the commission.

At the heart of its argument is a focus on local action - that central government has at the very least misunderstood some of the dynamics of how change from immigration and diversity affects how society feels about itself.

The commission accepts that in some circumstances greater diversity - essentially meaning immigration or ethnic change - has a "negative impact".

It warns that integration "freezes" in poorer areas where jobs are not plentiful. And from there it is a short step to communities believing they are competing over jobs, decent housing and schools.

In some areas these complex phenomena are not a problem. Many Londoners revel in the capital's reputation as the most diverse city in the world.

But other areas - old northern industrial towns or rural areas unused to mass migration - may feel differently. And it is these potential "hot spots" that Darra Singh says we need to get wise to.

Get mapping

So how should this done? The commission says the UK needs to start mapping how it is changing - and by this it means going beyond a headcount once every decade.

How cohesive is England? See which areas feel the greatest sense of community.

The last census was in 2001 but the pace of chance means that those figures are arguably completely out of date: more than 560,000 immigrants came to Britain in 2005 to live for at least a year.

The commission has done some of this mapping itself with a special analysis of how cohesive each area of England feels.

At the same time, government needs to help areas experiencing similar problems from change - the rural areas for instance - get together to work out solutions, rather than imposing one single master plan from Whitehall.

The commission argues for big investments in citizenship through school-twinning and other projects. Tied to this, flying squads of experts could be brought in to tackle rising tensions in "hot spots".

Similar ideas have been floated by Professor Ted Cantle, the author of the seminal "parallel lives" report into the 2001 northern riots.

The commission's call to end funding to single-issue groups may be not as bad news as it seems for ethnic minorities. The very fact that many cities are becoming more diverse has already forced the issue.

A special pack from Wrexham council on the facts about economic migrants
Wrexham is among councils producing immigration information
One west London mosque in an area of extraordinary diversity long ago opened its classrooms and meeting halls to the whole neighbourhood, turning itself into a hub of activity for people of all backgrounds.

What all of this entails is a move away from crisis management and into a "long game" of steady investment in neighbourliness - a new social contract of sorts.

But there are elephants in the room. The commission was launched amid a debate on two key issues - the 7/7 bombings and single-faith schools.

The report does not go into the impact of political extremism in communities, and was not asked to look into whether faith schools help or hinder integration.

But the commission was swamped with public comments from people opposed to faith schools. It acknowledges this in the report - but says it wanted to focus on measures to bring pupils from all schools together.

Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has warmly received the report and will respond fully to its proposals in the autumn.

She has not ruled out any of the commission's main proposals, including a national integration body and flying squads for troubled towns.

But community activists at the frontline of building trust between people of different backgrounds will want to see if ministers are going to be prepared to open the chequebook.


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