Evidence to Scrutiny Inquiry Meeting

Tuesday 18 September 2012

1.              Birmingham is a global city, not only do we have a settled community of 1.1 million people from diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, race, faith, socio-economic differentiation, cultural traditions and world views, we also have transient communities; students, tourists, and those wanting to do business in Birmingham.

2.              Consequently, to maintain harmony, peace, and security in the city, social cohesion is what we strive for.

If we can basically define social cohesion to be about social order within a framework of accepted values which hold individuals and communities together and sustains them, then it is an outcome which we aspire to when inequalities and disadvantage, differentiations and tensions between individuals and communities are addressed through positive and successful intervention.

3.       What gives you a sense of belonging – is it the street you live in, your neighbourhood, or the city as a whole?

The BCC/Aston University pilot research suggested policy makers be mindful of the dangers of uncritically celebrating belonging to a narrow sense of space such as neighbourhood, locality or community (however perceived).  While there has, over the last decade, been considerable policy attention to the virtues of localism; events such as the disturbances in Northern Towns in 2001 and subsequent debates around community cohesion have alerted us to the danger of ‘neighbourhood nationalisms’ that can emerge in areas where local belonging is prematurely or unevenly celebrated.  Encouraging a sense of awareness across established boundaries of belonging (i.e. community or space) to a greater whole is a more challenging and pressing concern for a city like Birmingham with its large, fragmented and diverse population.  Policy makers face the tricky task of balancing this while remaining sympathetic and supportive of identifications people have based on area, ethnicity, religion etc. that are important in inculcating a sense of self for citizens, and which often act as an important source of social and moral capital, particularly in times of austerity.

4.       Why do people choose to live in Birmingham?

Sometimes people aren’t sufficiently empowered to exercise choice over where they live (i.e. newcomers to the city, migrants, homeless, low paid, unemployed, those reliant on benefits or ex-offenders).  For many within these groups where you live is very often determined by forces outside their control; for example: housing policy or income.  For such groups it may be difficult to cultivate a sense of belonging to a particular space or community when they feel estranged from these, particularly where a sense of community has existed in those areas for a considerable length of time.  For example, housing allocation policies that disperse asylum seekers, single mothers or ex-offenders to poor traditionally all-white neighbourhoods where people now mourn the loss of values such as family, respectability and an all-white Britain.

5.       What positive stories are there about people with shared values coming together to make a difference?

The Birmingham Mail newspaper was highlighted in the report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion in 2007, for its positive work representing the diverse ethnic communities of the city.

The report singled out the Faiths in Our City column which ran every Saturday for its articles on raising awareness, celebrating common values and instigating thought-provoking debates.  The report said: “The supplement alternates its reporting on all faiths across Birmingham, facilitating debates on shared values, the value of truth, interfaith celebrations, the abolition of slavery, and the important but changing nature of the family.

Clearly, encouraging spaces where people can participate in discussions in a spirit of mutual respect are useful to help transgress different points of view. This is in contrast to officially or politically sanctioned debates which the general public often regard with scepticism: evident in discussions about the ‘trust’ of politicians and democratic deficit.

6.              Therefore for  Birmingham, real social cohesion means:

  • Living together positively; which means people are able to get on with their own lives feeling safe that disagreements and disputes can be resolved fairly through agreed processes. The diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and positively valued.
  • Having a stake in society; requires all citizens of the city feel that they have a stake in its success. Those from different backgrounds have, and feel they have similar positive life opportunities.
  • Building links and relationships; this demands that intrusive or anti-social behaviour is significantly reduced. Strong and positive relationships are developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances.
  • Being proud of the City; means that we feel good about our city. There is a common and compelling vision for the success of the city across the whole population.

7.       There are a number of values which underpin good social cohesion: Enterprise, achieving excellence, being innovative, ensuring all our citizens have access to opportunities, fairness and openness.

8.       To promote these principles we need to strengthen a range of attitudes and behaviours which we take for granted, but in the diverse world in which we live we need to further cultivate. Some may say they are the enduring values that have made our country Britain, great, and our city, Birmingham attractive to live in. They are:

  • Value and respect all people that is, we recognise that all people have ideas, energy, skills and talents. Therefore for individuals to reach their full potential, they must be encouraged and allowed to fulfil their own aspirations and goals, so that they can make a positive contribution to their family, community, neighbourhood, and the city
  • Trust is a major source for building good relationships, between individuals, between and across communities, and vital for good citizenship. Trust cements cooperation between citizens and communities for the common good, and allows for those occasions when individual preferences, goals and opinions are put aside for the greater good of the community and the city as a whole
  • Empowerment allows us to ensure that the social capital that citizens and communities bring, generates and releases individual capabilities and collective resources, so that we can all contribute to the growth of our communities, and thus making our city prosperous, vibrant, and harmonious
  • Relationships are dependent on the values just mentioned: respect, trust, and empowerment. Relationships are key to good social cohesion. And as someone said: hard to make easy to break. Yet, it is through relationships we build partnerships, whether in marriage, the family, the community, the neighbourhood, and across communities. Through relationships people work together, they develop bonds of trust and respect; which they develop over time and through experience. These bonds open up a network for ideas and resources to flow. The friendships between individuals, as well as the relationships that individuals build with groups, and groups with communities are the organic backbone for a cohesive, peaceful and stable city.

9.       In meeting our aspirations about social cohesion, we need to recognise that these values have to be embedded into the social ethos of our society, and mediated through our social institutions.

(a)         The first is the family. The values of social cohesion begins in the family, and this to me is important because we live in a world where the family is under threat; more and more pressures and demands are put upon the family, and increasingly the family is being fragmented and ignored as an important source of social development for our young. Yet, for all our faiths and cultures in Birmingham, the family is at the core of human and spiritual development, and the centre of community growth and stability. That is why it should be valued and recognised as a source of strength for our quest in supporting social cohesion. It is the quality of the family and its inner strength which gives rise to the quality of our city, country and social cohesion.

A misunderstood section of the family is our children, for some they can be a challenge, for others they are an inspiration.  Birmingham is one of the most youthful cities in Europe.  We need special attention to be given to this section of our communities, because they will be the future leaders and managers of our city, and they will make major contribution to the social, cultural, and economic development of the city.

(b)       The second is faith. If what C. S. Lewis asserts is true, that “the geography of the spiritual world is different from that of the physical world: in the physical world contact between countries is at the frontiers, in the spiritual world contact is at the centre,” then certainly I can say that in Birmingham spirituality is at the heart of our city, no matter to what faith, if any, we may belong.

Faith communities are an important part of our city, although they do have distinctive characteristics and potential of their own. As sources of values and commitment, and with substantial constituencies, they have a valuable contribution to make, in building a sense of local community and renewing civil society, in addition to developing community cohesion.

The new challenge for faith communities, and in particular their leadership, is how in a secular multi-faith society, they can emerge a theology that transcends their boundaries to reach out to others to work for a mission which promotes cohesion between and across faiths, which now make a significant contribution to the Birmingham landscape. In other words, there will be no peace until there is continuing peace among faiths.

(c)        The third is the voluntary and not for profit sectorThe voluntary and community sector organisations have a crucial role to play in the reinvigoration of civic life and promoting community cohesion and its values. In Birmingham we have thousands of individuals who selflessly make a major contribution to supporting and working with community groups and individuals, making a difference to the lives of hundreds and thousands of people, to the sick, to the young, to the elderly, to the environment, to those in need.

The voluntary and not for profit sector can help rekindle the spark in individuals and communities that fires the building of strong relationships between individuals and community groups irrespective of race, age, faith and non-faith, disability, gender, or sexual orientation; to build a bridge between the needs of individuals living in those communities and the capacity of the city council to improve their lives.

We should aim to build a new partnership using the sector’s strengths to challenge and stimulate new ideas, complement our shared objectives, to work with citizens and communities to respect, trust, value each other, so that we all contribute to making our city socially inclusive and cohesive.

(d)       The fourth is our democratic culture. There is no other country in the world than Britain that has led the way in evolving a strong democratic culture.

Democracy and civil renewal is a key priority for us where equal and high participation by our citizens in civic life is a central goal.  Civil renewal should be about developing constructive dialogue between people and local government, working together to make life and our environment better.  People are core to the solutions, influencing the decisions that affect them and their communities, taking responsibility for addressing local problems, rather than expecting others to do so for us. In this way we are building, what we call democratic cohesion, the relationship between civic institutions and its citizens.

Social cohesion lies at the heart of what makes a safe and strong community.  It must be delivered locally through creating strong community networks, based on principles of trust and respect for local diversity, and nurturing a sense of belonging and confidence in local people.  Effectively delivering social cohesion also tackles the fractures in society which may lead to conflict and ensures that the gains which changing communities bring are a source of strength to local areas.

Building cohesive communities brings huge benefits by creating a society in which people from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds can live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.  Cohesive communities are communities which are better able to tackle common problems, to provide mutual support and to work together for a positive future.

Mashuq Ally

Assistant Director, Equalities & Human Resources

20 September 2012