Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Sixth Report

1 Introduction

1. In the summer of 2003, the Select Committee decided to inquire into the issues of social cohesion, and in particular what progress had been made in the two years since the disturbances in several towns in the North of England. The events in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham in early summer 2001 revealed tensions between communities in these towns, based around race. Following the disturbances central Government and local authorities commissioned reports to investigate their causes and identify possible solutions. The reports recommended action at a local and national level.

The Committee announced its Inquiry on 21 May 2003. The terms of reference were to consider:

  • the Government's (and in particular ODPM's) response to the Community Cohesion reports, especially in relation to neighbourhood renewal, housing and local government;
  • the role of councils, other public agencies and voluntary and community groups;
  • how cohesive communities can be created, and examples of successful policies and initiatives, including whether they can be transferred to other places.[1]

2. The Committee asked for national evidence but also resolved to look at one community, in Oldham, in more detail. We were pleased so many individuals felt able to submit evidence from Oldham. The Committee visited Oldham for four days in September 2003 and took evidence for one and half days. We were disappointed that on our second day of evidence Ministers had to remain in the House of Commons to vote and that the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality failed to attend. We were impressed with much of what we saw in Oldham but worried that that many of the underlying problems were not being tackled quickly enough. The Committee decided to take further evidence to see how far what we heard and saw in Oldham was typical of the national picture. This report contains examples of good practice, deals with some of the issues particular to Oldham, and looks at Government policy in relation to social cohesion.

3. We would like to thank our two specialist advisers, Ted Cantle and Andy Forbes, for their guidance and assistance, as well as Martin Wilson, Principal Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly for his contribution to the inquiry. We would also like to thank the organisations who gave us hospitality in Oldham, all those organisations and individuals who made written submissions or gave oral evidence to this inquiry and those organisations which have contributed to the case studies.

Definition of Social Cohesion

4. There are diverging views on the definition of community cohesion, but there is general agreement about the features a cohesive community should display. Rodney Green, the Chief Executive of Leicester City Council felt there was a need for honest dialogue within communities about cultural differences:

"I think a cohesive community is a community that has naturally many cross-links, where people from different race, age, background, feel free and happy to mix together in housing, in education, in leisure facilities. One test of that in my experience in Leicester is the willingness and ability to talk frankly and openly face-to-face about quite sensitive issues. If your language in a community is very politically correct, if you are treading on thin ice all the time and always being polite, that is not a cohesive community; it is a careful community."[2]

5. Gareth Daniel, the Chief Executive of Brent Council focused on the benefits to be gained when a community can enjoy and capitalise on the diversity of varied cultures within it:

"We celebrate diversity in West London, we are not frightened by it, we are not scared of it, we celebrate it, and it is one of the strengths of the area. When you are trying to market what is a successful and relatively buoyant economy in West London, the fact that West London has a very multinational workforce, major headquarters of international companies based there, the very cosmopolitan nature of the workforce is itself quite a compelling factor driving inward investment in the area, and we think that is a strength. Also we celebrate one another's religions and cultures. In Brent, for example, we celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, we celebrate the Muslim festivals of Eid, everybody celebrates Diwali, whatever their religion, in West London. There is a sense in which we own one another's cultures and we have actively provided opportunities for engagement between communities, and that has been done actively, it has not happened by default. I think the political parties of all persuasions deserve some recognition for the leadership they have shown in that."[3]

6. Several other witnesses commented on the benefits to be gained from sharing in the diverse cultures within their towns. The submission by the West London Community Pathfinder Initiative said:

"The migrants' arrival over several decades has also provided the local authorities and other public sector organisations with the chance to develop links with as wide range and number of community organisations, faith and refugee groups and encourage and celebrate the diversity of each of the different cultures. This is particularly evident in the festivals that are often hosted by the local authorities working in close partnership with community and faith organisations."[4]

However, Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, criticised the language used.

"I dislike the term "community cohesion", frankly. I think it lacks clarity. I think we are beginning to talk more about the term "an integrated society" because in order to advance a solution - which is what I think community cohesion is supposed to be - we have first to understand what it is you are trying to remedy. My view is that we are trying to remedy some of the fractures in our society. Some of those are economically driven; some are driven by other kinds of difference and division independent of economics."[5]

7. The Committee accepted the Local Government Association/Home Office's definition that a cohesive community is one where:

  • there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities;
  • the diversity of people's different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued;
  • those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and
  • strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods.[6]

8. The Committee felt that any cohesive society should also demonstrate the ability to integrate people from different ethnic backgrounds so that they can relate together in terms of where they live, their education, employment, and social/recreation spheres. The Committee decided to consider the broader issue of social cohesion across the entire spectrum of society, rather than confine it to the problems affecting particular communities.  

1   ODPM Select Committee Press Notice Session 2002-03 21 May 2003


2   Q155  Back

3   Q494  Back

4   SOC72 Back

5   Q654  Back

6   Guidance on Community Cohesion LGA/Home Office 2002 page 6 Back

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