Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 26-39)


27 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q26 Chair: Can I ask the three of you to say who you are and which of the three organisations you are representing?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: I am Andrew Blake-Herbert, I am the director of resources from Slough Borough Council.

  Mr Davies: I am Gareth Davies, I am the Audit Commission's managing director for local government.

  Mr Allen: I am Tim Allen, from the Local Government Association, in charge of analysis and research.

  Chair: Jim, do you want to start? Can I just say, before Mr Dobbin asks this question, do not all three feel obliged to answer every question, in fact please do not, and I will try and make sure you all get a reasonably good go at it.

  Q27  Jim Dobbin: Thanks very much, Chair. The Audit Commission has been quite critical of local government, basically because they say that many local authorities do not have a proper strategy for coping with community cohesion. Could you enlighten us as to what you think is wrong?

  Mr Davies: What we have tried to explain is we think there is a wide diversity of practice amongst local authorities, and we are particularly drawing there on our corporate assessments of councils. We are in the middle of a three-year programme of those assessments, and they have shown that wide range of performance on cohesion. In some ways, that is understandable. The strongest performers on having a clear strategy around this are those that have been dealing with this issue in different forms for a long time, so waves of new migrants are less of a challenge to an authority that has developed resilience and a capacity to handle these issues over a period. It is clearly those parts of the country where this is a newer phenomenon where they are much more challenged by this and do not have the existing depth of skills and capacity to deal with it.

  Q28  Jim Dobbin: There are examples in some authorities, for example in Slough, and in Peterborough, where we visited, of good practice. How slow do you think local authorities are to learn from each other?

  Mr Davies: Again from the Commission's perspective, we think that picture is changing rapidly. The amount of support that local government as a sector is now providing to authorities as individual councils is dramatically better than it was several years ago, and so the Local Government Association and the IDeA have a significant programme around this topic, which is already, you know, making a visible difference.

  Q29  Jim Dobbin: I live in Rochdale, which is between Oldham and Burnley. They have had problems in Burnley, but it has been fairly cohesive in Rochdale.

  Mr Davies: It is worth looking at some of the individual reports that I mentioned. One recently published has one of the strongest performances on community cohesion is Kirklees, for example, which is another very diverse area with a long history of coping with change, so it is certainly not possible to extrapolate from the demographic make-up of an area to its performance on community cohesion. We see areas with very similar demographics achieving quite different levels of performance.

  Q30  Chair: Mr Allen, I do not know if you want to comment on that?

  Mr Allen: Thank you. Whilst I would accept the Audit Commission's evidence that councils have had to react to a very rapidly changing position, some of the evidence quoted is two or three years old. We are talking about a phenomenon, for those councils that have not previously experienced migration, which actually has happened over that three or four years, so I think what you see is a pattern of councils responding, and I think responding very successfully, to significant population changes in areas that have not previously experienced population change, or not at least in recent history. I think what is becoming evident, and is becoming evident to those councils, is that as this is not a transient experience, we are having to move from a position of reacting and responding to the immediacy of significant churn in the schools, often young children arriving with limited skills mid-term, to the more strategic and longer term implications, for example you may serve HMOs on sub-standard housing, but actually, that displaces people who may now need housing one way or another. Now we have a more strategic approach that is needed, and that, I think, is now where councils are beginning to respond, and beginning to think about how you tackle those issues, and what the implications are.

  Chair: Anne, I think this may be a question for Slough.

  Q31  Anne Main: I would like to start with Mr Blake-Herbert, please. When we visited Peterborough, one of the things that came over loud and clear was not so much having ethnic minority communities coming in, but it was the speed and pace at which they were coming in which left many areas of the local council struggling to keep up with that pace of change, and I just wonder what Slough's view is, because you have had a transition from quite a settled ethnic minority community to a slightly more churned one.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: It is not just the scale or the speed of it that is also part of the issue, it is the fact that this wave of migration, unlike those in the past—it is the inability of statistics to keep up with the figures and the bigger impact that that has for local authorities, in terms of the certainty we have in terms of the numbers so we are able to plan services appropriately, not only for the new migrants, but also for the current indigenous population; also in terms of the impact that has on funding. So when councillors are making decisions about local services and what to provide, they are able to support people in the right way.

  Q32  Anne Main: Do you feel the Government is not sympathetic to what you have just said, in terms of being able to extrapolate for future needs, rather than looking back on probably census data that may well be quite out of date, from what you have said?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Certainly in terms of Slough, we have been pushing our campaign for a number of years now, in terms of the figures and the inaccuracies in the statistics. That does have a real impact in terms of services locally, and I think it is well recognised by cohesion experts that when different communities seem to be vying for limited resources, that you can have cohesion issues arise.

  Q33  Anne Main: Are you seeing that in Slough?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Certainly in terms of the work we are doing. We have an established community, they are very well integrated, in terms of living and working together and socialising together, but we are watching it very closely, and one of the things, in terms of the work we have done, we have carried out a fair bit of cohesion work within the borough, and it is not just white communities that are seeing it, it is also existing BME communities that are beginning to raise issues about cohesion that are coming forward and we are having to manage that very closely.

  Q34  Anne Main: What particular issues are they raising as a result of this rapid pace of change, just briefly?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: It is the rapid pace of change.

  Q35  Chair: What particular services, I think is what we are trying to get a handle on.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: In terms of real services for the borough, it is around schooling and the impact on schooling; it is around housing, in particular for Slough around the number of houses in multiple occupation which are two-storey, not three-storey, or sheds with beds, which is also a phenomenon which is springing up across the borough, but it is also about skills. Slough has one of the lowest wage rates in the south-east of England, we have the lowest skills base in the south-east of England, this has had an impact in terms of people's employment, but it also has an impact for the authority when we have limited resources, because the figures say the population is falling, and therefore the local authority's funding is falling. For Members to balance that, is it about ESL classes and supporting new migrants who cannot speak English, or is it about getting the skills up in parts of our community which are low-skilled, like the Pakistani part of our community, to get people into employment? We have to balance that very closely.

  Chair: I am sure you are aware, Mr Blake-Herbert, that the Treasury Select Committee is doing an inquiry about the numbers issue, so we are not actually getting into that, and I know that John wants to ask questions about HMOs, so if we could keep off that aspect.

  Q36  Mr Hands: I just want to come in very quickly, because we might be missing something here. You are quite right, our inquiry is not about numbers, but are there any cohesion issues relating to numbers? In Hammersmith & Fulham, we have the same problem that Slough has, and quite often, there will be groups or communities lobbying on the basis that they think they have more numbers than the official numbers actually suggest, and that in itself causes cohesion issues relating to the counting of population. Is that something you are seeing as well?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: It is something we are seeing. It is either because we have been quite public about our campaign in trying to get the right resources to the borough that it should be getting to support both new migrants and the current indigenous population, that is something we are watching very closely, but it is something we are trying to manage as part of both working with those communities very closely, working with our business community in the same way, so we are able to support that and try and prevent that happening.

  Chair: John Cummings, and then I will come back to you.

  Q37  John Cummings: Are you suggesting that perhaps we have two policies here, one for the problems in relation to migrants and social cohesion, but there is also the problem with our indigenous population who are running around without any form of respect towards their peers, towards their local authorities, towards their services?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: I do not think I am suggesting that directly. I think what I would say, it is back to the immigration versus migration question from earlier. From our point of view, it does not matter whether someone comes from Putney or from Poland into the borough, if official statistics are not keeping pace with that to be able to tell us about the numbers of people who are coming, and therefore we have not got the funding to be able to support people, that is the key issue in terms of delivering cohesion at a local level.

  Q38  John Cummings: Do you think that local authorities are applying equality across the board here, in relation to the resources that appear to be directed towards the problems caused through immigrants and the problems that have existed with our communities for a great number of years now with our indigenous youth?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: In terms of it from a local authority's point of view, new migrants, when they arrive in the country, are not entitled to claim benefits in the same way for a period of twelve months until they have been in the country and worked. In terms of the council's policies, we obviously have to support all of the communities that live within our boroughs in the right way. Some of that is about specialist services, but for somewhere like Slough, where we have been managing migration for a very long period of time, most of those services are now generic across the varying different communities that live within our boroughs. However, there are times when we do have to respond to new migration communities in a very different way, and for example, it is one of the things we have seen in Slough, between January and April 2007, we had 400 Romanian Roma arrive in the borough, and they brought with them a very specific requirement, in terms of the local authority, around the services we had to provide. For a change, we did have to set up a specific team to actually be able to deal with the issues and problems they brought to the borough.

  Q39  Chair: Can you just briefly explain what the specific need was then that was different from another community, apart from language obviously?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: The Roma community, rather than the Romanian community, came with very different views and opinions in terms of their background and their make-up. They did not necessarily come to the country to work, in the way that a lot of migrants have come to the country to work. A lot of them had been arrested at various points in time in various parts of London and the surrounding south-east for some small criminal activities, and in fact we had raids in the borough by Westminster police a few weeks ago, around looking at that, around looking at trafficking of individuals into the country. That is something that has caused particular issues within those communities where they have settled and where they have based in a small group, rather than integrating into the rest of the borough.

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