What research and the events in Leicester tell us about the importance of investing in social cohesion
By Jo Broadwood, Belong Network CEO
19 October 2022
Good community relations are not something we can afford to become complacent about. Recent violent protests and community unrest in Leicester are a reminder that social cohesion is a dynamic and complex set of relationships. They can be influenced by local, national and international events and politics. Bad actors and influencers – whether local or international – are nothing new. But they can have a profound and devastating impact on local communities.
At Belong – the Cohesion and Integration Network, we know that investment in activities and programmes to foster social cohesion can build trust and help to strengthen the social connections that provide resilience to hatred and extremist narratives. There is already a body of good practice and evidence for how to build that community resilience.
Following disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in 2001, community cohesion initiatives included a tension monitoring programme implemented across areas considered vulnerable to conflict. This provided early warning of escalating intergroup tensions. Measurement frameworks such as the now discontinued Places survey meant local areas had a way of measuring social cohesion sensitive enough to identify where relationships and networks were beginning to break down. An emphasis on intergroup contact and positive relations meant that when conflicts and tensions did arise there was a bedrock of trust, and existing relationships between different communities enabling rapid responses, preventing tensions becoming a full blown crisis.
Investment in social cohesion before troubles arise is less costly than dealing with the aftermath of conflict
The returns on social cohesion work are wide ranging and long term: it builds resilience that can be drawn on well into the future and provides important secondary benefits to the community. Belong Network’s Beyond Us and Them research shows areas which invested in social cohesion prior to and during the pandemic (such as through the government’s Integration Area programme), pulled together to support each other. People in these areas showed consistently higher levels of social connection, neighbourliness, trust in others and more positive attitudes to other groups than elsewhere. As a result, these areas were able to mobilise more quickly during the pandemic and bring local leaders on board to support engagement with the vaccine programme.
Successive cuts to budgets means that local authorities now struggle to fund preventative work. When conflict and community tensions arise, they no longer have the eyes and ears on the ground which could have alerted them to the spread of misinformation and prejudice. Authorities are then on the back foot, rushing to try and defuse tensions when rumours have already taken hold with the risk of long-term damage to community relations.
Social cohesion – the need for a cross-sector response
Peer-to-peer learning can be crucial to this work. The Belong Network is offering a closed Community of Practice to those working with communities experiencing tensions and conflict. This will be delivered by two Belong Network associates bringing conflict resolution, mediation expertise and international peacebuilding experience. In the longer term, Belong Network can offer skills and capacity building alongside bespoke advice to organisations on how to build strategic approaches and local leadership to diffuse local conflict and tensions.
But we also need a coordinated response from government. The Belong Network, alongside others, is calling for the government to empower councils to build social cohesion, local trust and resilience and provide the resources to do this. For example, we urgently need a measurement framework which helps local authorities assess levels of social cohesion and community resilience. And alongside that a tension monitoring programme able to respond to the impact of social media on community relations and build resilience.
There are some other key ingredients: any social cohesion work needs an emphasis on high quality social mixing and tackling the barriers to inclusion of underrepresented groups and minority communities. The best schemes are co-produced between local government and local communities, with local people in the driving seat.
The cost of living – and the cost of not investing
With the cost-of-living crisis worsening, there is a danger that resources will be diverted away from longer-term work of building more resilient communities towards dealing with immediate needs. This is understandable but we cannot afford to see cohesion as a ‘nice to have’. At a time of economic crisis we need to invest in strengthening our social capital, and particularly that ‘bridging capital’ that builds relationships across difference. It is essential preventative work.
We have demonstrated that an investment in social cohesion can bring healthier, more engaged communities and a wellspring of strong social relations able to resist division and withstand shock and crisis. We disregard its importance at great cost – both to individual and community wellbeing.
(Image credit of Leicester at top of the page – NotFromUtrecht)