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Social integration experts discuss community cohesion in post-Brexit Britain

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Experts on social integration were among the speakers for the launch of this year’s Insights, the annual themed collection of policy-relevant research from ISER’s UK Household Longitudinal Study, Understanding Society. The event, ‘Social integration and cohesion at a crossroads: where to now?’ brought together local authorities, civic and cultural organisations, refugee support groups, government departments, think tanks and academics to debate the issues and suggest ways forward.

Debbie Weekes-Bernard, London’s Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility, and Community Engagement spoke at the event, saying: “Integration should happen naturally, but we can’t leave it to happen by itself.” She said London’s strategy had three elements: building an evidence base, doing evidence-based work, and – given the limits on the Mayor’s power – advocacy. It also recognises inequality as a barrier to integration.

Adeeba Malik, Deputy Chief Executive of the Bradford-based QED Foundation, said, “We need a thriving town centre and pride in Bradford – but you can’t force people. You have to provide opportunities to meet people who are not like them, and to feel proud.”

Catherine Anderson, CEO of the Jo Cox Foundation, which has organised exchange visits between Lambeth, the most Remain-voting borough in the country, and Boston, the most Leave-voting. She said, “The government needs to help create spaces where communities can come together.”

Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham. Her work includes co-authoring the Home Office Indicators of Integration framework 2019, and she said: “Established communities have to be prepared to include newcomers, so we need enabling structures. We have to help develop local and national strategies.”

Adrian Favell, Chair in Sociology and Social Theory at the University of Leeds, who pointed out that “integration is complex. A large Northern town, for example, will have neighbourhoods which are high on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. One might be highly integrated and super-diverse, with a strong sense of community, another all White, with all the same social issues, but no sense of community.”

Joy Warmington, CEO of equalities and human rights charity brap, chaired, and there was a discussion session looking at progress made and challenges to face. Delegates raised points such as:

  • There is evidence of prejudice falling, but there are regional differences, with immigration largely going to poorer areas.
  • Children often co-exist across social divides, but splinter voluntarily at secondary school. Intervention at ages 7-9 has the greatest impact.
  • Work can be levelling, compared to people’s school or neighbourhood, but there are unequal opportunities to progress in one’s career.

Looking back at the day, Raj Patel, Impact Fellow at Understanding Society, added: “The government defines integrated communities as places where people – whatever their background – live, work, learn and socialise together. Practically, that means building meaningful relationships – often through shared activities, arts, sports and culture. Integration is a constant process of learning and adaptation rather than one-off events.”

The Policy and Partnerships Unit at Understanding Society will build on the event by following up with delegates interested in using Understanding Society data and emerging evidence from the Study.

The Insights 2019-20 report is available here, and showcases policy-relevant research on three major topics – social integration, work and health, and geographical mobility – with commentary from leading policy thinkers and practitioners.