A few weeks ago I was talking with a regeneration practitioner from Burnley, and I asked about the council’s work on community cohesion.
Was support for the British National Party starting to ebb away?
He told me that far from diminishing, the party seemed to be getting stronger than ever.
This week’s local election results will indicate just how influential the BNP is becoming, and it’s unlikely to be good news for anyone who believes in bringing communities together rather than pitching them against each other.
So it’s brave of the New Local Government Network to choose this week to announce a project called ‘devolving diversity’.
The nub of the think-tank’s argument is that rather than following a national policy, local authorities should be given incentives to decide for themselves how best to manage migration and difference – some might wish to focus on housing, while others would seek to attract migrant labour to meet local needs.
Policies on community cohesion, the network said, should reflect ‘the nuanced and complex variation in circumstances from one neighbourhood to another’.
This is in line both with the general thrust of the local government white paper and the remarkably similar message emerging from the Opposition.
Such devolution, it must be hoped, will counter the idea that communities are being changed against their will by national diktat.
But there are real risks that turning community cohesion into a purely local issue will hand the initiative to an ugly alliance of Nimbys and racists willing to exploit the fears of anyone frightened by change.
The New Local Government Network wants local authorities to be enabled to ‘achieve lasting and sustainable settled communities’.
But a key lesson of the last 50 years is that international mobility is increasing, both through economic success and as a consequence of repression and conflict.
No town or city can isolate itself. If communities are to develop their own approaches to diversity, the premise must be an acceptance of change.
And that will involve some frank and painful exchanges with those who are inclined to seek refuge in parties like the BNP, which they imagine can shield them from the realities of a different millennium.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine