Westminster City Council has established a cross-party Community Cohesion Commission to undertake a review of the social integration of its communities and strengthen its work on cohesion.
Westminster and its communities
Westminster is one of the most diverse places in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people from different backgrounds living and working in the borough. It is home to just under a quarter of a million people, with thousands of families raising 42,600 children who live, learn and grow up here. Over 150 languages are spoken in the city’s schools and 28,400 older people live in the borough. Westminster is also the UK’s cultural, entertainment and entrepreneurial hub; a local economy with national clout, contributing over £55 billion to the country’s economic output. Its shops alone generate £13.3 billion of revenue and attract over five million visitors a week.
Building a cohesive community has been a particular focus for Westminster City Council for over a decade. On 14 March 2006, the then Leader of the Council, Sir Simon Milton, launched a report entitled ‘Creating the Blueprint for Community Cohesion’ in response to the 7/7 bombings the previous July. The aim was to develop a better idea of what people thought was needed for a cohesive community and to set forth recommendations. In the report, Sir Simon Milton wrote:
“Building a common sense of the way forward… establishing new relationships… connecting ourselves to the heart of the decision making process. That is exactly what community cohesion should be about…. I now want…to deliver a city where people know what their council does and how they can make a different….where elected councillors are leading their communities through new forms of neighbourhood engagement, where anyone can access council services, online at any time.”
While much of this is still as relevant today as it was in 2006, 10 years on a lot has changed – from the global economic recession to the decision to leave the European Union. When combined with continued rapid technological advancements, reducing public finances, increasing demands and expectations on services, policy developments, regeneration, and changes in demographics, this has all impacted the way in which people in Westminster work and live with one another.
Westminster’s Community Cohesion Commission
In order to respond to the above challenges and changes, in 2015, Cllr Nickie Aiken, the then Cabinet Member for Public Protection and now Leader of Westminster City Council, committed to conducting a review of policy and practice relating to community cohesion, with a focus on combating extremism and radicalisation in Westminster.
In order to undertake this review, a Community Cohesion Commission has been established. The Commission is chaired by Cllr Aiken and is represented by councillors from both Westminster’s political parties including Cllr Adam Hug, the Leader of the Opposition party.
After considering various definitions of community cohesion, it was decided that it was most appropriate for the Commission to work to the definition offered by the Local Government Association as per the below:
By community cohesion, the councils mean working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities; a society in which the diversity of people’s background and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community.
The commission was convened to discuss cohesion, radicalisation and extremism in the round, as set out in its Terms of Reference. Its aim was to take an evidence based approach to understand any barriers to cohesion within Westminster, engage with key stakeholders to inform recommendations and prepare a report for consideration. Its objectives were to:
- improve how the council engages with Westminster’s communities;
- empower and improve the opportunities for all of Westminster’s diverse communities;
- reduce the risks of harm to Westminster’s communities; and,
- enable communities to develop greater resilience.
It was decided that the commission would work under four broad themes – identity; faith and values; empowerment and opportunity; and safeguarding and community engagement.
The commission was launched in June 2016 at an event at Westminster’s Porchester Hall. Guest speakers included Borough Commander for Westminster Peter Ayling and the then Youth MP for Westminster Hamza Taouzzale, who shared their reasons for wanting to aid the commission in their research and emphasised how a more cohesive society will impact both the Police and the youth of Westminster. At the event, Cllr Nickie Aiken, underlined her commitment to the project saying:
“Westminster is at the heart of one of the most diverse cities in the world...We are incredibly proud of our diversity and consider it one of the city’s key strengths. But we know there are still important challenges we need to address to make sure Westminster remains a place where everyone feels they belong and are safe.”
Cllr Adam Hug, Leader of the Opposition, Westminster City Council, added:
“It is vital that the council digs deep into the social integration challenges right across our city. I hope the commission will give us the opportunity to do this and review what Westminster is doing. Most importantly, we must reach out to the communities that are most difficult to access.”
The Commission has used a four tiered approach to gather information and evidence to inform their understanding of cohesion in Westminster.
Tier 1: Reviewing national policy, literature and developments
This included reviewing works by Ted Cantle but also evaluating the government’s position and responses following events such as the 2001 riots and disturbances, 2005 London Bombings and 2015 Charlie Hedbo attacks in Paris. The work has also been undertaken alongside and in the context of the Louise Casey review.
Tier 2: Local data analysis
The commission sought to analyse local demographics by utilising information gathered in the council’s annual City Survey to gauge how residents feel about living in Westminster and get a sense of how far communities are gelling together at a rudimentary level.
Westminster’s City Survey asks a range of questions to gather information on how its residents feel about living in Westminster and understand their views on what the Council and its partners are doing well on and what they can improve on. However, the commission has focused on the below areas of interest:
- How well different communities in Westminster get on together.
- The depth of interaction between people in the community.
- Whether residents consider that they feel as if they are a part of their local community.
Tier 3: Benchmarking best practise with neighbouring authorities
Westminster engaged with other councils, including Hackney, Brent and Redbridge to find out what other local authorities are doing to address local challenges to community cohesion and how they are using their borough’s unique assets to address these challenges.
A key element of this part of the evidence gathering exercise was the commission’s visit to Hackney Council on 19th December 2016 to meet with Cabinet Members, Policy Communications and Community Engagement officers. The commission were particularly interested in finding out about Hackney’s experiences and methods in approaching similar challenges around the affordability of housing and changing shape of neighbours, who share in the benefits of prosperity.
Tier 4: Community engagement
The commission also launched an extensive engagement programme which included over 25 events (roundtables, evidence sessions, focus groups, attendances at partner forums and meetings) to further understand the barriers to community cohesion within Westminster.
In parallel, Westminster launched an online consultation page, inviting people to share their experiences and stories of community cohesion and a space for them to feed back to the Commission.
The evidence gathering exercise has now been completed and the findings are currently being drawn out. The council will next produce a report laying out the findings of the evidence gathering and its recommendations. This report is currently being drafted.