Lambeth is home to well over 150 different communities. Different groups living here are at different stages of integration into our society. The newly arrived Poles still operate separately, looking into their own community for support. In part that’s because they don’t know how to access public services here, but also because they consider themselves to be here only temporarily and so don’t reach out more widely.
Our Portuguese population felt similarly when they arrived in large numbers in the mid 1990s. A decade later, they’re realising they’re here to stay as they send their children to state schools and live in public housing. They’ve realised they need to look outwards and build networks into the wider community.
There’s an even greater challenge for our Somali population. The most newly-arrived of all, they experience nearly 90% male unemployment, and are not only unfamiliar with the public sector in Britain but have little experience of the public sector as a concept since they come from a country where there is no functioning state.
I use these three examples because they show communities at different stages of integration in a highly complex social structure. Each community has different needs. Empowering communities, in this context, doesn’t just mean letting a particular neighbourhood decide how best to spend a particular pot of money. It requires innovative models of engagement and an understanding that each community has different needs. From that, we can identify the support and resources they need to tackle their own problems while promoting integration with everyone else.
A community as excluded as the Somalis can’t deal with their hugely complex problems on their own. But neither can the public sector acting alone respond quickly enough or develop a sufficiently deep understanding of the community’s needs to provide all the solutions. The answer lies in a partnership, and the vehicles for change are voluntary and community organisations, including faith groups, that already have roots and credibility inside the community.
There’s a key role for local government in helping communities to build their own capacity to tackle the problems they face. For the public sector, that means letting go, and it means accepting the risk that goes with not being in control. If young Somali people aren’t getting involved with our youth services in sufficiently large numbers, we must give community-based organisations the resources they need to provide the service instead. It also means ensuring that members of the community are involved in decision-making about services that everyone uses – such as becoming members of school governing bodies, service user groups, boards of trustees, or becoming councillors.
For the Lib Dems we replaced in 2006, engagement meant committees of their councillors pontificating to people about what was going to happen to them. For our Labour council, the goal is to engage with people in their own communities so we can offer them the support, resources and control they need to make sure that local services really work for them.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.