City mayors could head off post-Brexit divisions

Jamie Doward
Muslims celebrate Eid in London. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Britain’s leading expert on social cohesion has backed calls for a radical new approach to heal deepening divisions in the post-Brexit-vote era.

Professor Ted Cantle, author of a groundbreaking report commissioned by the government after the 2001 race riots in northern England, has backed calls for the mayors of the six new city regions being created across England in local elections on Thursday to appoint deputies responsible for improving relations between different community groups. The approach has been adopted by a number of major global cities with considerable success.

“We need unity more than ever to respond to those that seek to create divisions,” Cantle said. “Deputy mayors can begin to build bridges and create a real sense of belonging in their areas and, most of all, to develop practical actions to help all communities come to terms with change and build a common purpose.”

Cantle was speaking before the release of a new report from British Future, an independent thinktank established to promote social cohesion. The report, Integration: From National Rhetoric to Local Reality, suggests that there is an “integration policy vacuum” at the heart of government which the new mayors of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, and the West of England can help fill.

The idea has already been implemented by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan. In New York the mayor’s office of immigration affairs now offers a broad range of initiatives, from language provision to advice for new arrivals. In Barcelona, where one in five residents was born outside Spain, the city authority has created a department of “immigration and inter-culturality” to promote Spanish language learning and social connectedness.

“Integration cannot be left to chance. It needs champions in every town and city – and all have different local issues which a deputy mayor can recognise and support,” Cantle said.

“The deputy mayor can also create a real sense of partnership and purpose and bring together local businesses, schools, housing associations, faith organisations and local and voluntary agencies.”

Cantle has for some time warned that British society is dividing along ethnic lines – with segregation appearing across schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces. There are now concerns that Brexit has exacerbated those tensions in some parts of the country.

British Future said it had identified integration problems in each of the six new combined authorities. In Greater Manchester, particularly in Oldham and Rochdale, it claims there is a need for using new housing powers to address the geographic segregation of different faith and ethnic communities.

In the west of England it calls for improving education and employment prospects for young Caribbean and Somali people. And in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, it said there was a need to address social and educational divides.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said a new approach was long overdue. “We have never put in place a proper integration strategy in this country. Yet getting integration right so we live well together matters to everyone in Britain. It’s a big part of the immigration anxieties that played out in the Brexit vote and that parties must respond to in the general election.

“Governments need to get it right, but integration mostly happens in the towns and cities where we live. The new mayors could be game-changers for integration in the six city regions that go to the polls this week – understanding the specific integration challenges of their region and with wide-ranging powers and budgets to address them. Appointing a deputy mayor for integration would show that the new mayors take integration seriously, and give responsibility to a high-profile individual to make it work across their region.”

Last week MPs, educationalists and civil society leaders in the West Midlands signed a joint letter to the Birmingham Mail urging candidates to support the appointment of a deputy mayor for integration.

Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and one of the signatories, said: “Communities are at their best when they live with each other, not just alongside each other. The Midlands has a lot to be proud of at a city level, but making this happen across the region will require a conscious effort. A deputy mayor will be ideally placed to achieve just that.”

Sabir Zazai, chief executive of Coventry refugee and migrant centre, said the West Midlands was one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Britain, and had a longstanding tradition of welcoming people from across the world: “I am proud of the benefits this diversity has brought in aiding the development of the region, but also aware it brings difficult and sensitive challenges for the new mayor. It is essential that these issues are dealt with openly and constructively, and that’s why I am supporting British Future’s proposal for the mayor to appoint a deputy for social integration.”

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