Mapping Community Cohesion in Waltham Forest
Borough of Waltham Forest
Community engagement is a council’s strategy to deliver social cohesion
Eleven local people arrested on terrorism charges. It is the shocking news that no city council wants to hear. But that is what faced the Borough of Waltham Forest in London’s East End when police found evidence of an alleged plot to down a transatlantic flight to North America in August 2006.
“That was a real wake up call obviously,” says Claire Whitney, Community Engagement Manager for Waltham Forest, “having terrorists, local people, educated in the borough, and arrested on terrorism charges.”
The arrests were a turning point for the local authority which moved quickly to invest more emphasis and resources into its social cohesion work, first with the local Muslim community and quickly, broadening its efforts to include all youth. Council leadership was rewarded with public recognition for the council’s achievements in dealing with a critical situation.
In 2012 all eyes are once again on Waltham Forest as the borough plays host to the 2012 Olympic Games. Opportunities and challenges co-exist in equal measure as economic and social drivers shape the borough’s future.
Mapping and Tracking
Waltham Forest is one of London’s 32 city boroughs, and among its most diverse, with a history of migration going back to the early nineteenth century when the earliest Jewish immigrants arrived from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, it has a population of 235,000; more than 40 % of its residents have a minority ethnic background with post-war migration coming from the Caribbean and South Asia, and most recently, refugee settlement from Somalia and Eastern Europe. The borough has the third largest Muslim community (15%) in London and one third of the population is under the age of 25.
Improving social cohesion was on of the Waltham Forest Council agenda long before the 2006 arrests. The council established launched its Community Cohesion Task Group as early as 2003 in response to rising tensions related to British participation in the Iraq War. The multi-sector taskforce conducted a survey, Religion and Faith in Focus, that mapped religion, ethnicity, gender and economic activity in the borough and established an invaluable benchmark to guide future development of its cohesion work.
But it was the 2006 arrests that spurred the council into greater action. It commissioned a report, “Breaking down the Walls of Silence,” by the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo). Among its chief findings, it reported that many members of the Muslim community felt unrepresented by the council; young people felt disengaged and often worried about gangs and gang culture; and intergenerational tension were felt across the community.
Where to begin?
A re-assessment of its social cohesion work-to-date against new survey data suggested Waltham Forest Council still had much to do. For example, it became obvious that little of its previous community cohesion strategy had been embedded in schools or within the community. Also, the prior assumption that the borough’s twelve Muslim councilors ‘represented’ their religious community, or a wider Muslim mosaic, was dashed when closer examination revealed that all were members of the same mosque.
Determined to get it right, Council turned to the iCoCo report to inform the next iteration of the borough’s Community Cohesion Strategy (2008-11). The revised strategy identified three priorities:
1. understanding and responding to the impact of migration and newly arrived communities;
2. building trust, contact and dialogue between communities; and
3. promoting active citizenship and engagement.
The strategy led to a new wave of reports documenting and measuring migrant and cohesion issues as well as projects involving interfaith activity, youth engagement and women’s groups.
Two projects among many from Waltham Forest have been singled out for their innovative work from different parts of the borough’s cohesion agenda.
The iMuslim project was developed in direct response to the tensions in the borough due to the arrests. A series of short films were made by a group of young Muslims to explore the portrayal of their community in the mainstream media. They helped recruit the film company and were then trained to storyboard, film, edit and even animate the films. They also conducted interviews and discussion group sessions with nationally renowned journalists and script writers from the television series, The Bill. Not only did the young people appreciate having their voices heard by media professionals, they also learned that the media is not all against them and that they can change negative perceptions and stereotypes.
On the other hand, the Youth Independent Advisory Group (YIAG) was developed to create a way for young people to interact productively with police. In particular, the group developed training for police regarding a controversial subject for area young people – to improve how police conduct ‘stop and searches.’ Another part of the work involves youth as peer trainers on anger and conflict management. The feedback on the sessions, which have involved young offenders has been very positive with comments like “they could relate to me, they understood us more.”
In the background to this work, however, was the implementation of the national Prevent strategy in 2007, the “preventative strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.” It too became an element of the Waltham Forest Community Cohesion Strategy (2008-11). Admittedly, Prevent has remained a challenge for the local ‘cohesion agenda.’
“Waltham Forest’s robust leadership, particularly from elected members and officers, has been augmented by police, head teachers and faith community leaders. It has been a crucial element in terms of tension monitoring and maintaining cohesion in the longer term.” [Beacon Award]
Waltham Forest’s many-pronged response to the high profile arrests have led to much recognition. It first received the Beacon Status (now the Local Innovation Awards Scheme) in 2008, followed by another Beacon award for Building Cohesive and Resilient Communities in 2009 and 2010 with the Waltham Forest Metropolitan Police Service.
Today cohesion work in Waltham Forest has new challenges. The national government introduced severe austerity cuts in the spring of 2011, resulting in an immediate loss of funding for Waltham Forest’s cohesion work, totaling 65 million pounds over three years and a reduction of 40% of staff. This was followed by the UK riots in August, which spread to the borough.
“There are two issues emerging for Waltham Forest. One is how do we deliver cohesion work going forward and building on the good work that we have done,” say Whitney. “But also the potential cohesion impact as a result of the budget reduction.”
While the YIAG program is still running, the pressure means that local authorities like Waltham Forest, are looking to continue their work with existing voluntary agencies.
Making it Work for You:
- How well do you know your community? Mapping, measuring and tracking demographic change is key to interpreting and responding to the economic and social needs of your community.
- Breaking down silos or barriers between communities means finding common ground, such as the multi-generational concerns for youth that cut across community divides in Waltham Forest.
- Community engagement is more than an outcome; it’s a tool that can be used to respond to changing community interests and needs.