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Building more cohesive communities

Community cohesion emerged as a distinct policy agenda in the aftermath of the 2001 disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham and was subsequently shaped by events including the London bombings of 2005 and large-scale migration from the EU and beyond. Researchers in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) have delivered a programme of research and evaluation exploring cohesion and the effectiveness of service responses. Beneficiaries have included government departments, devolved administrations and other local, regional and national public agencies.

The research

Since 2002, CRESR have been conducting research into community cohesion, led by Professor Robinson. During that time, research has focused on two related themes: policy understanding and implementation of the cohesion agenda, and the link between migration and cohesion.

CRESR began research into cohesion with the first ever study to explore links between community cohesion and housing in England. This involved interviews with social rented sector practitioners and a cohesion impact assessment of policy and practice. It provided new insights for exploring the cohesion agenda in England, which it found relied on contested notions of community and multiculturalism and other presumptions, raising critical questions about policy. The research highlighted ways in which government agencies can promote cohesion, as well as factors that could undermine it.

CRESR also conducted the first study looking at ways to predict community cohesion among young people and found that many predictors, such as deprivation and perceptions of crime, were similar to predictors for adults. However distinctive factors had to be taken into account such as the social and ethnic mix within schools.

The theme of migration emerged as a key factor determining cohesion at the local level. Dominant discourses had served to pit migrants against British citizens, raising community tensions. Research ventured beyond this stereotyping and scapegoating to expose the experiences and consequences of migration on community relations. This included a focus on the frequently debated issue of access to housing for new immigrants. Analysis highlighted how the rapid pace of change driven by new migration posed real challenges for the housing system, but also revealed that, far from being skilled players of the British welfare state, migrants were frequently unaware of possibilities provided by the social rented sector.

Research also filled gaps in knowledge and understanding about the local effects of new migration. Following a review of the evidence base on neighbourhood experiences of new immigration for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, CRESR conducted in-depth, qualitative analysis of migration experiences and an evaluation of initiatives promoting integration. The new conceptual framework developed recognised that migration could change communities, but consequences of change were often more complex and varied than commonly assumed.

Recommendations from the [CRESR] evaluation have ensured that there is a key focus on the delivery of community cohesion in Wales, where a renewed action plan is being developed in 2013. The guidance has ensured that Coordinators are delivering work consistently, with coverage across all 22 local authorities in Wales.
Senior civil servant, Fairer Futures Division of Welsh Government

The impact

An evaluation of the role of housing in promoting community cohesion as part of the National Evaluation of Housing Market Renewal in 2009 revealed a lack of understanding about what community cohesion was and what Pathfinder housing market renewal schemes should be aspiring to achieve.

Recommendations and guidance on good practice followed and were fed back to local agencies in a bid to prompt improvements in policy and practice. These were then distributed nationally by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), published in the 2009 Housing Renewal and Community Cohesion report, which gained coverage in the professional press.

Robinson and colleagues were also commissioned to evaluate the national cohesion strategy for Wales. During the two years of the evaluation, CRESR recommendations and guidance directly informed ministerial decisions about the future direction of policy. CRESR was also commissioned to author guidance on mainstreaming cohesion for Welsh local authorities. This was launched by the Minister in 2011, forwarded to all local authorities in a bid to support good practice, and made available as a free download on the Welsh Government's website.

Research insights also helped inform and influence popular and political perspectives on one of the most divisive issues associated with new migration: access to social housing. It was referenced by a government convened group exploring the local level impacts of migration. The professional journal 'Inside Housing' drew on these findings to challenge comments by the Margaret Hodge MP about migrants living in social housing.

Subsequently, Robinson was commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) to deliver one of three pieces of analysis examining whether there was any validity in the contention that recent migrants had received preferential treatment in social housing allocations. This evidence informed the letter subsequently sent by the LGA to all local authority chief executives in England clarifying the facts about the allocation of housing to migrants.

Findings emerging from five evaluation reports (2010-2012) on local and national initiatives supporting the integration of refugees helped the Home Office to deliver on its obligation to evaluate and to learn from European Refugee Fund and European Integration Fund initiatives. Research findings led to Robinson being invited to join a Home Office expert panel on the impacts of migration on public services in England in 2012. In 2013, Robinson was recruited to provide expertise on housing, migration and cohesion to the Homes and Communities Agency's (HCA's) Equalities and Diversity Advisory Group, which advises and challenges the HCA on all aspects of its work.

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