How our new network will build hopeful, hostility-free towns

January 11, 2021   By Chris Clarke, Policy Researcher, HOPE not hate.

From the start of 2021, HOPE not hate Charitable Trust are starting to build a Towns Leadership Network, to improve community cohesion. The initiative is a central part of their Hopeful Towns project, and aims to support a more joined-up approach to across English and Welsh towns.

Community resilience and cohesion are hard topics to pin down – and are even trickier fields in which to effect change. For councils, questions about cohesion can feel intangible, bleeding into countless other policy areas, from jobs and housing to the arts and the public realm. It’s hard to know what ‘good looks like’ – and what can be done to achieve it using local levers.

The result is sometimes a firefighting approach, with the issue of cohesion only addressed after flashpoints have occurred or the far right have delivered a nasty surprise at the ballot box. Decision-makers are often left to play catch-up.

Meanwhile, as HOPE not hate Charitable Trust research has shown, challenges to cohesion increasingly occur in smaller settlements and town communities – places away from the UK’s core cities, often with fewer resources and weaker community infrastructure. This is especially true in those that have seen economic decline in recent decades.

Our Hopeful Towns project seeks to address these challenges. Running alongside projects to expose and campaign against the far right, it’s part of a wider effort to explore the root causes of hostility to migration and multiculturalism in English and Welsh towns. It asks how preventative approaches to build resilience can reduce the risk of community tensions occurring in the first place.

To do this we use a yardstick based not just on how well new and existing groups get on, but on how resilient an area is in the first place.

How able is a community to withstand abrupt demographic shifts or one-off flashpoints? How much trust is there for decision-makers, outsiders and each other? How positive are residents about racial and cultural difference? And how predisposed are people to welcome migrants, refugees or other new groups?

These questions apply in non-diverse communities as well as diverse ones – rich as well as poor. And the answers depend on a range of variables – economic, demographic, geographic and cultural.

There may be hostility to immigration both in a large, diverse satellite town on the edge of London and in a small ex-mining community with a shrinking population, for example. But the elements underlying this hostility are likely to be different, and the policy responses will need to be different too.

Our report in August, Understanding Community Resilience in Our Towns, identified 14 individual factors, each of which can exacerbate and amplify tensions. These are shown in the diagram below. For each factor, the report identifies a group of places where the characteristic may be more acute – looking at 862 towns across England and Wales.

Our aim is that this helps to separate out the different issues that feed into tensions. There may be hostility to immigration both in a large, diverse satellite town on the edge of London and in a small ex-mining community with a shrinking population, for example. But the elements underlying this hostility are likely to be different, and the policy responses will need to be different too.

In recognition of this, we are developing a Towns Leadership Network, so that strong case studies, resources and examples of best practice can be developed and shared. The network is open to everyone working in town communities, and will include online events and other opportunities for developing solutions – both with national experts and with other practitioners.

The hope is that this will make it easier for decision-makers in towns across the country to compare notes – increasing joined-up thinking between places with a similar resilience profile.

How, for example, do communities with a very strong sense of national identity make the most of this identity and avoid it spilling into nativism? And what has worked elsewhere on this question? The same goes for settlements in parts of the country with public realm challenges, demographic shifts or a history of far-right activity.

Enabling communities that are resilient enough to withstand change and absorb shocks is a tall order. This is especially true with the economic fallout from COVID-19 likely to make it easier for narratives of scarcity and loss to take hold. But the more we establish what works in preventing tensions – and more mechanisms there are for sharing this with each other – the better we will do.

You can sign up to the Towns Leadership Network here. The first Towns Leadership Network event will be on January 28th, looking at how towns can address the unwanted attentions of the far right and the populist radical right. You can register by clicking here.