Dormers Wells Community Centre deliberately sets out to bring together people of different cultures; Hazel Blears says that more community groups should do the same. But will her ideas foster cohesion, or damage vulnerable communities? Herpreet Kaur Grewal reports.

Communities secretary Hazel Blears is doing yoga with an Asian resident in a community centre in the deprived Dormers Wells ward in west London. But this is more than a simple photo opportunity. It’s a chance for Blears to gush about how the centre is an example of how people from different cultural and racial backgrounds can be brought together in one place – the embodiment of those vague terms ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’.

Blears is here to launch the Government’s response to last summer’s report by the Commission for Integration and Cohesion (R&R, 22 June, p11), whose ideas included the proposal that funding for organisations serving the needs of only one ethnic, religious or cultural group should be made the “exception rather than the rule”.

The CIC’s research found “persistent confusion” and a “need for clarity from central Government” about policy towards the funding of ethnically-based, homogenous groups, particularly after its decision to reassess its multi-culturalist policies following the 7 July bombings in 2005. When the then communities secretary Ruth Kelly launched the CIC in 2006, she asked: “In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation?” A year later, the CIC’s report concluded that without a greater clarity from the Government, “funding will continue that may well be well-intentioned, but in practice could be divisive”.

The CIC’s proposal for limiting funding along narrow, “community”-based lines caused furore among small black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and umbrella third sector bodies, which claimed it was a threat to the existence of groups that provide specialist, culturally-appropriate services. In an attempt to calm fears, Blears published a consultation document, Cohesion Guidance for Funders, alongside her response to the CIC’s report earlier this month (R&R, 8 February, p5).

The guidance seeks to reassure small BME groups that funding decisions made by local authorities and other public bodies should not “aim to cancel projects working specifically with young black men to tackle gun crime, for example”, or with Muslim women. Blears said: “These projects can and should continue, and the good work of the third sector in approaching alienated and excluded parts of our communities should be recognised.”

Kevin Curley, chief executive of umbrella body the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA), welcomes the guidance. He says that its tone and contents contrast starkly with what the CIC had proposed, which had been “very threatening” for specialist third sector groups. Speaking to Regeneration & Renewal, Blears comments: “In some cases you will have to fund single issue groups.” She says people within these groups “may need a little bit of extra help to get on their feet and make progress”. But she adds: “At the same time I really want to push forward and say that there ought to be a point where we try and bring people together. Simply reinforcing a separate identity is not in the interests of society as a whole.”

The Government’s intentions may be fairly clear, but some in the sector say that there is a risk that the guidance will not be interpreted consistently by local funders. Yvonne Hutchinson, managing director of consultancy Community Chameleon, says a proper debate about funding homogenous groups was long overdue. However, she is concerned that local authorities are often somewhat old-fashioned and “may lack the sophistication or guts to back the groups that really are able to make a difference”. She warns that if the funding decisions are left to councils, “there’s a good chance that they’ll either stop funding BME groups completely, or we’ll see no change at all”.

Sally Cooke, third sector policy consultant at the Local Government Association, says that the guidance has clarified the situation for funders, but the reality is simply that “not every group doing worthy work will be funded indefinitely”. She adds: “There will be winners and losers.”

Clearly, not all organisations that work with a single ethnic group will continue to receive funding. Yet voluntary sector professionals insist that the expertise built up by these organisations over the years must not be wasted. The most obvious way to retain that BME expertise is to bring staff and projects together within larger organisations and mainstream service providers. But according to Cooke, the retention of BME expertise will hinge on the capacity of ethnic community groups to prove their worth. She says the onus is on bodies representing small BME voluntary groups to respond to the new guidelines and to raise awareness among their members of the changing climate: a lot of groups which will be affected by the guidance will not have picked up its implications yet.

Curley agrees that raising the profile of the guidance, and ensuring that it’s understood by grassroots groups, will help ensure that the knowledge and expertise built up in the BME sector is not lost. He says groups should be encouraged to provide clear evidence to funders of how their activities are helping a certain section of the community, improving the chances that their work will continue in one form or another.

However, BME third sector umbrella group Voice 4 Change England says it should not be left to local authorities to judge whether a grassroots group is meeting the needs of a hard-to-reach group or promoting cohesion. “We feel there should be more joined-up working with local voluntary organisations and single issue groups, and that their views should be taken into account in making such judgements,” says a spokeswoman. “It should not just come down to the view of funders.”

Hashmukh Pankhania, chief executive of the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations, says it is worrying that the Government has not yet outlined any plans for ways in which single issue groups could be mainstreamed without losing their specialist approach. “The skills, knowledge and experience in the sector are immense and varied, but also fragmented,” he says. One way of making sure expertise is embedded into the mainstream, he suggests, is to ensure that the methods developed by grassroots organisations in reaching specific hard-to-reach groups are recorded by larger strategic organisations, or bodies such as the Government’s proposed Third Sector Research Centre. Such data could then form a body of research that would be available to mainstream bodies.

However, Isabel Hudson, policy officer at the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), questions whether mainstream bodies would be able to successfully use such information. She cannot see how any expertise from specialist groups can be salvaged if services are mainstreamed. While the guidance is an improvement on earlier recommendations, if it is implemented “it would be a disaster because it would result in the loss of small specialist organisations that empower people”, she claims.

Amrit Wilson, chair of umbrella group Imkaan, which represents the needs of BME women and children, says officials managing the funding programme Supporting People have already begun questioning the need for BME refuge provision. But the need for these specialist services is clear, she says. Research by WRC and London councils shows that during 2006/07, some 21 specialist women’s refuge providers were unable to meet 2,300 requests for support due to lack of capacity, she says. It found that BME providers in particular were more likely to turn women away, and that a high proportion of those women would not have sought refuge with a mainstream service provider.

Curley responds that it’s not an “either/or situation”; support must be provided to disempowered groups, while at the same time efforts must be made to bring people together. “It’s wrong to assume that no BME group would support this approach,” he adds.

The Government will probably find broad support for the policy of encouraging narrow, ethnically- and culturally-based organisations to open up and build links with other parts of the community. However, this principle does run the risk of damaging service provision for some of the most vulnerable groups in society, and will have to be implemented with intelligence and sensitivity. The spotlight is now on local funding bodies, which will have to show that they are up to the task.


2001: Race riots erupt in Oldham, followed by Burnley and Bradford. In response, the Government sets up the Community Cohesion Review Team, chaired by Ted Cantle, which publishes its report later in the year. The report provides a national overview of race and community relations in the UK.

2003: The Home Office sets up implementation group the Community Cohesion Panel (CCP), led by Cantle, to develop in-depth guidance for local authorities on how to build community cohesion. The panel identifies regeneration projects as a major source of tension between communities, and publishes guidelines addressing the issue.

2004: The CCP’s second paper aimed at regeneration practitioners is published, entitled Building Community Cohesion into Area Based Initiatives.

2005: Four bombs are set off by Muslim extremists on the London transport network, killing 52 people and injuring 770. The Institute of Community Cohesion is created at Coventry University.

2006: The Government sets up the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (CIC) as an independent advisory body to advise on how disparate communities can develop a shared sense of belonging. The Government also publishes the Local Government White Paper, which includes a chapter setting out the its plans to make cohesion part of the performance framework for local government.

2007: The CIC publishes its final report, which recommends that the Government move away from providing funding for groups which do not work across community boundaries.

2008: The Government responds to the CIC report, broadly welcoming its recommendations, although with some caveats on removing funding from single-issue groups.

Home Office minister John Denham responded with his own report – Building Cohesive Communities – which broadly accepted Cantle’s 67 recommendations.

The panel subsequently published a guide entitled Community Cohesion Advice for Those Designing, Developing and Delivering Area Based Initiatives.