Borough given cash to boost social integration

New government programme to be tested in Waltham Forest, writes Russell Hargrave

Stories and Supper

Stories and Supper is one of the group in Waltham Forest already working to help social integration (credit John Nassari)

Millions of pounds for improving social integration is set to be spent in Waltham Forest as part of a national programme to bring communities closer together.

Waltham Forest Council has been chosen to receive up to £10million by central government for spending locally on improving community relations and tackling social segregation over the next five years.

The borough is one of five ‘integration areas’ picked for this work because of its diverse population. The programme will encourage councils to pilot new ideas and innovations for helping communities get along better. It is the only London area included in the scheme.

The government has stressed money is going to areas which already have a good record on integration and are likely to benefit from more support in the years ahead.

According to the most recent census data, Waltham Forest is one of the most diverse areas of Britain. Around half of the people living in the borough are from ethnic minorities and thousands of local people were born overseas, with especially large communities originally from Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Jamaica, and India.

Amid this diversity there are also social problems, with more than 14,000 people in the borough speaking either poor English or no English at all, according to 2011 figures.

The council has already started a consultation on how the money might be spent most effectively.

Dr Shaukat Khan, vice-chair of the Waltham Forest Race Equality Council, told the Echo he thought the extra money was “great news” and argued it could be used to expand the number of community spaces available in the local area.

“I’ve been very critical of the authorities for closing all the youth centres, for instance,” Dr Khan said. “You have young people on the streets, probably vulnerable in many ways. We need places where people can come together.”

Stories and Supper

A Stories and Supper event in Walthamstow (credit Jimmy Lee)

The scheme could also fund “a whole range of things which could inter-relate, through which we could build up a stronger community,” added Dr Khan, suggesting investment in local schools and tackling youth crime.

This sentiment was echoed by Helen Taylor, who is involved with both Waltham Forest Migrant Action Group and Stories and Supper, which brings together volunteers, migrants and refugees to talk and eat together.

The council should get advice from “people who are part of the community, who have lived here a long time who have got an investment in the community,” said Helen.

“It’s a grassroots thing. It would be really good for the council to bring together these people on a collaborative basis and think [about] the best use of this money, working with people who are on the ground.”

The work comes ten years after the council commissioned a report on social integration, in the aftermath of dozens of terror arrests which had heightened local tensions. That report, published in 2007, warned that local Muslims in particular then felt “under-represented by the council and isolated from other statutory agencies.”

A council spokesperson told the Echo that officials were still finalising their plans for the next five years, and that no money had yet been released by central government.