MHMD3 Can Communities in the UK Coexist?

MHMD3 Can Communities in the UK Coexist?
11th May 2008
Three discussions: Can Communities in the UK Coexist?


Professor Michael Keith, Professor of Sociology; Director, Centre for Urban Studies, Goldsmith’s College
Mr Steven Douglas, Director, Housing Association
Baroness Julia Neuberger, DBE

Running order

7.00 Introduction by Caroline Allouf of the organising committee + introduction of speakers by Baroness Neuberger
7.05 Speaker 1: Professor Keith
7.25 Speaker 2: Mr Douglas
7.45 Q & A

Summary of Discussion 3

The series started on conceptual issues of identity, moved on to areas where communities have obligations towards each other, and ended with practical issues concerning coexistence in a complex and diverse society.

Professor Michael Keith spoke from the perspective of a resident of the east end of London and a councellor of Tower Hamlets, illustrating his talk with images of community projects. Steve Douglas has a long career in housing associations, is now CEO of the Housing Association and drew on personal experience to make his points.

The self-evident answer to the question is that we do coexist, in spite of the fact that underlying tensions sometimes move from a chronic to an acute situation. The challenges are to anticipate and diffuse potential acute situations in a society which is complex and diverse; where there is constant geographical movement of populations, scarce resources, and systems of allocation which seem to be unfair to some groups, considering that "the universal and the particular do not sit easily".

Professor Keith said we need to recognise the importance of talking about diversity, even though recognition per se causes problems. Cultural rights are important, notions of respect are important, but they have their limits. For example, provision for one group may acknowledge cultural needs but can be exclusive of the needs of others. Contraditions can emerge from social engineering and different notions of "the good" expressed in the context of scarce resources. We shouldn't demonise those who resist change but try to understand part of the rationality of their thinking.

The debate is complex. This itself is reason for open discussion because it "recognises the diverse histories of the past through the notion of a shared future." There must be transparency about the processes of deliberation, a dialogue and debate through which decisions are made.

Mr Douglas endorsed the above view and added that understanding and "making a difference to opposing needs requires leadership at community level and at organisational and institutional levels". Change is managed by people in power who have qualities of leadership. Winning hearts and minds is one thing but it should be made clear that there are those norms of behaviour which are acceptable and those which are not.

In addition to power and leadership there is "something about concentrating on the majority,... working on building, that strong concensus" that makes communities resilient to change. Optimism and determination to make a positive difference is to be applauded but there will always be people at the extremes and the way to deal with that is to "get the facts out for a start". In the context of housing, it is acknowledged that demand exceeds supply, but in recognising it as a tension point and dealing with it in a fair, open and transparent way, it can be made clear that so-called privileges can be justified.

A salient point made from the floor was that places screened by Professor Douglas showed libraries, arts and music venues which are "surely elements within our London fabric that can bind people together through sheer exuberance and wishing to celebrate". He thought we could talk about the positive role of these facilities and festivals within a city that isn't actually that violent.

In summary, Steven Douglas said, "I can see people who are up for making a difference and are prepared to hold that torch, and it is then I believe that we will make a difference to community and society. The future has to be optimistic."