How should cities such as London set about achieving greater social integration so as to avoid the kind of terrorist outrage that occurred in Paris a year ago?
Britain may be quitting the European Union, but a “conference on building better integrated, more cohesive communities”, called at City Hall on Monday (14) by Sadiq Khan, drew the mayors of Lisbon, Vienna, Brussels, Stockholm, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo – and notably Patrick Klugman, deputy mayor of Paris for international relations.
“The attack on Paris was an attack on all of us,” said Sadiq.
Although the Metropolitan Police says that “it is not a question of if but when a similar terrorist attack on London takes place”, Sadiq has decided one way to avoid such an eventuality would be for major cities to get together to see if they can devise strategies to bring about greater cohesion in society.
The mayor was candid in recognising that immigration, though it had brought many benefits, had also generated tensions.
Pointing out that “one in three Londoners was born outside the UK,” he acknowledged that “even in a city as united and open as London, immigration is creating challenges”.
“It’s not good enough to simply dismiss these feelings as prejudiced or backwards,” he said. “We need to really understand why so many people feel the way they do. And that it appears some migrant communities – who have come to our countries to live in peace and to contribute to our economies – have become increasingly concentrated. And, in some instances – often through no fault of their own – have become segregated from the rest of the local community. There’s no doubt this has had a real impact on how we relate to one another.”
“Over my lifetime, we’ve undergone nothing less than a demographic revolution,” he went on. “And, as we’ve changed, we’ve come to know one another less and less. Rising immigration, economic shifts and social and scientific advances have resulted in more diverse, but less integrated societies.”
He warned “against pretending that it’s not a problem for fear of losing the argument to the darker political forces gaining pace in many countries across Europe and the world.”
“And let’s make no mistake – without action this situation could get worse and worse,” declared Sadiq.
He was definitely not aiming for assimilation, said Sadiq in his 30-minute speech. “People shouldn’t be forced to drop their cultures and traditions when they arrive in our cities and countries. We all have layers of identity. But I do believe in real social integration.”
In his opinion, “promoting social integration must mean ensuring that people of different faiths, ethnicities, social backgrounds and generations don’t just tolerate one another or live side-by-side. But actually meet and mix with one another.”
“So how do we achieve this?” he wondered.
The actual policies are currently being worked out by his new deputy mayor, Matthew Ryder, but Sadiq said: “I believe that we all need to seek to weave unifying experiences into the fabric of everyday life in our cities. To embed a focus on building connections between Londoners from different backgrounds deep into the institutions that shape our modern cities.”
Sadiq had a question for his fellow mayors and other conference delegates: “If there’s just one thing you could do to improve integration, what would it be? No matter how big or small your idea. No matter how much money or resources it would cost – to a sensible degree of course. We want to hear it.”