Social inclusion is a phrase which generally has the effect of immediately causing people’s eyelids to droop before they quickly move on to something they find more interesting.
But a new council project has laid bare the heartache, angst, poverty and loneliness which lie behind the words.
The Birmingham Social Inclusion Project has unearthed some startling statistics, not least of which is the fact that over a three year period from 2007 people moved to the city from 187 different countries. Research revealed many arrive with no family or friends in the area, and a poor grasp, if any, of English.
The results are clear – in parts of the city more than half of people of working age are jobless.
Little progress has been made to tackle the resulting poverty. The terrible Handsworth riots more than 25 years ago were sparked by appalling levels of deprivation.
In spite of that, evidence to the social inclusion project reveals Handsworth is still stricken by poverty even after large scale investment. The decline of industry means the poverty map is growing to ‘outer city’ areas including Kingstanding, Shard End and Northfield.
Last year Birmingham was caught up in the mass outbreak of violence and looting which swept many cities.
This experience must be looked upon as a warning. The answer is not just about providing places to live and jobs. One key element of the study reveals that without affordable transport the level of isolation dramatically increases. One respondent said: “We don’t connect to the city centre. It’s £8 for a family day saver just to get there. Everything is just much more expensive. The city has set itself up in a way that excludes people from outlaying estates.”
Leaving aside the overall issue of mass immigration, which is a matter for central government, it is clear that local authorities such as Birmingham City Council are being placed in a difficult position.
The council must tackle the results of this huge population shift – and can be in little doubt now as to the consequences of failure.
It is laudable that the social inclusion project has been set up – but the scale of the problem means that it must become so much more than a talking shop.
Bishop of Birmingham the Right Reverend David Urquhart, who is chairing the project, insists its value will lie with the recommendations it produces.
Mr Urquhart adds that the project’s success will ultimately be measured by whether people enjoy living in the city. This is laudable – although it should also be the most basic aim of any local authority. Getting the response to this challenge right is tremendously difficult and we applaud the decision to tackle it head on.
Failure is not an option. We only need to look back to the events in Handsworth in the early 1980s, and as recently as the riots last year to know that it should be the number one priority of our city leaders.