What can cities teach us about tackling radicalisation?

A far right rally in Newcastle, England: a form of radicalisation we don't talk about enough. Image: Lionheart Photography/Wikimedia Commons.

Radicalisation has been thrust into the spotlight following terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice and, while undoubtedly a major security concern, it also highlights numerous social issues at play. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and poor integration leave communities fractured, and individuals at risk of being sucked into radical ideologies that offer an escape from everyday life.

A study in Amsterdam among a small group of returnees from Syria reveals a common set of characteristics: most are under 25, have criminal records, and display a multitude of problems such as mental health issues, poor self image, low self confidence or unsafe home lives. These are often, though not always, young people who lack opportunities or a sense of belonging.

The education system can therefore be a first step towards addressing radicalisation, enabling authorities to spot and report early signs and engage young people in activities. As part of its radicalisation strategy, Helsinki encourages students and young people to get involved in associations and plan school activities and events. Schools in Amsterdam and Ghent have trained staff ready to identify at-risk individuals early enough for the authorities to intervene. Bilbao, meanwhile, works with unaccompanied foreign minors to provide training, workshops, cultural and sports activities.

Radical Islamism may be the most high profile, but it isn’t the only form of radicalisation. Cities’ experiences show the importance of addressing all types of radicalisation, including hate crimes, political extremism and Islamophobia. Focusing on a single target group can be counterproductive, risking further tensions and stigmatisation. Ghent intentionally avoids targeting groups according to religion in its local action plan for fear of generating a "them against us" culture. Other cities are concerned with different types of radicalisation, like political – far right or left – groups in Brno, Dresden and Tampere; while Hamburg set up a prevention network in 2014 to address Islamophobia as well as violent religious extremism.

Building relations within communities is far more important than creating divisions. Anti-radicalisation efforts in Bilbao are embedded in the city’s programmes to manage religious diversity by maintaining and developing relations with all religious communities. Other cities have channels to directly address residents’ concerns and alleviate tensions. Rotterdam organises meetings between local residents and the city. Following last November’s Paris attacks, these drew hundreds of people from different backgrounds to discuss freedom of expression, radicalisation, extremism, discrimination and integration.

The terror attacks and ongoing refugee situation have put more media scrutiny and greater pressure on cities to get it right, and have exacerbated underlying tensions. Helsinki has been prompted to strengthen its integration policies by allocating a further €10m and boosting funding for multicultural outreach, with the aim of promoting dialogue and trust between asylum seekers and local residents.

European cities find themselves operating under different conditions. Some work under national frameworks like the UK’s Prevent strategy, while others have been left much to their own devices, like Belgian cities Antwerp and Ghent.

But what is commonly recognised is the need to cooperate with different partners. Working with social services, schools, grassroots organisations, community leaders and the police is common practice in European cities. Gothenburg’s "Safe in Gothenburg" programme is a collaboration between police and city authorities, while in Amsterdam the mayor meets regularly with the police and public prosecutor to determine threats and priorities. Highly-trained personnel are also needed, and cities such as these have hired several experienced staff in the past year. This costs money, and funding can come from a variety of sources: from the cities themselves, through national programmes such in Leeds and Manchester, identified as priority areas under Prevent, or through EU funds, like in Bologna.

Given that many cities are in the early stages of their anti-radicalisation work, it is hard yet to measure impact. This makes networks like EUROCITIES all the more important, as we offer an outlet for cities to share what works and what doesn’t, and get inspired by others.

We need to make our societies more inclusive and integrated to get to the heart of this challenge. Radicalisation may be a major concern at national and European level, but it is in cities that we can really prevent it by addressing it at the root causes.

You can find out more about this subject in EUROCITIES' report, "City responses on preventing radicalisation and violent extremism: social inclusion as a tool?’". The report is supported by the European Commission’s Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

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This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.