Race, England and local government 

Posted on 05/06/2020 by Ed Hammond.

It’s impossible to look across the Atlantic and experience anything but horror at the unfolding protests – and the police violence accompanying them. Seeing footage of running battles, the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets, it’s quite easy to breathe a sigh of relief and assume that the deep-set racial divide and huge structural inequality in the US doesn’t exist here – or if it does, at a far smaller scale, such as to render it almost irrelevant.  

To do so would be a mistake.  

The visible manifestations of racial inequality may be less stark in this country, but its personal and social impact is just as significant. We assume that we have moved on in recent years – the Smethwick by-election and the Bristol bus colour bar have receded in the public consciousness. We fool ourselves that we are in a different country to that in which the Tottenham riots and the murder of Stephen Lawrence happened.  

I say “we” here, because I know that I am talking by and large to a white audience. Local government – the officer corps and councillors – is still overwhelmingly white. Where BAME staff are present they are in manual grades – they are more likely to be the people emptying rubbish bins or providing homecare services than they are to be sitting around the table at SMT.  

This is a problem. Through our role of stewarding, supporting, representing, advocating for and protecting local areas, we in local government can often fool ourselves that the way we experience the world is largely similar to the way that others do.  

We design services, and our work, accordingly. They often fit a template of what white, middle class, university educated professionals think that people “in need” require. But the black, Asian and minority ethnic viewpoint on the same issues is profoundly different. It is one of justified anger, caused by decades of elision of the prejudice against minority ethnic people. This is exacerbated by the assumption that we, as white people, hold: the assumption that these problems are historical, that at some point in the 90s they simply evaporated and that examples of discrimination and violence in practice are simply aberrations rather than institutionally baked in to the way that we live and work.  

Scrutiny has to play a role in forcing us to confront the uncomfortable truths around what our own, local response should be to the scenes playing out in the States. We have to challenge the complacency of those in leadership positions, to better understand and give voice to those disenfranchised, disadvantaged and silenced because of their race. And we have to challenge ourselves to carry out this work in a way that pushes away the temptation to adopt the approach of “white saviours” – deigning to performatively listen to, and affect concern for, “BAME people” as a homogenous group while choosing not to admit our own complicity in the structural systems which oppress them. There is something of this complacency in public bodies’ – doubtless well-intentioned – efforts to express sympathy by lighting up public buildings in supportive colours and making strongly worded,  though vague, affirmations of racial unity. These actions must be the first visible signs of a significant commitment to change all aspects of what we do.  

Councils need to hold up a mirror to their own behaviour – as employers, as service providers, and as convenors of the local community. They have to identify where practices, approaches and cultures are found wanting, and they have to change them. They, and we, need to make ourselves uncomfortable – more than uncomfortable – in our commitment to change. 

We would love to see more scrutiny functions in councils addressing this issue head on – both as part of the way that scrutiny is investigating COVID-19 but at a more fundamental level too. We’d like to see scrutiny talking practically about the need to attack and dismantle the structures and attitudes that embed racism in day to day life. We’d like to see scrutiny being part of the mechanism by which we in local government can start being vocal and the nature and scale of the change that we need to see.  

We would also love to see councils doing this work that do not have particularly large BAME populations. In rural and semi-rural places, BAME people exist but their needs are often forgotten or considered incidental. This marginalisation is just as important as the multiple barriers experienced by urban BAME populations and needs to be addressed too.

We are keen to know and understand how councils have been using, and continue to use, their scrutiny functions to challenge received wisdom on these issues – and how people think the dynamic of this work is likely to change in the light both of the situation in the US and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis here. We are also particularly keen to hear from, and amplify the voices of, those in the scrutiny community who have experienced these issues first hand, and who will be well placed to provide further insight and challenge on these issues. If this is you, please get in touch.  

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.