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Firm foundations

With rightwing populism on the rise, a sense of collective identity is more important than ever. Social integration should be a core concern for policymakers, write Sarah Lyall and Matthew Ryder.


Long read

During his election campaign and since, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has emphasised the central importance of social integration to his agenda. Social integration is a signature policy that will help define his mayoralty.

Social integration underpins everything else governments seek to achieve. You cannot create a fair housing policy, or a plan for public spaces unless you build in social integration. You cannot ensure that policing both reaches those it needs to and has the confidence of the communities it is working with unless social integration is part of the agenda. In the context of rising rightwing populism and the divisive narratives it sows, a sense of collective identity and a shared British culture is more important than ever.

Our strategy: What’s in, what’s out?

Having appointed a Deputy Mayor for social integration and created a social integration team – the first of its kind – the Mayor set us the challenge of creating a social integration strategy that would structure our work.

City Hall’s model was built on the work of others across the globe. Many have considered social integration as being determined by diverse social contact. Having a friend from a different background can reduce your prejudice towards other people from that background and a whole spectrum of other people you instinctively feel are different. Policymakers should create more opportunities for such positive interactions, and ensure that the quality of that contact is high; true social integration depends on people forming meaningful relationships.

Relationships between different types of people do not genuinely promote social integration if some face discrimination and inequalities that others do not. Social integration requires equality between people; models that fail to recognise this are too narrow. The Windrush Scandal illustrates this; a society cannot be socially integrated when a generation is denied their rights to citizenship, limiting people’s access to employment and basic services, and putting them at risk of deportation. Not only are crucial opportunities for social contact missed, but such experiences can lead to resentment and greater division.

Finally, ‘active citizenship’ is closely aligned with social integration. In a socially integrated city, people are not only able to get along, but also participate in society and have a say in decision-making. Participating side by side in democratic decision-making is essential to social unity. In a healthy society people trust the voices of others to count alongside their own in decisions about shared resources.

Our thinking was further informed by direct engagement with Londoners who told us about the experiences that help them to build connections and challenge their negative assumptions about others. They reinforced the issue of barriers to social integration, pointing out specific challenges including: housing, low income, English language, and access to the legal rights of residency and citizenship.

We arrived at the following definition:

Social integration is the extent to which people positively interact and connect with others who are different from themselves. It is determined by the level of equality between people, the nature of their relationships, and their degree of participation in the communities in which they live.

Who is social integration for?

The mayor was determined that social integration should not be dismissed as something ‘only for minorities’ in the way that the equalities agenda had been mischaracterised and misunderstood during the 1980s and 1990s. Social integration needed to reach beyond examples of national and global social integration work, which often focused too narrowly only on ethnicity and migration. The principles of integration should be applied to improving the whole of society. Divisions are evident not just on the basis of ethnicity and immigration status, but gender, sexuality, faith and disability. It also extends to important, but less discussed social characteristics such as social class, employment status, poverty and even the differences and inequalities between those living in inner and outer London boroughs.

Londons policy programme

In our Strategy for Social Integration, All of Us, we set out ways to promote shared experiences to improve the quality as well as the quantity of relationships; support active citizenship to increase participation and build social trust by involving more people in decision-making; tackle barriers and inequalities to improve equality between people  and improve London’s evidence base to measure, evaluate and share findings on the state of social integration.

It is important to us that social integration is both woven through all of the mayor’s strategies and improved through specific programmes. This agenda would mean little if it was not part of our approach to the built environment, transport, policing and our work with London’s local authorities. Equally, it could be sidelined if it did not have its own budget and programme of policies and projects.

We have established a number of initiatives to put into practice our ‘all of us’ approach:

  • The London Family Fund draws on research showing that having a child is a crucial transition moment in life, during which people are more open to mixing with others from different backgrounds. Family services present an opportunity to build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, but too often this is not happening. We established an innovation fund to support new approaches that help diverse families build relationships across all potential lines of difference, bringing parents and children together to improve social networks and reduce loneliness.
  • Sport Unites is a multi-million-pound flagship community sports programme which brings people from different backgrounds together, as well as improving the physical and mental health of Londoners.
  • The Mayor’s Culture Seeds and London Borough of Culture programmes are supporting community-led cultural initiatives across London, with an explicit aim to build stronger local relationships through culture and the creative arts.
  • The Workforce Integration Network (WIN) brings together employers and peer ambassadors to support underrepresented groups to access and progress in London’s workforce, starting with a focus on young black men accessing Living Wage jobs in the construction and digital sectors. It will help to address among our biggest inequalities in London – unequal access, pay and progression in the labour market.
  • The Social Integration Design Lab is one of our approaches to working in partnership with London’s local authorities, to mainstream social integration. We are bringing officers from local councils together to receive bespoke support from social design experts and develop ways to promote social integration through their programmes.
  • We are promoting participation at several important touch points. Citizenship ceremonies, which anyone becoming a British citizen must by law attend, are potentially powerful moments to celebrate our shared stake in society. We are working with registrars, local authorities and the voluntary sector to open up ceremonies to the wider public to emphasise messages of belonging.
  • Our analysis of London voter registration shows that young people aged 18 to 24 are less likely than other groups to be registered to vote, so we are working with schools and youth organisations to address this.
  • ESOL Plus is a series of pilots in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), designed to address some of the challenges in accessing English language training experienced by Londoners who are not yet confident English speakers. We want to simultaneously support more migrants and refugees to access ESOL, and to use English language support to promote relationships between Londoners.

All of this is underpinned by consistent policy and programme work to reduce barriers to social integration in relation to Londoners’ citizenship and residence rights. The barriers caused by insecure immigration status do not just affect the Windrush generation. Thousands of young Londoners have grown up here but cannot fulfil their potential because they cannot go to university, get a job or even open a bank account. Through a partnership with civil society called the Citizenship and Integration I we have been working with partners in civil society to support young Londoners’ legal right to citizenship and residence.

European Londoners are also feeling increasingly insecure about their residence rights in the context of Brexit. We are calling on the government to reform the immigration system to ensure shorter, more affordable routes to secure status and citizenship, and to end its hostile environment policy completely. Our ambition is to see hundreds of thousands of Londoners securing their status in order to preserve their rights and underpin their full social integration.

What we have achieved so far

  • Our programmes demonstrate strong demand for this work: the London Family Fund received hundreds of applications and is now live with several innovative projects across London. There has also been significant interest in WIN from employers keen to improve the diversity and integration of their workforce.
  • We have won small but important policy changes from national government. The mayor’s advocacy on Windrush helped achieve a suite of policy changes to provide tailored support and compensation for those affected, and he was a leading voice advocating for the removal of the £65 settled status fee for Europeans post-Brexit. His role in championing the rights of undocumented survivors of the Grenfell tower tragedy succeeded in securing an extension to the deadline for survivors to regularise their immigration status, and the right for family members designated as core participants to the Grenfell Inquiry to stay in the UK while it takes place.
  • In relation to participation we have raised concerns about the impact of voter ID checks which were trialled in 2018 and led to 154 people being denied the right to vote.
  • We have also sought to tell the positive story of social integration, celebrating the Great Get Together organised in memory of Jo Cox and sharing the message that #LondonIsOpen.

We want to help more Londoners access independent legal advice in order to secure their rights. We want to reach many more Londoners with shared experiences through tailored programmes and city-wide moments. We want to end disparities in voter registration and volunteering. There is a great deal to be done and we need a wide range of partners across London and the UK to work with us.


To others developing approaches to social integration, we recommend that you:

  1. Include relationships, equality and participation. We have found these essential to the development of a robust approach to integration.
  2. Include everyone in this agenda, through ‘all of us’ integration which addresses divisions of age, social class, employment status, sexuality, gender and disability, as well as ethnicity, faith and migration.
  3. Create roles for everyone to play, not putting the onus on a particular group of people to integrate but recognising that social integration is a shared endeavour from which everyone benefits.
  4. Make more of transition points – such as moving to a new city, getting a new job, having a baby, retiring – as moments where people need social support and are open to mixing with people from different backgrounds. Programmes designed around these moments could simultaneously reduce loneliness and increase social integration.
  5. Make social integration more central to your activities. For example, making use of the power of sport, culture and volunteering for social integration, and considering how to use housing, high streets, parks and public services to promote integration. Social integration design principles can help embed this agenda in a wide range of programmes.
  6. Work together to reduce barriers to social integration. For example, collaborating to improve access to independent legal advice so people can access their rights and participate fully.
  7. Monitor social integration levels and measure your impact. It is vital that activities to improve social integration are rooted in the best available evidence on relationships, equality and participation, and that all involved continue to build and extend the evidence base.

Social integration is experienced locally, but national government has a role to play in facilitating it. In addition to the recommendations above, we have called on government to:

  1. Commit serious investment to ESOL. ESOL funding cuts have resulted in almost half a billion (£490m) less funding for ESOL over the last six years. The government should work across departments to reverse cuts to ESOL funding and reinvest underspend from London’s apprenticeship levy in skills funding for London.
  2. Remove the barriers to social integration in the immigration system, which unfairly reduce opportunities for specific groups to participate in the economic, social and political life of the UK. This includes creating shorter, more affordable routes to residence and citizenship; ending the hostile environment policy; lengthening the 28-day move-on period for newly recognised refugees; and giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months so integration can begin sooner.
  3. Promote positive social mixing in early years and youth settings. These services hold great potential for social integration, which could be better released, using available policy levers. For example, the government could help more schools to offer full-time childcare, breaking down the current divide between working and non-working parents in the types of childcare they can use. Schools would need capital funding and business support to set up the additional hours, which would then be funded through existing hourly rates. Extending the admissions code (which currently only applies to school-based nurseries) to all nurseries so that children with special educational needs and disabilities are given priority access across the sector would also help improve the social mix of families able to access early years education.
  4. Facilitate democratic participation as a vital part of building social trust. National Democracy Week should be moved to a more prominent time of year – from Summer to Spring. The government should also explore ways to directly engage citizens in deliberative debate, for example by taking up the proposal to have a citizens’ jury weigh its policy response to three significant issues each year.

One of the lessons from around the world is that a ‘hands off’ approach to social integration simply does not work. Policymakers must take action – not only to ensure our differences do not breed division, but to proactively build a stronger sense of unity. London’s mayor and our team understood this from the beginning, and we have sought to turn this vision into a programme with a clear narrative, principles and approach.

Given the attention being paid to social integration in policy debates, and widespread public concern that we do not allow our society to fracture and succumb to populism, it is our view that there could not be a better time to act, engaging everyone in a positive agenda that benefits us all.

This essay is taken from Open and Ethical. Read it here.

Sarah Lyall

Sarah Lyall is a programme manager at the International Centre for Policy Advocacy. She was formerly social integration manager at the Greater London Authority.


Matthew Ryder

Matthew Ryder was London’s deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement from 2016 to 2018.


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