Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The horrific scenes in New Zealand earlier this month, when 50 Muslim worshippers were murdered in a cowardly act of terrorism, shocked the world. It was one of those moments that throws the reality of extremism into sharp relief, shining a light on the depths to which humankind can sink.
And yet the way that people across the globe reacted to this atrocity provided vital perspective – uniting people in both grief and outrage, and closing the divides that extremists are determined to open up.
It has been a reminder to us all about how important community cohesion, tolerance and respect is. In the West Midlands, we boast the most diverse population in the country. The brand of Urban Conservatism that we are building here embraces the huge variety of ethnicities, languages, heritages and faiths that we share, recognising that diversity as a strength and a resource.
When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, I committed to representing all of those communities, and I have been greatly encouraged – and moved – by the way local people have reacted to the events of the past few weeks. Vigils have been held, prayers shared and voices raised in joint condemnation. Just hours after the Christchurch attacks, Christians from the Riverside Church in Moseley, Birmingham appeared outside the city’s Central Mosque – handing out flowers to Muslim worshipers as they left Friday prayers.
This is the true reflection of diversity and tolerance in the West Midlands, but it requires collaboration, hard work and leadership to nurture. The unity that swells in the wake of extremism helps to heal our wounds, but we must constantly take proactive steps to sustain a tolerant society.
Here, we have always recognized that faith plays a vital role in bonding our many communities together. In 2017, one of my first acts as Mayor was to bring 400 faith leaders for the Mayor and Faith Conference. This conference was more than just an opportunity to find shared values: it created an action plan that identified four priority areas of concern; leadership, homelessness, how faith interacts with the economy and hate crime.
In such a diverse region, we work hard to ensure that the effects of hate crime are understood, and that where it rears its ugly head it is reported, investigated and dealt with. In the last 12 months, the number of hate incidents in the West Midlands has increased by 25 per cent, a 76 per cent increase in the past five years.
Sadly, the West Midlands has made national headlines twice this week, each time highlighting why it is vital that we work harder to foster tolerance within our diverse region. Quite simply, these incidents do not reflect the West Midlands I know. Last week, windows were smashed overnight at a number of mosques in Birmingham. When I visited the Islamic Centre in Witton the following morning I was shocked by the vandalism, but deeply impressed by the calm and dignified reaction of the Muslim community, which drew encouragement from the solidarity of leaders from churches, temples and gurdwaras across the city.
After such incidents, and in the wake of the New Zealand attacks, we should welcome moves by the Home Secretary to double funding for security at places of worship next year to £1.6 million. This money will safeguard mosques, churches, synagogues and other places of worship. In addition, a new £5 million fund will provide security training to Imams and others responsible for places of worship. This is important in terms of the practicalities of keeping faith centres safe, but also terms of the message that we as a Party and Government send to people who are intolerant of our diverse society.
The second story which illustrated the challenges we face involved education. It is inevitable in a diverse region that disagreements will arise, as differing cultures and belief systems live cheek by jowl. This makes it all the more important that policy and leadership provide the structures to resolve disputes, by enshrining tolerance as our shared goal.
In Birmingham, parents of some children at Parkfield Community School have drawn national attention by protesting against the teaching of the ‘No Outsiders’ equalities education scheme, which they say conflicts with Islamic beliefs. The programme is designed to encourage children to be “happy and excited about living in a community full of difference and diversity”.
The language used by protestors outside the Parkfield Community School towards the LGBT+ community in recent days has been unacceptable. I have spoken out against the protests, and am fully in support of the school – but am pleased that it and the community is in dialogue over this issue, trying to come to a resolution.
The education of our children is a vital part of ensuring that each generation is more tolerant than the last, and we must make sure that our children understand diversity in all its forms. Freedom of speech is a deeply ingrained part of British culture. Yet, in upholding this right, we must remember that the one thing we should never tolerate is intolerance.
This message is being driven home at the regional level. This month saw the launch of a major anti-hate crime campaign, led by the Mayor’s office, the Police and Crime Commissioner, West Midlands Police, British Transport Police and National Express, in partnership with websites like True Vision and Tell MAMA. More than 500 posters, featuring groups most often targeted by bigotry and intolerance, have been put on buses, bus stops and stations. A social media campaign and resources for schools back up the 12-month project, which aims to help commuters recognize hate crimes on the transport network, enabling us to identify hotspots where it is reported and prosecute the perpetrators.
We are also working hard to improve inclusivity. I launched the West Midlands Leadership Commission in June 2018. Since then the West Midlands Combined Authority, our seven constituent councils and the business community have been changing practices in response to the Commission’s findings, which confirmed what we already know: the leadership of our region is not reflective of the diverse communities we serve.
Rooting out systemic problems is not only the right thing to do but makes perfect business sense. To get the best talent into top positions we need to recruit, retain and promote in a way that makes sure we do get the best women, BAME, disabled, LGBT and working class talent into our top jobs. Projects like this aim to create a more balanced, integrated, representative and ultimately tolerant society.
Finally, as politicians we must all step up to our responsibility to promote tolerance. At time of tensions in our society it is all the more important that we show equal respect to every individual and community, and speak out when that is at risk. There can be no apologists.