Since the 2001 urban disturbances in the north of England, inter-ethnic relations have been a key policy concern for UK governments. Voluntary sector programmes aimed at building harmonious relations between ethnically diverse populations have been endorsed and funded, following Cantle’s ‘parallel lives’ diagnosis of the ‘race riots’ in neighbourhoods of Oldham, Bradford, Leeds and Burnley. Despite a brief period during the Coalition government in which policy attention focussed on the Big Society programme, the cohesion of diverse communities has now returned to the front of policy thinking. However, underpinned by wider concerns about terrorism and national security, this agenda has become increasingly framed as ‘integration’, and has become focussed on the perceived failure of ethnic and religious minorities to integrate. Under the political trope of ‘self-segregation’, British Muslims have transpired as a particular focus of concern and anxiety. This is a move that has arguably heightened the stigmatisation of Muslims in a post 7/7 context, whilst redirecting attention from pockets of white communities initially identified in the post-2001 reports as contributing to the creation and maintenance of spatial segregation itself.

The cohesion and integration agenda has thus become highly contested by commentators, and it can be questioned further by the emergence of evidence suggesting that spatial segregation has nationally eroded since 2001. A number of factors have contributed to this. Firstly, the arrival and settlement of EU labour migrants in towns and rural areas with little previous histories of ethnic diversity. Secondly, the movement of socially mobile BME groups to commuter towns and ‘ordinary’ suburbs that has led to the development of middle class multiculture. And thirdly, the increasing diversification of urban areas with longer histories of migrant settlement that has now reached a stage of ‘superdiversity’.

In addition, the wider political context seems increasingly vexed, with anti-migrant populism and new nationalisms across Europe and the United States appearing to contextualise a domestic agenda aimed at addressing the crisis of national identity brought about by Brexit. However, research on cohesion and integration at neighbourhood and city levels suggest it still has substantial voluntary sector support, with programmes aimed at promoting inter-ethnic relations continuing to be acknowledged and sponsored in line with the aim of strengthening place-based community relations through greater social contact. Approaches to place-based community building have been varied, with fleeting and casual encounters proposed alongside more structured or ‘meaningful’ engagement as positive ways of building connections and solidarities across new and settled populations. Although case studies endorsed by the recent Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper appear not to have been subjected to any formal evaluation, these initiatives, focussed on increasing mixing and interaction in local areas, chime with a plethora of research that has explored the neighbourhood as a setting of everyday encounter and interaction, and has promoted conviviality as the key concept for transforming mistrust and suspicion into cooperation and exchange.

However, despite a focus on building place-based community relations, doubt can be cast on the value of conceptualising local communities of place given the dynamic, fragmented and spatially unbounded ways in which people make identifications and construct belonging associated with ‘community’. This seems particularly true for migrant populations defined by their mobility, as well as minority populations that might identify with notions of the diaspora. However, it is at the local level where diversity and difference materialise and is felt most vividly. It is in neighbourhood spaces where ethnic, cultural and religious differences are encountered, construed and comprehended. It is in the everyday interactions of migrant populations and settled residents in which groups with newcomer and established statuses negotiate space, place and sometimes conflicting visions of local community.

In my PhD research, I have developed a walking interview method to understand how and whether local community is conceptualised and understood by residents of a diverse inner-city neighbourhood. Situated close to the city centre of Manchester, walking with a mixture of local residents through the neighbourhood of Longsight has led to the collection of a blend of narrative and conversational interview data, seemingly elicited by the particular places and spaces we were traversing through or near. The participants expressed a range of attitudes and ideas about difference, mixing and community in the local area. Recollected as once an English and Irish area by longer-standing white and Asian participants, the now well-established British Asian neighbourhood seemed to provide a subjective and material landscape for constructing varied and sometimes contradictory ideas about local community.

Some participants seemed uncomfortable about venturing to the high street and public spaces at the centre of Longsight, and often chose to stick to periphery neighbourhoods and estates where they would talk temporally about local change, and discuss ambiguities and tensions associated with the arrival of newcomer and minority groups. Other participants seemed pleased if not proud to show an outsider researcher the public spaces at the centre of community, with the ensuing scenes of everyday mixing in places like the local market and library taken as embodying the multiculturalism of the local community. It thus seems that positive and negative ideas about local community were articulated and construed in context with the central or peripheral walking routes participants tended to take. And whilst it might be too early to formulate clear research findings, it seems ideas and expectations of local community, shaped largely by impressions about the extent and meaning of inter-ethnic contact and mixing, were not always divided along clear racial or ethnic lines discussed widely in the literature. Participants identifying as ‘British Asian’ indicated a dismay about the direction of integration following new migrations from South Asia, whilst participants with English and Asian backgrounds talked at length about tensions and hostilities with Eastern European groups based on the experience of sharing public spaces, as well as culturally acceptable ideas of behaviour, customs and neighbourhood etiquette.

Although the walking method might have overstated the importance of the local, the idyll of local community, whether constructed as ‘thriving’ or ‘lost’, seemed overwhelmingly important to participants lives and identities in this research. This suggests that local community of place might well provide a viable conceptual frame for understanding lived experiences of diversity and inter-ethnic relations. Whilst the policy agenda can be criticised for it problematisation of difference, manifested in an increased focus on ‘integration’, its emphasis on locality, place, and sociability may well chime with the experiences of living with ethnic and cultural differences in the everyday.

Dillon Newton is a final year PhD researcher working under the auspices of the Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford. His research interests include migration, ethnicity and cultural difference, belonging and place, and theories and lay understandings of ‘community’.