Working with community tensions in the UK
: towards a new narrative

  • Linden Rowley

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Working with community tensions in the UK has been characterised by tools and systems for monitoring tensions, predominantly police-led. Whilst the aim has been to predict and prevent the negative manifestations of tension and conflict, frequently responses are reactive and focus on short-term situational measures to calm things down. There are questions about whether working with tensions fits with national security, counter-terrorism and public order, or concerns individual and local community fears, anxieties and incidents. International and national incidents impact on local tensions but frequently there are long-term underlying issues which can be surfaced by events, potentially leading to disorder, crime and violence. Current approaches are primarily problem orientated on the presenting issues rather than opportunity focussed on the future possibilities. There has been a lack of learning from experience or from academic knowledge. This research answers the question of how tension and conflict can be a catalyst for positive change and the conditions which support and enable communities to realise their aspirations.

    The research was primarily qualitative, with short quantitative pre-interview questionnaires of current perceptions. The approach looks beyond monitoring tensions to explore longer term methods that cultivate peaceful communities. The paradigm is to seek to learn from success. In addition to research into the legislative and policy context, eight Interviews were held at a high level with a police and government officials from the four nations of the UK - England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Twenty-three interviews for three case studies in Belfast, Leicester and Oldham, each with different community contexts to enable more in-depth local level exploration and analysis, were supplemented by local contextual research and observation.

    Fourteen conceptual frameworks identified from the literature review are tested against the findings in these seven locations. The research outcomes indicate that guiding change requires attention to both proximate issues and underlying causes, combining both short-term responsive and long-term strategic approaches, grounded in a long term vision, shared values, a coherent framework and whole system approach. There is a correlation between those areas that had a clear future direction and transformational platform for change and the clarity of actors and roles. Visible political leadership creates the conditions through which middle and grass- roots leaders are empowered and supported. The presence of co-ordinators or connectors at the local level contributes significantly to enhancing capacity and resources. The need for equal attention to the dynamics of de-escalation of conflict as to the escalation process is a strong lesson from one of the case studies, but applicable overall. The paradigm of compassionate and cooperative communities, that place a higher value on trust and care rather than being safer or more integrated, shifts the focus to human relationships rather than policy constructs of how communities should be organised. Subjective measures of wellbeing and trust are emerging alongside objective measures of outcomes.

    A widening of the current definition of community tension, to include the opportunity for tension to be a catalyst for change is put forward, and a new definition of working with tensions, encapsulating all of the conclusions and findings, is constructed. Locating the work in a wellbeing context is identified as a way of shifting the lens and language away from a community safety or counter-terrorism perspective to one of wellbeing and peaceful relations. Through applying concepts from different fields of knowledge in a new way, together with the lived experience of participants, the study makes a contribution to knowledge and advances a new conceptual framework and narrative.
    Date of AwardFeb 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMichael Hardy (Supervisor)

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