Local authorities across the country are taking a stand for diversity by devoting resources to breaking down racial barriers. Kate Hilpern reports

When councillors from Hillingdon Borough Council became concerned about the levels of intolerance towards asylum-seekers in their community, they decided to take a stand. "We realised that if we, as a local authority, didn't take action, we could face growing racial conflict," says David Brough, head of democratic services for Hillingdon Borough Council.

Background material was gathered from places such as the Refugee Council and the social services department, demonstrating the positive contribution that asylum-seekers had made, and still make, to the borough. An article was put together for the local newspaper and the space was provided by the leaders of the three main political parties represented on the council, who - for the first time in Hillingdon's history - came together to give up their regular newspaper columns.

"The letters of support started to come in," says Brough. "One man even wrote that our article made him feel proud to live in Hillingdon. So we reproduced the feature in our council magazine, which goes out to every Hillingdon resident, and the term 'asylum-seeker' stopped being used as a term of abuse."

Hillingdon is not alone. Local authorities across the country are increasingly devoting resources to breaking down racial barriers in their communities - a move that is becoming more and more necessary against a background of a rise in extremism, racial hatred, increased migration and the changing dynamics of race, faith and culture.

Their job is not easy, says Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), not least because local authorities are often forced to act rapidly and innovatively. "Issues around cohesion are complex and require a much more sophisticated approach that we have so far offered," he remarks. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of examples demonstrating the enormous power that local authorities have in genuinely uniting communities.

In areas such as Tower Hamlets, where some 49 per cent of residents are ethnic minorities, the need to build bridges between communities is particularly pertinent. Indeed, Peter Nathan, acting head of corporate equalities at the London borough council, struggles to know where to start in describing its activities dedicated to this cause. These include setting up an inter-faith forum. "When the London bombings happened last year, it meant there was a co-ordinated and immediate response to show unity, which limited tension arising from the issues," he says.

Another example is a theatre-in-education team, Chinwag Theatre, which devises and acts out scenarios in schools based on key issues that have been identified by parents and teachers. Participants question the actors, who remain "in role", about their thoughts, feelings and motivation.

"The council originally decided to support this because it follows the recommendations in the Stephen Lawrence enquiry report, but the impact has been more successful than we could have imagined," says Nathan. "So far, 46 schools have taken part."

Oldham - which also has a large ethnic minority population - is taking the issue of community cohesion equally seriously. Jo Richmond, principal officer for community development for Oldham Council, says, "After the disturbances, it refocused a lot of neighbourhood management. We are now running many activities and events on bringing communities together, and are open to any ideas on how to improve race relations further still."

One of its most recent efforts focuses on mediation. "Just a month ago, we finished training 26 local people - from residents to police officers - in community conflict management and mediation skills," explains Richmond. "The idea is that if two communities have an issue, they'll go in and work with them on it. It's like neighbour mediation, but they work with groups rather than individuals to find productive ways of moving forward. One of the projects they've already been involved in was responding to local racist rumours that were started by a far right organisation. The mediation involved everyone from taxi drivers to business people and they managed to put an end to the rumours altogether."

It's not just areas with high proportions of black and Asian residents where far right organisations are getting a hold on local thinking, however. In a range of cities across England, St George's Day parades have taken on very negative racial and nationalist connotations.

One metropolitan borough council decided the time had come to sideline these racist activities and it organised a free family party in the park to celebrate St George's Day in an inclusive way. The idea was to encourage the whole community to celebrate a common identity and heritage and the day's theme was different concepts of "Englishness". The parade was led by a bhangra band, and a display on St George highlighted the fact that he was not English. Some 2,000 people took part, leading to the council repeating the event every year.

York is not a city known for its ethnic diversity. In fact, just five per cent of the population are ethnic minorities, but according to Mary Bailey of City of York Council, this is even more reason to focus on breaking down racial barriers. "York is considered very white and middle class, which can leave the ethnic minorities feeling isolated. So three years ago we secured funding from York Children's Fund and matched it with some funding from City of York Council to focus on three of our larger ethnic minority communities - Chinese, Asian and refugees."

Having drawn experiences about their backgrounds, the council put together a number of cultural resource kits - including things like recipes, dress and artefacts - and these are now taken round out-of-school club settings so that children can be taught about the different cultures that exist within York. "They have had a really positive impact and I think people from the ethnic minorities are feeling less isolated and empowered as a result. In fact, there are some offshoots from the project. The Chinese community has just formed a Chinese association, for instance."

Meanwhile, in Leicester, the medium of sport is being used. "The problem with Leicester is that we have very segregated communities, with certain groups living in certain areas," says Sally Davis, sports regeneration manager at Leicester City Council. "So we decided to set up a street sports project, which involved bringing Leicester city children aged eight to 15 together to receive free coaching and sports events."

The first step involved consulting with the youngsters about what sports they'd like to get involved in. "They chose football, basketball, hockey and skateboarding," she says. "Once that was established, the council delivered a six-month program of coaching activities, mini sports events and finally, a major sports fun day."

Vicky Hammond from the sports development unit at Leicester City Council says the impact of the grand finale sports day was particularly impressive. "It was a heart-warming feeling to see children from very diverse demographics and cultures playing sport together. There was never any conflict or social tensions, just a fun day had by all. Projects like this show how important sport can be in helping to break down barriers."

The youngsters agree. "We should have more events like this as it brings unity to communities. I have made new friends from Braunstone," says one. "I enjoyed meeting new people and mixing with different communities," comments another.

In fact, if Leicester's efforts around promoting unity between different ethnicities show anything, it's that proactive - as well as reactive - activities are key.

Paul Winstone, policy officer in charge of race and faith issues, points to the Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group (LMAG), which was originally set up four years ago and is made up of key members from different ethnic communities. The group has been very successful - for example in getting a ban on a march through the city by a racist political party. "But as time went on, we were worried about being seen to lurch from crisis to crisis, rather than managing the process," he says. "So we are now focusing our activities on promoting what unites us as a city, rather than waiting to respond to something that's happened, and it's really working. It's valuable in both the short and long term."

Indeed, whilst a decade ago local authorities focused on the importance of physical regeneration, the emphasis is clearly moving towards social regeneration.

'A lot of children in York knew nothing of Chinese culture'

Linda Foo Tomlinson is a freelance artist working to break down racial barriers in York

I'm second-generation Chinese on my mum's side and third on my father's side and have lived in York virtually all my life. When I was growing up, I experienced some alienation, but now - at 52 years old - things have changed. That said, I think more needs to be done and that's why I applied for a job with York Council, which involves introducing young people to Chinese culture.

I started by developing a cultural resource kit, which includes things ranging from Chinese New Year cards to kites. I take these around out-of-school clubs and do work with the children to help them understand more about Chinese culture.

Before, a lot of children in York knew nothing more about Chinese culture than the fact that there was a Chinese takeaway round the corner. But now, they are much better informed and as a result, we hope that they will mix with children from Chinese communities much more readily.

'Ongoing contact strengthens the effects of the project'

Jane Taylor runs a youth project called Fusion in Oldham

When I arrived in Oldham in 2003, I was invited to meet local councillors and head teachers with a view to setting up a project around community cohesion. That's how Fusion came about and it involves getting secondary schools to nominate peer leaders from Year 10 to come along to a five-day residential course, where activities are designed to have an impact on participants' beliefs.

Often, due to limitations of time, work with young people is only able to focus on challenging their behaviour, rather than their values and beliefs. This can result in young people "learning" to change their behaviour when they are in our presence - otherwise they get a hard time. What Fusion seeks to do is promote and support cognitive dissonance in individuals between their values and behaviour, which will result in change from within.

It's not about getting the brightest or most well behaved youngsters to come along - it's about the ones who are most influential among their peers. They're the most likely to have an impact on others when they get back in the school arena.

Ongoing contact between us and them strengthens the effects of the project as these young people progress into adulthood.