A higher education anchor institution at work: the Mayor's Faith Summit

Next week the University of Birmingham will host 400 people from the region’s super-diverse religions.

Notably, it will mark the first ever UK ‘Mayoral Faith Summit’. Intended specifically to mobilise these communities in a conversation to shape and advance the priorities of our new City Region Mayor, Andy Street, there are also hopes to explore the potential of fresh collaborations to address pressing social needs and to build an inclusive Midlands economy.

With governments across the globe facing new approaches to decentralised governance, community risk and regional growth, this seemingly local affair is already attracting national and international attention.

For some Britons, Mayoral initiatives are so new as to be unremarkable and/or an unexpected source of agency.

This perception, however, understates the growing significance of the shift to what is a new form of leadership for our great cities.

The Mayor of Liverpool began joining Ministers at major international gatherings regarding investment immediately upon his election. Andy Burnham in Manchester is responsible not only for aspects of economic policy and investment but also a fully devolved NHS and social care system. Following in Mayor Street’s footsteps, Sadiq Khan will shortly visit Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi to promote the capital as a place to study and do business.

Indeed, the new Department for International Trade is more aware of, and able to support, the power of strong regional voices to secure investment and civic engagement than the old UKTI was.

This movement forms part of a new sub-national transformation of formal diplomacy in which the world’s mayors – some leading cities as big as countries – have become and are increasingly meaningful actors.

Meanwhile, religion is far more than ‘beliefs’. In free societies, their ideas are embedded in both personal lives and a wide array of business, organisational, charitable, ethnic, diaspora and associational forms.

In the UK, Anglican Cathedrals alone add £0.25 billion to the economy and facilitate some 10 million educational and tourist visits. Locally, about a quarter of educational institutions (both public and private) are faith based and faith backed. Temples, mosques and religious meeting places represent a substantial real estate presence from where statistically significant levels of community service are organised and sustained.

Remittances from diaspora communities and diaspora faith communities to the global South have until recently outstripped Department for International Development (DfID) contributions.

Research for the former North West Development Agency suggested that capital formation in the poorest UK neighbourhoods was, in fact, associated with the strength and vitality of local religious institutions and their cashflows.

Over recent weeks the University’s College of Arts and Law and its Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion the Sikh Nishkam Centre and the Mayor of the West Midlands team have been working with community stakeholders to design the process of this event.

The Mayor wants to identify new methods of addressing hate crime and creating apprenticeships; communities want to talk about defeating homelessness and how their aspirations for their young people have synergies with the Mayor’s hope to unlock new leadership potential from every community.

The aim is to listen, to ensure a wide range of voices are heard and to do more than just talk by building instead towards a shared action plan.

As with all experiments, there is an element of risk. A listening process gives space for a variety of voices to be articulated. Some still live in a world where ‘government must do everything’ or where ‘government must do nothing’; some communities feel more or less welcome or more or less content that they are heard.

In practice the University is providing a neutral space in which ‘community laboratory’ conditions are being created. In theory moving parts and vibrant contestations will add spice to the ingredients of co-production gathered.

Shifting social circumstances and contrasting geographies across the West Midlands offer the potential for rich debates about priorities.

The first West Midlands ‘Mayoral Faith Summit’ sets out new ground as a mode of community engagement. Its gives faith communities an opportunity to help shape the places and services so important to human flourishing. It grounds the listening of the Combined Authority. It provides a first step in teasing out new knowledge, insights and concrete activity worthy of recording, publication and even replication.

Following the event, Professor Davis, who is also co-chair of the Faith Summit, will develop a special edition of an international journal, more research to support emerging themes of focus and a pamphlet with the think tank Localis, which will assess West Midlands progress with regard to these topics in international context. The event will be streamed live online.

Professor Francis Davis
Professor of Religion, Communities and Public Policy, Director of Policy, Edward Cadbury Centre, University of Birmingham