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Can resilient communities relieve the burden on public services?

What could a state refocused around prevention look like – and what are the social foundations necessary to make it happen? Local Trust’s CEO Matt Leach explores what a preventative state could mean for communities.

The run up to the next general election is likely to be dominated by a debate over which group of politicians will be best able to patch up the state and make public services work a little bit better.

You would get good odds that this debate will focus at least in part on who will recruit the most police officers or doctors. It is possible that there may be some discussion over whether public service improvement can be achieved by more efficient management of existing resources, or whether new resources need to be found and where they might come from.

There is likely to be rather less debate about whether the state is doing the right things in the right places with the right people to prevent problems before they happen.

The hard truth that all parties – and the public – must face is that public services are on track to being overwhelmed by the crushing forces of economics and demographics. And radical new approaches are needed to respond to that challenge.

Increasing the wellbeing of the nation

With tax burdens at a historic high, there is little head room to raise more money for continued expansion of services to meet growing demand. Those same demographic and social pressures, on top of a decade of austerity, make the reallocation of money within and between existing spending commitments increasingly difficult.

And solutions involving greater partnership with or outsourcing to the private or not-for-profit sectors, even if practical, may only kick the can a bit further down the road before reaching the limits of what can be achieved with available resources.

The modern state has got stuck in a cycle of creating services to treat symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of problems. And then relentlessly reorganising, inspecting and trying to manage down the cost of those interventions. Whilst at the same time often cutting back the stuff that is just as important but less immediately pressing to balance the books.

If the goal of the state is to increase the wellbeing of the nation, politicians need to ensure any programme of public service reform they advocate is balanced by a clear vision of the essential public goods that enable people to live the healthy, fulfilling lives they want to lead.

Re-orientating the state

Demos have recently published a new essay, supported by Local Trust, on the need for a reorientation of the state towards prevention.

We hope that rather than simply discussing the challenge of endlessly seeking public service-led solutions to the issues we face – fear of crime, poor mental health and wellbeing, the need for a decent old age – we can begin a new debate on how the state might play a role in building more resilient communities, equipped with the social capital and infrastructure which means people have the social support they need to prevent problems arising in the first place or escalating.

In some areas of our country, especially those which have experienced the harshest industrial decline, we have seen the loss of many of the institutions that were once central to community life.”

Community centres, pubs, clubs and libraries – these are the places, spaces and institutions that once bound our communities together, providing stability, support and resilience to the people who live in them. These building blocks of social capital in a neighbourhood – places to meet, shared spaces, and the existence of local community institutions – are the social infrastructure so crucial to the collective success of a community.

But too often their importance has been neglected, they have suffered from long term disinvestment, whilst other public services end up picking up the cost of the loss of this community fabric.

A state refocused around prevention

This isn’t some Big Society-style call for the transfer of responsibility for public service delivery to local community groups or, indeed, larger national charities.

Rather it reflects a recognition that in communities which are rich in civic assets – grassroots community organisations, places to meet where local people can come together, where relationships, connection and social capital are nurtured – the evidence is that people do better, with better outcomes in terms of health, education, access to work and wider measures of wellbeing.

Local Trust, along with the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI), has set out to better understand what is happening here. And the statistics tell a clear picture – in places where the social fabric has started to fray, it has a marked effect on the lives of the people who live there.

We have found that deprived neighbourhoods with lower levels of social infrastructure appear to suffer significantly worse socioeconomic outcomes than other parts of the country, even allowing for relative deprivation.”

A state that is refocused around prevention and the social foundations necessary to make that a reality would address this gap. But it would need to be different to the one we have today. It will need to invest patiently with confidence that this investment will bring a return over time.

It will need to recognise that the relationships in our communities that bind us together, as well as the places to form those relationships, must be a central focus of policy making.

It too will need to accept, as many across the political spectrum now do, that far too much power is concentrated in Whitehall. A preventative state would need to be built on a principle of subsidiarity, where decisions are made as close to those they affect as possible. Not least because that helps build the confidence and capacity of local people and of the local institutions that bring them together.

The rewards will take time but will be worth it. If we value those public goods that are the foundations of a good life – good health, a clean environment and strong and flourishing civic life – then we need to make sure the state is configured to support these rather than the centre deciding paternalistically that they know best.

Read The Preventative State: Rebuilding our local, social and civic foundations on the Demos website.

About the author
Matt Leach

Matt Leach is the CEO of Local Trust