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Keeping social infrastructure on the agenda

Chief executive Matt Leach explores how a renewed focus on social infrastructure and community activity should be built upon to achieve better outcomes for neighbourhoods.

Its brilliant that we’re talking about social infrastructure and social capital again. In the two years since Dan Gregory published his excellent Skittled Out  these ideas have forced their way into the mainstream for the first time since the collapse of the Big Society project. 

As Dan himself remarked in his evidence to a recent All-Party Parliamentary hearing on the subject, it’s not as if infrastructure as a concept has gone out of style.  In fact, over the last 10 years, even over a period of austerity, we’ve seen infrastructure spending by government increase year on year: there is an absolute recognition that good transport requires investment in transport infrastructure; and that a successful economy needs economic infrastructure. But for some reason, social infrastructure – the “stuff” around which we build communities, identity, co-operation and culture  was, for a time at least, banished to the margins.   

A spotlight on social infrastructure

It is clear that its emerging back in the mainstream, at least to the extent that NESTA is holding webinars on it – I took part in an excellent lunchtime discussion with Immy Kaur of the fantastic Civic Square and others last Tuesday, as part of their People Power Shift season of events. And really good to see it highlighted as an issue in Danny Kruger’s report last week, as I noted in a previous blog. 

The return of social infrastructure to the centre of our debate about community is important. At the moment it feels like if there is an emerging consensus about the importance of community – particularly in the light of the fantastic COVID response of mutual aid groups – there are also some real risks, not least around the danger of the wrong policy interventions leading to a further polarisation of power, resource and opportunity, and failing to level up the communities that need most support.   

What these communities were missing was the ability to get involved, make a difference, make things better.”

Local Trust supports 150 neighbourhoods across England, in a radical experiment to see what happens if you put real money and power in the hands of local people. The neighbourhoods originally selected for funding are generally ones that were seen to have “missed out”. Often these were communities on the edges of towns and cities; the places that can sometimes fail to be included in plans for renewal and often lack good transport links or easy access to services.

We’ve come a long way, but what next?

Halfway through the programme, we’ve learnt a lot. But one of the biggest pieces of learning for us is that the areas it has been hardest to get things going in are often those where there was little in the way of established “social infrastructure” at the outset.    

By social infrastructure here, I am talking about:  

  • places to meet – whether pubs, churches or community centres  
  • active community organisations – the micro-charities, community associations and other groups that engage and bring people together 
  • connections to other places.

In social capital terms these are the building blocks of bonding capital, the stuff that binds us together; and bridging capital, the ability to access ideas, resources, support from elsewhere.  

And the places we sometimes found it hardest to help local people to make a difference tend to be in those places where – when we started – the community centres were closed or on their last legs; where the pubs had already gone, so there was nowhere for people to meet or form networks and trust; and there wasn’t much in the way of pre-existing community activity.

Understanding ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods

And when we looked at the data to try to understand what was going on, what it showed us is that there are a number of communities in England – typically at ward or housing estate level – which appear to have significantly lower levels of “social infrastructure” than other places. With less civic engagement, fewer places to meet, and lower levels of connectivity.   

What they were missing was the stuff that makes communities feel like good places to live. That helps give people identity and connectionthe ability to get involvedmake a difference, make things better.   

During COVID-19 we saw hyper-local organisations reinventing themselves to meet the needs of their communities”.

That became even more important when COVID-19 arrived. When the crisis hit research carried out for the APPG for ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods showed that deprived areas with low levels of existing social infrastructure – what we called for better or worse “left behind areas” – received less than half the COVID related funding per head of the population compared to other equally deprived communities. It seems that there just weren’t the networks and organisations there to apply for it. 

And – unsurprisingly – levels of the voluntary mutual aid activity that has defined many people’s experience of the COVID crisis have been much lower in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods than elsewhere, running at less than a third of the level found elsewhere in the country, in communities with stronger social infrastructure.

Community action during the pandemic

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the civic activity is that exists, more that it is there. In the excellent recent Common Vision/Gulbenkian report on COVID-19, creativity and the arts, the value of community arts groups beyond the arts was captured incredibly well: 

“It’s the fact that the [local arts] group exists as a fairly secure social entity that then allows it to be used in a time of crisis for all sorts of things”  

Looking at Big Local areas, during the crisis we saw much the same phenomenon. Hyper- local organisations reinventing themselves on the fly to meet the needs of their communities, repurposing networks and focusing on meeting need. 

It’s not about short term funding for community ownership. It needs a long term, generational commitment”.

The community sports hub on Barrow Island that turned itself instantly into a community kitchen.

In Brinnington in Stockport a community centre that pre-crisis was running fantastic community cinema events (amongst much else) turned into a hub for coordinating support for vulnerable people across there area. 

And the community music and photography projects that helped maintain a sense of community and identity even during the worst moments of lockdown. 

Putting COVID-19 aside, when you compare places lacking social infrastructure to other communities with similar levels of deprivation – for example inner urban areas – they appear to be performing much less well across a range of key social outcomes. On any number of key health, social and economic indicators they were doing worse before the crisis and have suffered more since.   

Three factors to consider

This raises three key points of importance right now. 

The first is that – when considering issues of levelling up – we need not just to think about fixing the regional economies and town centres, we also need to be thinking about fixing social infrastructure at a neighbourhood level. We need to sort out economic and transport infrastructure, but social infrastructure also needs to be a part of any policy prescription. 

Where social infrastructure is missing, it doesn’t just appear to be associated with worse economic and social outcomes for communities in general. But also a lack of capacity for the community itself to respond to crises and challenges when they arise (and COVID is unlikely to be the last shock event of the 2020s).   

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the civic activity is that exists, more that it is there.” 

Secondly, if we don’t fix this, we risk opening up a new front in which access to resources, opportunities and quality of life are increasingly polarised and unequal. Further increasing the disparity between people and places that have and those that don’t.   

Finallywe need to understand that addressing all of this takes time. There are no instant apps or innovative quick fixes. We know from our work in local communities that where social infrastructure has been allowed to degrade, it requires long term, patient support to support local people rebuild it again.   

For investment to work it needs to be a long-term, generational commitment, something Danny Kruger recognised in his welcome call for a dormant assetfunded £2bn Levelling Up Communities Fund, and that elsewhere the Community Wealth Fund Alliance has called for in its campaigning and research work and in its recent submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review. Short-term funding for community ownership or support packages to promote community powers will simply not go the distance.