Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust, considers the importance of social infrastructure based on a recent visit to Aberfeldy Big Local in the East End of London.
The new development around Aberfeldy Street can feel overwhelming. Cranes everywhere. Block after block being cleared for new office blocks and designer apartments promising 24 hour concierges and integral gyms. Endless concrete, glass and steel but nothing that is human in scale, and – so far – little evidence that the new development will bring with it the other elements of community needed for a neighbourhood to grow and thrive. No shops or pubs. A primary school but no café for parents to meet for a chat after dropping their kids off in the morning.
“We’ve lost a lot of that, over the years,” says Wayne, showing me a photo of his 13-year-old self, hanging off the balcony of the flat he still lives in, parents and grandparents alongside. It isn’t just the loss of housing for local people – his own home is the subject of a compulsory purchase order at a price that means he will need to leave the area – but also the complete loss of social facilities. Fewer and fewer places to build friendships, share interests and swap experiences. It had come to a head with the redevelopment of their own street – if the community couldn’t come together to meet, how could it have any influence on the incredible change going on around it, or start to make its voice heard?
Enter The Tommy Flowers. Named after a WW2 cryptographic hero born around the corner, it isn’t a conventional pub. It’s in what was once a shop, and there’s a distinctive DIY look to the place, with community art everywhere you look, and much of it put together through donations and volunteer effort. If it’s not selling beer in the evening, it’s selling tea and cake during the day, and providing the venue for craft classes, making sessions and community meetings – most recently with the developers working on a nearby site. Recently opened by the Aberfeldy Big Local partnership, The Tommy Flowers is also a small shrine to the value of community at a time of change.
Wayne is clear about the difference it has made.
“It’s given us a feeling of power. That they have to come to us and show their plans and listen to our views.”
Liam, who works to support the Big Local is even more emphatic “We’ve really learnt how to get our views across, we’re passionate and some of us are angry, but they can’t dismiss or ignore us. The Big Local has given local people a way of ensuring they are taken account of”.
When people talk about social infrastructure, the starting point has to be groups like Aberfeldy Big Local and the Tommy Flowers community pub. In any community, hard social infrastructure – shared and accessible physical space – is critical. Places like community centres, libraries, pubs; locations that people can congregate in at low or no cost and which can be the location of community activities. We know how crucially important such spaces are – and the rate at which, in many places, they are disappearing. It is something Dan Gregory has written about for Local Trust in his essay Skittled Out.
But of equal importance is the ‘soft’ infrastructure of communities – the groups and organisations that help underpin confidence and capacity and the networks and positive connections and relationships they can help facilitate and build.
“We know from our work in many Big Local areas that where it is missing, rebuilding that ‘soft’ infrastructure is a critical first step towards communities turning themselves around.”
And that, often, long term, patient community development work is needed to encourage and support a core group of residents who want to begin to take collective action to improve their areas.
Unlike other forms of societal infrastructure and services, this isn’t something easily delivered or facilitated by the state. But it is critically important to making the ground fertile for long-term sustainable change. Whether it is organisations like Aberfeldy Big Local bringing people together to develop their own vision for the future, or their counterparts in Lawrence Weston near Bristol taking on the challenge of building their own homes for local residents.
The civic infrastructure needed to make this happen can take a variety of forms – new community organisations and charities, community owned affordable housing, renewable energy, shops, pubs and other locally owned enterprises serving the needs, and helping to achieve the aspirations, of the community. But the starting point for getting any of this up and running is long term, patient investment in building a shared community spirit and a positive self-identity, and support to help them achieve their ambitions.
How radical is the notion that we need investment in social infrastructure in communities? Well not at all really. As Dan Gregory argues in Skittled Out, the need for investment in economic infrastructure is universally accepted. But a successful economy is as dependent on the quality of its social capital as the availability of financial capital. In the context of a country that at times appears increasingly polarised and divided, politically, economically and socially, perhaps even more so.
As I left The Tommy Flowers, Liam told me about the new football team they were funding, Aberfeldy FC. They’d started training kids on the local multi-use games area, which had no proper lighting installed. So the coaches parked their cars all around the games area and shone their headlights onto the pitches so the kids could continue training into the evening and their football club keep going. Even in the midst of the most incredible change and disruption people find ways to keep communities going. We need to find better ways to release their potential.
Strong, resourceful communities: the case for a Community Wealth Fund argues for investment in social infrastructure in “left behind” neighbourhoods as a necessary building block for achieving long term sustainable change. Local Trust provides the secretariat to the Community Wealth Fund alliance. If your organisation or partnership supports the proposal for a Community Wealth Fund please join the alliance advocating for it here.