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What happens when the social contract is being ripped up?

Britain’s towns need more than just new economic investment. Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust, comments on the government’s new £1.6b fund based on findings from the first draft of cutting-edge research by OCSI.

What happens to a community when the shops and pubs shut their doors for the last time; the job market no longer offers opportunity and advancement to local people; and public services pull back, closing the youth clubs and libraries and leaving the community hubs with no staff? New research carried out by OCSI for Local Trust, still in draft, highlights the shocking cost to communities when England’s unwritten social contract is ripped up. With the Government having announced a new £1.6bn fund for towns in the north and midlands, we need to start thinking beyond economic interventions if we are to tackle the problems of places that have been left behind by our current social and economic settlement.

For much of the post-war period, life in England for the majority was defined by an ever-improving quality of life. A buoyant private sector and increasing public spending. Wherever you were born, regardless of family income, you might expect to grow up in a neighbourhood with a range of local shops and plenty of places to meet and socialise, whether in pubs, bingo halls or council-funded community centres.

It wasn’t just about social infrastructure. The expectation was that jobs appropriate to your skills and experience would be available and relatively easy to access, and there would be opportunities for promotion if you did well. Up until the 1980s at least, trade unions, often more diverse and industry-specific, helped people organise and – often – educate and improve themselves.

“There was belief in the prospect that our children would do better than us, and that education and hard work would bring rewards.”

In exchange, you paid your taxes, strived to better yourself and participated in local civic life (or at the very least turned out to vote).Together, it helped create the web of reciprocal support and shared sense of identity and obligation that made up community.

The early-mid 1980s called some of the certainties into question, particularly with the disappearance of long-established employers from many areas reliant on traditional industries for their survival. But the fall-out from this period of economic turmoil was largely recognised across the political spectrum as unacceptable and, from the early 1990s onwards, a succession of large-scale area-based interventions were launched. From City Challenge to the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), to the National Coalfields Programme and New Deal for Communities (NDC) – all were seeking, in different ways – to address problems of economic and social decline at a community level.

A quarter of a century on, we are facing new challenges to assumptions about the stability of our social, political and economic settlement. As close to a decade of austerity continues to impact on public service provision, and services and facilities withdraw from many poorer and more peripheral areas – often the same places that have already suffered from the effective withdrawal of the private sector – we need to consider what the impact is on those living in these communities.

If you start to map areas which have suffered from a loss of essential social and economic infrastructure – shops, pubs, community centres, reliable public transport and accessible jobs – and compare them to neighbourhoods that might be suffering from equal levels of deprivation, but where these elements remain more intact – as OSCI do in their research for us – a dramatic picture emerges. Read more from OCSI and download their research

“It turns out that where essential social infrastructure has withdrawn from communities, social outcomes – whether health, education or employment – become markedly worse.”

And it seems that, in these areas, the absence of social infrastructure seems to affect a community’s ability to absorb economic shocks far more than places where it remains more intact. In addition to the obvious social and economic problems in the areas identified in the research, often local people themselves recognise the extent to which they are being failed by the system, with lower levels of turnout in elections, and lower scores when it comes to satisfaction with the place they live. It isn’t surprising, given that they are experiencing at first hand the impact of what amounts to a shattering of what was left of a social contract that many had continued to assume was – if tattered – still in place.

So how should we respond? The government’s £1.6bn new programme is clearly a start. But what our research suggests is that economic interventions aren’t sufficient on their own. The research we have commissioned from OCSI shows how many communities in England also need long-term investment in sustaining and rebuilding their essential social infrastructure. They need places for people to meet and to organise and investment in activities and support which build the community’s capacity and confidence to start to improve their areas.

This isn’t about repeating the same top down programmes of the past; too often they missed their mark or failed to achieve sustainable change. Instead we need to invest in creating the capacity for local people to take on the challenge of turning things around. We know from both the NDC and, more recently, the Big Local programme how much can be achieved by motivated, committed local residents, when they are given time and resources and trusted with decision-making.

“The low budget, community-led transformation of the Horsefair shopping area in Kidderminster is a fantastic example of what communities can do, given the resources and responsibility to achieve change.”

And the ongoing community-led transformation of the Lawrence Weston estate in Bristol shows what can be achieved when both national funders and local government trust local people with resources and key decision-making powers.

But we also know how much time and effort needs to be put in when you leave it too late and have to rebuild community infrastructure that has already disappeared. In some Big Local areas lacking in local civil society organisations and without a viable community hub, it has taken five or more years to rebuild that capacity from scratch. This is a challenge that cannot be deferred much longer.

A decade on from the end of the last major area-based
programmes, we need to move on from an assumption that change can be delivered
on its own through small scale funding for what amounts to the continuation of
the Big Society agenda – grants for asset transfer and the promotion of social
finance and community-based social enterprise and larger scale economic
programmes delivered through Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). These are essential and
important parts of the story, but on their own they aren’t enough.
Alongside that, we need to be willing to open up new conversations about the
need for a fresh round of place-based, community-led approaches to delivering
change in the quality of our social infrastructure. Increasingly, there
is a recognition that a strong economy is dependent on strong communities; its
time funding programmes recognised this.

If you would like to give feedback on OCSI’s research, please email Margaret Bolton, Local Trust’s director of policy, by 11 March 2019.