Social wealth – note of a discussion among Better Way members, 13th November 2018

In recent years social infrastructure has been depleted as Caroline Slocock has set out in a recent Community Links report for the Early Action Task Force:

‘Britain has a proud history of creating a rich social infrastructure, compared to many other countries. But recently there has been significant disinvestment in the physical assets and preventative services that are an important part of social infrastructure, potentially leading to a further downward spiral.’

This disinvestment has impoverished communities across the country, hitting some especially hard, especially in the poorest places.  This is not only about the dismantling of public services, such as youth services for example, but also about many other things which matter to people in the areas where they live, for example parks, clean air, shopping facilities,  places to meet, and play areas.

We noted that social infrastructure is created not just by the public but also the social and private sectors.  A combination of resources will be needed, including public sector funds (the new post-Brexit Shared Prosperity Fund for example), private sector contributions, and the deployment of land and property, in order to make good what has been lost and to build afresh.  Pension funds might play a role.

A great deal of previous infrastructure investment, for example much that took place in successive regeneration programmes, did not achieve the hoped-for benefits. So how can we create funds which do not simply continue business as usual?  What are the ‘rules’ which might produce something better?  We felt the following principles were especially important

  • Local people in the driving seat in terms of design and control (not simply ‘consulted’)

  • A core aim of rebuilding cultural and social capability.

  • Planning for the long term and aiming to achieve enduring benefit.

We also believe that the best social infrastructure is capable of reducing community divisions, for example those produced by differences in ethnicity, wealth, age.  Conscious and unconscious bias runs in all directions (eg people might be experienced as intimidating because they are wealthy or because they are poor) and this can best be demystified at a human level. However a lot of community initiatives are only appealing to a small section of the population, and this is partly because funding usually requires that activities are targeted on those regarded as in greatest need – but a truly social infrastructure needs to appeal to all sections of the population.

Conclusions

Our conclusions were as follows:

  • In some places there are simply not enough community facilities or services, or of the right kind.

  • Many traditional community building models are insufficient (they appeal to a minority, and do not connect people enough). We need to promote those models which engage many people not the few.  The Selby Centre in Tottenham is an example - many cultures, one community.

  • A bigger focus on cultural infrastructure is needed. The mixing of genres – creative fusion – can attract new audiences and widen participation, and can be commercially successful at the same time

  • Finance is often necessary – and there is a strong case to invest in social infrastructure.

  • It’s necessary to create a sense of common ownership, mutual benefit and interest in the community. We shouldn’t just look to the public sector to contribute finance, but also businesses and the community itself, appealing to self-interest as well as to altruism (for example helping companies understand that investing in community improvement is a sound business decision as it can improve quality of life for employees and increase property values).  Community shares can be one way of contributing. 

  • Funding by itself is not sufficient to produce social wealth, and when poorly applied can drive behaviours which are deeply damaging to community resilience and confidence. Who controls the finance and who controls the infrastructure really matters.  We need more mechanisms which allow spending power to be in the hands of local people, individually and collectively, and digital platforms are beginning to extend possibilities for this.

  • Where funds are available, they should be spent locally wherever possible, to create economic and social multiplier effects.

  • Funds should be deployed in ways which reduce the tendency for money to be absorbed in the running costs of provider organisations, and instead flow through to energise community life more directly.