Restitching Britain’s social fabric, one community at a time

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Power to Change’s Josh Westerling and Nick Plumb share their reflections on Restitch: the social fabric summit held in London and Halifax during May.

Jun 1, 2022

Josh Westerling

Josh Westerling

Public Affairs Officer, Power to Change

Nick Plumb

Nick Plumb

Policy & Public Affairs Manager, Power to Change

Last week’s Restitch summit, hosted by think tank Onward and place champions Create Streets, across two days in London and Halifax, was a long time in the making. We heard from some of the world’s leading thinkers – such as Michael Sandel – and from a whole host of community leaders whose work is quietly repairing our fraying social fabric from the bottom up.

Josh on London

With stormy skies over Westminster, Restitch 2022 began to a full crowd in Church House. Sitting down for the first panel, ‘Beyond the Culture Wars’ in the space that had served as temporary home to both houses of parliament during the Second World War, it was a reminder that the most fractious ‘wars’ of today are being fought – in the UK at least – not on battlefields but on the comment pages of The Guardian and The Telegraph and on our social media feeds.

Whilst the polarising nature of our media is a sobering reminder of our times, these debates are still important. While it may not be unique to our time nor our place, the coarsening of our political discourse has certainly been felt both by those closely involved in our politics and the wider country.

This comes at a time that may well be without precedent. As Gemma Mortensen argued during the panel discussion, we are living through a period of seismic change and interlocking crises. In this context we can either shut off or get caught in short-term reactive cycles. Can we connect across divides in these times? Can our politics keep pace?

If we look away from our national politics, one can feel hopeful. The work of Gemma’s organisation New Constellations and Alex Smith’s, The Cares Family, seek to bridge some of these divides and do fantastic work. At Power to Change we saw the response of community organisations to the pandemic which was responsive and dynamic, plugging holes the state and market could not fill. Many now feel that solutions to our most pressing global challenges can be found at the community level.

Yet as I write this, letters are trickling into the Chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady – the culmination of a series of scandals to engulf our politics. It is hard to look at either party and see a vision for the country that contends with the challenges our times. Our politics feels ridden with short termism and old ideas – currently it cannot keep pace. How did we get here?

Stepping back, the pre-eminent philosopher Michael Sandel sketched out some of the underlying trends that got us where we are. His convincing account of the right and left’s shared commitment to market fundamentalism, the technocratic mode of our politics, the grip of neoliberal global capitalism and the pernicious – but ever present – idea of meritocracy is one shared by many, whatever the colour of their party rosette. The challenge is whether the party leaderships, the Treasury and Whitehall can move with the times too.

I left Restitch in London eager for our politics to catch up with the debates and arguments that have been made by academics, think tanks and the third sector for some time now. Progress from government and community-minded contributions from Andy Haldane and Lisa Nandy provide some optimism. But this is set against the risk the Conservatives revert to market orthodoxy to satisfy its backbenchers and members, while Labour return to the Blairite playbook without revising its analysis of what is wrong with society and what needs to change.

There are diagnoses and remedies aplenty in the marketplace of ideas and numerous examples of change being made at the community level, we’re just waiting for our politics to grasp them. As party conference season fast approaches, and with a general election just around the corner, the race is on to see which party is prepared to stick their head above the parapet.

Nick on Halifax

For the past five years or so, I’ve always wanted to visit the Piece Hall – a real architectural gem too little known beyond the North of England. This was the location for day two of the summit, so I jumped at the opportunity.

There were a great set of speakers on day two, including Immy Kaur, Lisa Nandy, Andy Haldane, Neil O’Brien and Helen Thompson – one of the most regular fixtures in my routine in recent years, owing to her stint on the Talking Politics podcast.

Lisa Nandy kicked the day off with a major speech laying out how she and the Labour Party would ‘create strong towns’. She took a swipe at economic and political orthodoxies, from the division of the country into ‘functional economic areas’ to the principle of ‘trickle out economics’. Cities doing well will lead to better outcomes for the towns in their orbit. A rising tide will lift all boats. She argued that for too many places this hasn’t been their experience and suggested that Labour will reject this approach.

She also began to set out the policy measures that will come with this agenda: bringing good jobs back to coastal and industrial towns; enshrining new rights for communities in law; investing in community assets and the financial institutions to support them. Power to Change clearly has lots of experience on these final two areas. We look forward to seeing more detail on these policies and working to provide our evidence and expertise on how to get this right in the coming months.

Social capital and social infrastructure were major themes in a fascinating discussion between Andy Haldane, Chief Executive of the RSA and co-author of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, and Helen Thompson, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University.

Andy discussed with Helen his theory of community capitalism and how it applies to current policy debates. He argued that the level of emphasis placed on social capital and social infrastructure in the Levelling Up White Paper was rare for a government policy document. He also argued that ‘double devolution’ – the further transfer of powers from town halls to communities – was ‘there in embryo’ but clearly needs to grow. We plan to explore these themes in more through our work on Community Improvement Districts, the We’re Right Here campaign and our new research programme on social infrastructure with the British Academy, the Bennett Institute and the Institute for Community Studies. In short, I left with hope that we’re getting nearer to a politics which can grasp the potential in our communities, and encouraged by the movement of us out there working to fulfil this potential and show to policymakers why it matters.

What next?

All in all, Restitch offered up a range of ideas and sparked plenty of heated conversations around what it means to level up the country and what it would take to achieve it. While there were disagreements across the board, the prevailing consensus is that community and people need to be at the heart of any measures. Let’s hope those not at Church House or the Piece Hall, but with the ability to make important changes, are listening…

Thanks to Will Tanner, Nicholas Boys-Smith and their teams for putting on a hugely stimulating event.