Space for community: strengthening our social infrastructure

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The social fabric of a community is important for weathering challenging times. How can government support the growth of important community spaces for people to gather and meet?
31 Jan, 2023
Ailbhe McNabola

Ailbhe McNabola

Director of Policy and Communications

There is a lot of talk lately about ‘permacrisis’, driven by the collective experiences of the Covid pandemic, followed by a cost of living crisis, and the ever-present climate and nature crisis that is unfolding. But many people, especially those working in disadvantaged communities, will tell you that the crises didn’t just start in 2020, and that communities have been finding their own responses to challenges and their own ways to help each other for many years.

But the Covid pandemic did shine a spotlight on community, on ‘mutual aid’ and neighbourliness. The ongoing challenges of that pandemic, and the following energy and cost-of-living crises in the UK, have focused policymakers’ minds on the importance of the social fabric, of community ties and resilience. So while many people have long understood the importance of community, of having trust in your neighbours and a willingness to support each other, it feels as though these things are now getting the attention they deserve from our political leaders and those working to develop policy.

At Power to Change, we support communities directly to build their resilience and capacity to deal with challenges. We think about the concept of social infrastructure – the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships – and how that infrastructure supports the development of social capital in places, a key component in economic and social prosperity.

Understanding the value of social infrastructure

In early 2022 we began a collaboration with the British Academy, to collectively explore questions relating to social infrastructure and its value to different communities. We worked with a team from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies, who delivered a programme of research chaired by Dame Julia Unwin and supported by an Advisory Group comprising senior policymakers, academics and practitioners. The work explored examples of international policy interventions that aim to strengthen social infrastructure, to draw out learning for UK policymakers, alongside peer research into community definitions and understandings of social infrastructure in England.

We have now jointly published a report, ‘Space for Community: Strengthening our Social Infrastructure’, that brings together the research findings with the deliberations of the Advisory Group and the conclusions of local roundtable discussions across England. In essence, we are all saying that we know social infrastructure matters for strengthening the fabric of places and for building communities’ resilience and indeed for their wellbeing.

Working with government to grow social infrastructure

With this work, and in other ways through discussions and the sharing of evidence, we want to work with policymakers in central, regional and local government, to better understand and to better support social infrastructure. Government has already recognised its importance in the Levelling Up White Paper, and in the provision of support through the Community Ownership Fund and the Levelling Up Fund.

We’d like to see this go further, with specific policies that would help communities contribute to providing the social infrastructure that places need:

  • Extend and expand the Community Ownership Fund to £300m over four years to put 1,300 assets and spaces into stable community ownership. This would bring 1,300 additional assets into community ownership, creating at least 5,000 jobs and 30,000 volunteering opportunities.
  • Introduce a Community Power Act that would give communities a right to control the spaces, services, and spending decisions in their local area. This would help establish a dynamic new form of governance at the local level, leading to more responsive public services, better decisions about local public spending and greater local power and say over important buildings and spaces.

Work still needs to be done to grow social infrastructure in communities. But government, together with sector leaders and communities, can work together to make these vital spaces and places more open, accessible, inclusive, and responsive to the local needs and concerns.