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Written on 5 Mar 2021 by Tom Kelsey

Levelling up after Covid: the value of social infrastructure

What is the value of social infrastructure for levelling up left-behind places?
Research Assistant, Tom Kelsey, captures an online debate between leading experts from academia, the charity sector and government, about the role social infrastructure plays in building socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities, and how.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to distance ourselves physically from one another. But where physical separation may protect us from viral contagion, social proximity only becomes more crucial in times of crisis.

These were the opening reflections of Professor Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People and a leading academic voice on the importance of social spaces, at the Bennett Institute event, Levelling Up After Covid: The Value of Social Infrastructure on 1 March 2021. You can watch a recording of the event here and read on for a summary of the key points.

Joining Professor Klinenberg to interrogate the role that social infrastructure can play in helping to level up our communities post-pandemic were Dame Julia Unwin, former CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Stephen Aldridge, Director for Analysis and Data at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Chairing the event was the Bennett Institute’s Professor Diane Coyle.

Getting to grips with social infrastructure: competing conceptualisations

The panellists began by defining the term ‘social infrastructure’. For Professor Klinenberg, social infrastructure refers to ‘the physical places, and the organisations that have a physical plant... that shape our capacity to interact with one another.’ The advantage of strictly delineating social infrastructure in this way, he argued, is that it makes the concept more operational and analytically useful.

On the other hand, Stephen Aldridge argued for a broader definition of social infrastructure that includes local public services. He suggested, firstly, that our definition of social infrastructure should reflect the insights of the best available evidence regarding what matters in delivering the social and economic outcomes we care about; and, secondly, that an overly place-centric and physical rendering of social infrastructure may miss the crucial point that people matter as well as places. Investments in physical places may not always reach the people whom policymakers aim to support, he argued, and by integrating public services into the definition of social infrastructure we can mitigate the risk that these citizens will be excluded from the benefits of various levelling up initiatives.  

Despite these differences, the panel was united in advocating that social infrastructure matters – for people, for places, for the richness of our social lives and for the feasibility of the post-pandemic economic recovery alike.

No economic recovery without social recovery

In fact, this last point  – that the economic recovery would hinge on the repair and revitalisation of our social institutions – was echoed by each of the panellists.

There is no revitalising the economy in the absence of a revitalised public sphere."

Professor Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. 

“There is no revitalising the economy in the absence of a revitalised public sphere,” Professor Klinenberg reflected. For Dame Julia, “If we’re going to recover economically, we’ll never do that unless we recover socially. And to do that requires [recognising] that our dilapidated high streets, our very miserable community centres, our closed and shuttered churches, our pubs and cafes which, when they were open, were increasingly targeting very particular demographics and no longer a place for social mixing, are all part of the recovery.”

Stephen Aldridge argued that social infrastructure has a clear and important role to play in driving economic prosperity and improvements in living standards, alongside other ‘traditional’ economic drivers of growth such as human capital, innovation, competitive markets and physical infrastructure.

Physical and social infrastructure: Scope for a symbiotic relationship

Indeed, they each touched on the relationship between social and physical infrastructure and agreed that investments in our communal gathering places are as consequential for the economic and social fortunes of our communities as investment in roads, railways and digital hardware.

The returns to social infrastructure may be comparable to, or even better in some cases, than investments in physical infrastructure.”

Stephen Aldridge, Director for Analysis and Data at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

“The returns to social infrastructure may be comparable to, or even better in some cases, than investments in physical infrastructure,” said Stephen, citing MHCLG’s Integration Area Programme, ESOL for Integration Fund, and Troubled Families Programme as cases in point.

For Professor Klinenberg, who, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, served as research director for President Obama’s Rebuild by Design competition, policymakers, designers and investors need to appreciate better that physical infrastructure can double up as a social amenity. It can serve not only to facilitate the fluid operation of basic economic and security functions, but also to contribute towards meeting social objectives. Given the vast amount of investment needed in our dilapidated physical infrastructure that in the coming decades, it would be a monumental missed opportunity not to simultaneously realise the social benefits that this otherwise purely functional investment could leverage. Thus a flood defence system, creatively re-imagined, could double up as a landscaped park, cut through with peaceful walking paths and safe cycling lanes. But this sort of innovative multi-purpose design will need to be built in to infrastructure plans at the drawing board stage and will require a different approach to project development and appraisal which considers the voices of a more diverse range of stakeholders.

It’s more than just the economy, stupid

For Professor Klinenberg and Dame Julia in particular, the value of social infrastructure extends beyond the economic opportunities that investments in our libraries, parks, pubs and community halls may unlock. Of crucial importance is the role that social infrastructure plays in sustaining our civic life.

Social infrastructure fosters powerful local identities, pride in place and the confidence and wellbeing of local people. Not only are these assets vital to the economic prospects of a place; they also undergird the sense of mutual respect and social solidarity which is so crucial for the healthy functioning of our civic and democratic life. As Professor Klinenberg put it, navigating the choppy waters of the post-pandemic recovery while simultaneously grappling with myriad and imminent environmental challenges will require us to learn how to share spaces, fairly allocate increasingly scarce collective resources, and co-operate more effectively in our democratic institutions. In the context of rampant polarisation, “We cannot build commitment to [this] shared project without building gathering places.”

Finally, the how...

If social infrastructure is so consequential, how can we harness the power of our social spaces to deliver on the social and economic goals contained within the levelling up and post-Covid recovery agendas?

Three main ideas emerged from the panellists’ responses to this question. For Stephen Aldridge, a rigorous synthesis of the evidence on the impact social infrastructure investments can have would be hugely beneficial for those officials and advocates seeking to persuade decisionmakers of the importance of these investments.

We ignore the local at our peril.

Dame Julia Unwin

Dame Julia advised that redistributing power and resources to the local level is essential to unlocking the value of our social spaces. “We ignore the local at our peril.”

Finally, Professor Klinenberg was optimistic that the immense spending on physical infrastructure that we can expect governments to make as they grapple with population growth, economic disruption and climate change, presents an opportunity to accelerate progress in the social sphere, as long as those academics, officials, advocates and commentators who understand the value of social infrastructure continue to make this case to those in government who may not yet recognise its potential. At one level, this will require greater inter-departmental cooperation within government.

Here at the Bennett Institute we will shortly be publishing a report into the social, economic and civic value of social infrastructure, complete with a set of recommendations for policymakers, which will both synthesise the evidence base and, we hope, catalyse government’s thinking on social infrastructure.

For now, it is clear that social infrastructure matters, but as the vaccine roll out raises the prospects of regaining access to the gathering places we have so missed, a collective effort among academics, civil society, business, the media and government is needed if we are to repair the damage done to these spaces and unleash their true potential.

Watch "Levelling up after Covid: the value of social infrastructure".

  • About the author

    Tom Kelsey

    Tom is a Senior Research Officer at the Electoral Commission. From October 2020 to September 2021, he was a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, having previously worked as a Policy Adviser at the think tank Green Alliance and as a researcher for a Member of Parliament. Tom holds a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics and an MSc in Democracy and Comparative Politics from UCL.

    Tom Kelsey