The British Academy and Power to Change, together with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies, have today published research from a collaborative programme – chaired by Dame Julia Unwin – exploring how social infrastructure contributes to communities’ wellbeing, helps develop their resilience and tackles deepening geographic inequalities.
Social infrastructure represents the places – such as local libraries, village halls, pubs and community centres – as well as the crucial organisations and support structures that enable communities to form and sustain relationships that help them to thrive.
The Academy’s COVID Decade research programme, which explored the long-term societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, found that communities that entered the pandemic with strong social infrastructure were best placed to respond, as they were more resilient and benefited from strong community support and relationships. This new research programme, led by the British Academy and Power to Change, and conducted by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies at The Young Foundation, explores the features and socioeconomic impact of social infrastructure.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that place and geography matter to people in times of uncertainty. People placed great value on local green spaces and open spaces during COVID lockdowns for recreation and socialising. But the pandemic also showed us that the impact of crises – and the policy response to them – does not affect all places and communities equally. This collaborative research programme has sought to understand how communities can be supported in these challenging times, and in particular, how policymakers can provide support and engage with these vital spaces.
The Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the Institute for Community Studies were commissioned to undertake two related research projects. The first of these explored examples of international policy interventions that aim to strengthen social infrastructure to draw out learning for UK policymakers. The second involved peer research into community definitions and understandings of social infrastructure in England.
The overarching report, Space for Community: Strengthening our Social Infrastructure, brings together all of the programme’s findings and sets out several considerations for policymakers and sector leaders to help ensure social infrastructure is effective. These are to:
- Make social infrastructure open, accessible and inclusive
- Include community voices to understand local concerns and demands
- Account for and manage tensions between the different purposes of social infrastructure
- Pay close attention to and harness the private sector’s role in shaping and providing social infrastructure.
Dame Julia Unwin, Chair of the Programme’s Advisory Group, said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of social infrastructure in times of crisis, as well as the unequal impacts of such crises on different communities. As we face a ‘polycrisis’ of interconnected social, economic, health, and climatic challenges, it is more important than ever to prioritise and invest in the infrastructure that helps communities thrive. This research programme has studied the importance of social infrastructure in communities internationally and in England, finding that social infrastructure is central to providing hope and support for communities, particularly when led by individuals with a deep understanding of and connection to those communities.”
Ailbhe McNabola, Director of Policy and Communications at Power to Change, said:
“If the government is to succeed in addressing regional inequality, it must better understand the impact of social infrastructure and how it can support prosperity.
“Community businesses are integral to our social infrastructure. And when services, spaces and systems are owned by the community they serve, they offer better value for the public purse, keep resources and jobs local, create community wealth and build economically resilient places.
“This research is therefore essential if we are to deepen policy makers’ understanding of social infrastructure, rooted in the evidence about what matters to communities in their places.”
Hetan Shah, the British Academy’s Chief Executive, said:
“This research highlights the crucial yet often overlooked role that social infrastructure plays in society. From parks and schools to libraries and sports centres, places for the community to come together create social, cultural and economic benefits. They bring people together, foster a sense of community, and provide opportunities for learning, growth, and recreation. Governments recognise the value of investing in physical infrastructure – this research shows the importance of also supporting communities through the social infrastructure they need to come together.”