As governments across the UK begin to lift the current lockdown restrictions, an important debate is starting about how best government can support those communities that have been most acutely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and how to promote economic renewal in its aftermath. These questions bear heavily on the government’s declared commitment to ‘level up’ Britain’s poorer towns and regions.
In a new report for the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Professor Michael Kenny and I argue that investing in ‘social infrastructure’ – the amenities and spaces that bring people together to build meaningful relationships, such as cafes, libraries and lidos – may be as important for rebalancing the prospects of the UK’s cities and towns as building new roads or rolling out faster broadband. We draw on a wide body of evidence and offer new data analysis to demonstrate the various economic, social and civic values which these facilities create. We also argue that a coherent approach to levelling up must mean strategically aligning investments in physical and social infrastructure.
At a time when town centres are struggling to respond to the rise of online retail, the cafes, pubs, cinemas and heritage buildings located on our high streets are becoming increasingly important in attracting people to them. These amenities help to drive higher rates of footfall and they incentivise shoppers to spend more in the local economy. Consumers who make use of cafes and restaurants while shopping spend almost 50% more in nearby shops than those who do not.
These facilities also contribute directly to the health of local economies. Almost 2.3 million people are employed in social infrastructure-related industries across Britain and in some towns, such as Skegness, almost half of all jobs are in these sectors. These jobs often represent valuable opportunities for those who may otherwise struggle to gain a foothold in the labour market, such as young people and those with disabilities. Almost one in five young people in employment work in social infrastructure-related roles.
The pandemic has revealed that the ability of communities to withstand and recover from adverse shocks varies markedly across the country. We show that, during the pandemic, mutual aid groups were more likely to mobilise in towns with higher levels of social infrastructure than in towns with fewer such facilities. This trend echoes previous research which shows that communities rich in meeting places are better able to sustain networks of support on which vulnerable people can draw in times of crisis.
In more normal times too, social infrastructure supports better physical and mental health outcomes. For example, we found that access to community facilities diminishes the risk of loneliness in older adults. This is why initiatives like the ‘Men’s Sheds’ movement – which brings together men who feel isolated or lonely in informal, shared spaces – are important.
But while Men’s Sheds and many other local organisations, like churches or mosques, tend to bring people together from similar backgrounds, spaces like community centres, pubs and sports clubs play a particularly important role – and might be considered a priority for public support – because they enable relationships to form across generational, ethnic and class lines. This kind of ‘bridging social capital’ is vital to the economic fortunes and social cohesion of deprived places.
We call the third type of value that social infrastructure creates ‘civic’ in kind. When public facilities are well-maintained, accessible and safe, they shape residents’ feelings about the identity and standing of their town. Institutions that are a focal point for communities – from football clubs to heritage buildings – are especially important for sustaining a sense of civic pride. For example, Ramsey, in Cambridgeshire, has invested in its Victorian walled garden and a WWII training camp to revitalise local footfall and connect people to the town’s history.
There is also a growing body of research which suggests that when people have access to spaces where they can build relationships with their neighbours, they are more likely to develop a meaningful connection with the place they live, as well as greater trust for others in their community. These sentiments, in turn, can translate into more active participation in local social and political affairs.
Recommendations for government
On the basis of our analysis, we make a series of recommendations for government.
First, it should develop a new data repository, bringing together key datasets relating to community facilities that can be used to ascertain how the quality and quantity of social infrastructure varies across the UK.
Second, funding for social infrastructure should be increased in proportion to that which is being directed to large physical infrastructure projects. We suggest that government ring-fences 25% of the Levelling Up and Towns Funds, in particular, for investment in social infrastructure and earmarks a portion of the Dormant Assets Fund for the same purpose.
Third, government should revisit its decision to allow developers to convert vacant retail premises and other community facilities into residential properties. Converting these spaces into private residences will hollow out town centres, damaging community life and diminishing the attractiveness of some towns. Government should instead consider how to breathe new life into these amenities.
These interventions, if pursued, would help government to deliver more effectively on its levelling up ambitions by unlocking the value of the social spaces which are so crucial to the prosperity, wellbeing and pride of many communities.
- Townscapes: The value of social infrastructure
- Ring-fence funding for ‘social plumbing’ to level up the UK
- Podcast with Tom Kelsey talking to Cambridge Policy Shop