Published on 13 December 2023
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Towards a broader understanding of social infrastructure

How does the private sector contribute to social infrastructure across the country? Rosa Marks outlines a new collaborative project from the Bennett Institute and Power to Change looking at the role of the private sector in providing social infrastructure.

When we think of social infrastructure, we often think of spaces specifically designed to bring communities together such as village halls, community centres, libraries, and parks. Generally publicly funded, they are widely recognised as playing a key role in providing people with a sense of belonging, fostering feelings of connection, and acting as a bulwark against particular local social problems. It is no surprise, therefore, that these are the spaces that public sector strategies often focus on, and that communities’ campaign to protect when difficult funding decisions are made. In the last decade, direct community ownership for these spaces has increased, reflecting their value to local people.

And yet, as our recent research showed, there are a range of spaces that provide these outcomes (and more), which are rarely considered as social infrastructure despite the importance local people place on them – spaces like supermarkets, pubs, cafes, and shopping centres.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that across the United Kingdom, there are 20,966 halls and community centres and 3,390 libraries. But when we compare this to the 58,127 convenience stores and independent supermarkets, 8,142 supermarket chains, and 2,695 shopping centres and retail parks, the potential of these semi-public, often commercially-owned spaces jumps out. There is a wealth of space in private ownership that fosters a sense of place, enables social interactions, and even stimulates social integration. For example, recent research undertaken in the United States used geographical mobile phone location data to highlight the important role that mid-level restaurant chains could play in acting as shared spaces for different social groups. And there are great opportunities for these spaces to do more.

To identify these opportunities and understand the policy implications for including these spaces in conversations around social infrastructure, Power to Change and the Bennett Institute are embarking on a new project to explore the current and possible future role of privately owned commercial spaces and how communities could become more involved in their development as social infrastructure. We will also look at how communities can repurpose privately owned vacant retail units as socially-oriented spaces given the widespread decline of retail, as well as how property owners, especially developers, can collaborate with communities to provide sustainable and much-needed social infrastructure.

‘Unplanned’ social infrastructure

Our previous research on community perceptions of social infrastructure showed that people use a myriad of different spaces as social infrastructure, beyond just that which is provided specifically for the purpose of creating social connections. Our research will therefore examine ‘unplanned’ social infrastructure – spaces and places not envisioned as social infrastructure, but which still function as such.

Retail constitutes a significant, yet under-researched, sector here. Supermarkets, convenience stores, shopping centres, and markets, for example, are all reliant upon and embedded within local communities, providing both an opportunity for physical interaction within one’s daily life and an anchor to foster one’s sense of place and local identity.

Many different types of social interactions occur in these places. Some people just have minor social contact with those they do not or only somewhat know (also known as ‘weak ties’), but these still have positive effects on people’s wellbeing and sense of belonging, as we saw in particular during the lockdowns of the last few years. Others strengthen their strong ties in these spaces, either intentionally by organising to meet friends or family or accidentally; a 2019 survey of Bury Market found 74% of market users bumped into someone they knew when they visited. These spaces also offer opportunities for social integration through regular encounters which break down barriers between groups, as well as social inclusion, particularly for older people and marginalised groups.

Some large retailers are already strengthening their role as type of social infrastructure. Many supermarkets have a ‘community champion’ – a full or part-time member of staff responsible for administering donations, volunteering in the local area, and coordinating the use of space in store by community groups. Other activities include quiet hours to make the store more inclusive and promoting public health through in-store vaccinations.

There is enormous potential to enhance the social role of these types of spaces in ways that can fulfil local needs and policy objectives. Look, for example, at the chatty checkouts introduced into the Dutch supermarket chain, Jumbo, in 2019. Part of a health ministry programme to combat the loneliness epidemic in Holland in which the government partnered community organisations, public sector services, and businesses, these “Kletskassa” increased social interaction between vulnerable customers and staff by slowing down the checkout process. Finding a way for businesses to enhance their function as a form of social infrastructure in a way that makes commercial sense could transform local communities and how we envision social infrastructure more broadly.

‘Planned’ social infrastructure

Retail has, of course, been in decline for many years. At the end of 2022, almost 14 per cent of retail sites on high streets and town centres and 18.2% of units in shopping centres were unoccupied, with the highest rates in the North of England and other regions that have simultaneously faced the deterioration of publicly-funded social infrastructure.

But this decline offers a significant opportunity to diversify and repurpose the retail space, to revive the dying high street and town centres by making them more socially and community-oriented. As research by Power to Change shows, community businesses are key to this high street revival. They bring vacant and underutilised spaces back into use for community benefit, deliver services that align with local need, creating jobs and opportunities for local people, and keep the wealth they generate in the local economy. These community-run venues, shops, and services also serve as ‘destination spaces’, which promote footfall to other local businesses, improving high street viability

One way of doing this is through ‘meanwhile use’ – the utilisation of empty space awaiting future activity by organisations or individuals on a temporary basis. It is not only an accepted part of the development process – meanwhile use is one of the most common ways developers engage with community groups – but is also increasingly recognised by property owners as an effective way to pay lower business rates and improve the security of their vacant property. Yet critics argue that meanwhile use can drive up local rents and house prices and that the unstable and short-term leases involved leave charities and community businesses vulnerable.

The permanent repurposing of empty space for community groups may present a better option. Some property developers are beginning to experiment with new leases for community businesses and engage more frequently with local organisations. A handful of non-profit organisations like Platform Places have emerged, which bring local stakeholders together to help community businesses gain access to vacant property. But these opportunities remain few and far between.

What next?

A number of important questions have already emerged from our discussions and research on this project. How can the public sector encourage businesses to strengthen their social role in order to fulfil local needs and policy objectives? Given the private sector is driven by profit, what are the (commercial) incentives for retailers to function as social infrastructure and for private property owners to provide space for communities? And what conditions are necessary to foster successful partnerships between the private sector and local communities?

Over the next few months of research, this project will seek to solve some of these questions and provide some possible answers to help communities, local authorities, and businesses create and maintain the kinds of privately owned spaces that communities need and value. Throughout the project we will be talking to people with relevant experience as well as organising a number of roundtable events where these topics can be discussed in more detail.

Please do get in touch if you would like to contribute.

Career opportunity: We are hiring a Research Associate to work on this project. The details on our careers page.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Rosa Marks

Research Assistant

Rosa is a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. She is currently researching the role of the private sector in the provision of social infrastructure. She previously...

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