When Boris Johnson’s government published its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper last year, it signalled a renewed interest in the well-worn concept of ‘social capital’ – the norms and networks that tie communities together. ‘For levelling up to mean something to people in their daily lives’, it wrote, ‘we need to reach into every community in the country, from city centres to rural areas, in order to start to rebuild social capital and self-reliance in our most abandoned neighbourhoods.’ 

A shift in language

So far, so typical. Governments in this country have been promoting the regenerative benefits of social capital since the late 1990s, with little discernible impact on the actual lives of citizens. As noted in our 2021 report, Why don’t they ask us?, ‘Interventions have consistently failed to address the most deprived communities, contributing to a 0% average change in the relative spatial deprivation of the most deprived local authorities’ areas.’ 

The intriguing difference this time was the introduction of ‘social infrastructure’, a term that has existed in various forms in academic literature for many years, but is relatively unknown in the policy world. Indeed, just about every reference in the White Paper to social capital is paired with a corresponding reference to social infrastructure, and there is a specific promise to create an expert sub-committee of its Levelling Up Advisory Council focused solely on ‘local communities and social infrastructure – the role of neighbourhood policies and strategies for building community capacity in left behind areas.’ 

But what exactly is social infrastructure? And how does it differ from ‘normal’ infrastructure? Is ‘investing in’ it just another way of saying ‘public spending’? And as people remain perplexed about what levelling up itself means, doesn’t ‘social infrastructure’ just confuse things further?  

‘From the global to the hyper-local’ 

To answer these and other questions, we’re working with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Together, we conducted two parallel projects last year; the first, funded by the British Academy, looks at international definitions and the second, in partnership with Power to Change, explores what people in local communities think. By looking at the issue from both ends of the telescope, from the global to the hyper-local, these two studies shed new light on the issue. As often as not, for example, it is not just the provision of infrastructure that matters, but access to it as captured in quotes from the two reports: 

It’s much more difficult to be a member of Ohio’s rural poor, because if you’re poor […] in one of our metropolitan areas, no matter how deficient it is, there’s a public transportation system … So if you’re the struggling poor family who maybe can’t afford to go to the Columbus Center of Science and Industry, well, you at least know on a somewhat regular basis you can go on that for free day.

The big thing about Bishopston [, Bristol, is] I’ve got easy access to spaces where I can meet other people.

Taking responsibility  

Another key finding from the research is that social infrastructure is not the sole responsibility of government; respondents in this country and abroad were just as likely to talk about the importance of shopping centres, bars and cafes as places to meet and socialise. If the UK government wants to increase social infrastructure, it will be as much about creating a supportive regulatory framework for businesses as it will be about direct investment through its many and varied funding streams. 

There is more work to be done. Having established the broad parameters for what counts as social infrastructure, these reports lay the foundation for a more detailed programme of work on definition and measurement. This is vital if the government is to be held to account for its commitment to level up the country and build a fairer society. Yet it has taken more than two decades to bring clarity to the measurement of social capital, and economists still argue about how to account for it. The country cannot afford to wait another 20 years. 

That stated, the government is to be congratulated for introducing the concept of social infrastructure to a wider audience. Not only is this the backbone of every community, it is the generator of social capital. Bland statements about the need to ‘grow social capital’ can now be replaced with specific commitments to a minimum standard of social infrastructure that every community can expect. And – whisper it quietly – the inherently local nature of social infrastructure, defined by local people for local people, offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the vice-like centralist grip that has strangled community life and reinforced regional inequality for decades. 

Read more about this collaborative project here. 

Institute for Community Studies Posted on: 25 January 2023


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