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Rebuilding social infrastructure: how should we invest in communities?

Investing in our public spaces is vital to address the big challenges of loneliness, mental ill health and social and political disengagement. Such investment also brings economic benefits – and can help to close the gaps between economically disadvantaged and more affluent parts of the country.

The gap between the investment in infrastructure required globally and the funds committed is expected to exceed $15 trillion by 2040, according to the G20 Global Infrastructure Hub. In the UK alone, the National Infrastructure Commission has said that investment will need to rise by £15-25 billion annually by the 2030s to meet demand.

Facilitating greater investment to close this ‘infrastructure gap’ is widely considered to be one of the key priorities for an incoming government looking to boost productivity and growth.

Less talked about is the ‘social infrastructure gap’, which relates to the public spaces – such as parks, cafes, libraries, community centres and museums – that are vital for incubating social capital and community cohesion.

In recent years, both public and privately owned and operated social infrastructure has faced significant challenges. In the UK, sizable cuts in local council funding have led to almost 800 library closures and strained budgets for local museums, community centres and park maintenance. More than 7,000 pubs have also closed in the last decade; and a record one in seven UK shops are empty, totemic of the much-lamented ‘death of the high street’.

That the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) recognises ‘a decrease in funding for, and closure of, civic institutions and community spaces’ indicates governmental recognition of the UK’s social infrastructure challenges.

The effects of this should not be understated. Social infrastructure can be viewed as a ‘seed bed’ for social capital, and it is vital in establishing the networks that enable communities to thrive. The benefits of social capital were highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, when community aid groups were crucial in providing physical and psychological support, and helped to alleviate loneliness, mental illness and lack of access to resources.

Given that social capital is widely considered to be in decline in the UK, the erosion of social infrastructural facilities will serve to expedite this process, leading to more lonely, disconnected and disenchanted communities.

This will have impacts on wellbeing. Social capital can serve as a bulwark against the loneliness and mental illnesses that are a drain on healthcare resources and productivity. Mental illness alone is estimated to cost the UK economy over £100 billion each year. Studies also show that lower levels of social capital may facilitate higher crime rates and anti-social behaviour that see public resources diverted and deter inward investment.

Further, there is an economic imperative for addressing the social infrastructure gap. Greater social capital may lead to increased economic output and productivity growth, given the established link between social trust and good governance. Indeed, one estimate indicates that every £1 million invested in social infrastructure will return £1.2 million in fiscal savings and £2 million in economic and social benefits.

Social infrastructure is also crucial to democratic vitality. Grassroots political movements require a permissive environment to emerge and develop, and the decline of public, communal space to gather may diminish the ability of community voices to make themselves heard. The best types of social infrastructure are those that can effectively agglomerate individuals with different experiences and political dispositions and build common bonds – something that is badly lacking in a world of tech-driven communication.

When reckoning with the global challenges of the coming decade, social infrastructure should not be an afterthought. As is the case with many policy challenges, the first step should be improving the quality of data – more robust metrics for measuring social capital and social infrastructure are needed to ensure that we fully understand the nature of the problem and the total stock of social infrastructure in the UK.

The second challenge is one of convincing decision-makers of the benefits of social infrastructure. In an age where fiscal latitude is restricted, investment in libraries, parks and museums may seem parochial. But it is vital that policy-makers understand how social infrastructure fits into wider economic and political agendas.

Third, we must consider who is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of social spaces. Observers have highlighted an increasing privatisation of public space in cities globally, in which town squares and other public spaces are taken over by private organisations that set the terms of use.

An alternative model of community ownership, whereby local people control community assets and run them as non-profitable entities, has also been on the rise in recent years. The government must develop strategies to work with both community groups and private sector providers to ensure that there are accessible and inclusive social spaces in all communities.

Lastly, there needs to be an understanding that any policies in this area must be spatially targeted. Those areas in which social infrastructure is most depleted are often the same areas that have experienced significant economic decline and political disillusionment in recent years. A renewed stock of social infrastructure is crucial in changing their fortunes and those of the country more widely.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Diane Coyle
  • Owen Garling
  • Andy Westwood
  • Dimitrios Panayotopoulos-Tsiros
Authors: Steph Coulter and Owen Garling
Image: Hakase_ for iStock
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