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Social Fabric

2023 Social Fabric Index

Onward’s 2023 Social Fabric Index updates the map of community strength in different parts of the UK and sets the benchmark for targeted policy interventions in UK’s most troubled communities.
James Blagden, François Valentin
May 2, 2023
2023 Social Fabric Index

The language of levelling up is rooted in restoring a sense of community, but it is difficult to fix what isn’t measured. In this updated Social Fabric Index, policymakers can see how and where communities are struggling.

 

The UK has suffered a long-term and broad-based decline in the networks and institutions that make up the social fabric of communities.

Our communities have been rocked by falling volunteering numbers, closing pubs and post offices and lower levels of trust in civic institutions. These are the aspects of a community that matter most to people. We use these measures to chart how the strength of the social fabric varies across the UK.

The first Index, published in 2020, found that there is very wide variation in the social fabric of different places. Some places, like coastal places, city suburbs and authorities in ‘Red Wall’ scored particularly poorly. Much of this has remained true in the updated Index.

 

The social fabric of communities is most frayed in the ‘Red Wall’

All but two ‘Red Wall’ areas have below-average Social Fabric scores.

There is most ‘fraying’ around the so-called ‘red wall’ areas of the North and Midlands, with places facing a double-whammy of weaker economies and community ties coming apart. For levelling up to succeed, the Government needs to address both of these with specific interventions.

 

Communities have proved resilient; the economy has not

A rise in unemployment and inactivity and declining security of housing tenures has driven insecurity in communities. In every single local authority, the claimant rate among young people increased. Secure tenures like homeownership and social rent have declined in all but five local authorities making it harder for people to put down roots and forge connections in their community.

Many social aspects of community – like charitable giving or neighbourliness – have weathered the pandemic.

But some have not. The proportion of people who say they actively participate in a local group has fallen by about 11 percentage points. And the share of people who regularly attend religious services has also fallen across the country, by about 5 percentage points.

 

In stronger communities, people are more trusting

There is clear link between the strength of the social fabric and the willingness to trust strangers. For example, St Albans has the highest Social Fabric score in England and is also the third-most trusting area. Kingston-upon-Hull, on the other hand, is the most frayed and is the sixth-least trusting area.

This is driven by a number of ingredients for a strong community life: high rates of volunteering, religious attendance, and participation in local groups, stronger families, good health, and low crime.

This relationship likely runs both ways. More trusting citizens are more engaged in community life, and a stronger society facilitates greater levels of trust. This shows the importance of non-economic factors in understanding why, some in some parts of the country, people feel that their communities are fraying.

What the Index does and it’s impact on UK policy

First published in 2020, the Social Fabric Index has been used to direct policy interventions into the areas that need it the most. It was frequently cited as a key metric for ‘levelling up’ in the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper. This updated report analyses data in four threads: economic value, relationships, positive norms, and physical infrastructure.

The Social Fabric Index is structured into a simple hierarchy.  The overall score is an average of four threads and each thread is an average of three to five fibres. Each fibre is a combination of different data sources, for example, the Group Participation fibre includes data on the number of community-owned shops and pubs, charities and membership organisations in each local authority. 

The chart below illustrates how the threads and fibres make up the social fabric. For a full discussion of the methodology and changes, see the Technical Annex at the end of this paper.

social fabric threads

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