“We have instinctively known that communities have been fraying for decades but we have always struggled to measure how and in what ways. This has meant we have placed too much focus on what we can measure, rather than the social networks, institutions and norms which underpin our neighbourhoods and local places and give people a sense of belonging."
People are less likely to be a member of a local group or volunteer, to attend church or community activities, or go on trips with their families than they were even ten years ago. They are less generous with their money to charities, and with their trust to the civic institutions that comprise the social fabric. People are less likely to cohabit with other people, live in a stable housing tenure (home ownership or social rent housing), be free of debt, or hold a secure job. In these material ways, it is possible to chart how community is changing.
This does not mean that every measure has got worse. Educational attainment, rates of crime and healthy life expectancy have improved considerably over time. People are more likely to have meals with their children and use extended family for childcare. These trends have mitigated the loss of community in some respects, including strongly in some areas, but they have not been able to reverse the decline of community in other ways.
There is very wide variation in the social fabric of different places, based on the inherent characteristics of different places. The places with strong social fabric tend to combine high levels of Physical Infrastructure and Economic Value with enduring Civic Institutions and Positive Social Norms. The places that score particularly highly include London’s commuter belt, the South of England, and the more prosperous parts of Scotland.
Meanwhile other areas have social fabric that is worn out and fraying. Coastal areas, city suburbs and large towns are worst affected. These areas are concentrated in three parts of the country: The East of England corridor from King’s Lynn to Kingston-Upon-Hull, South Wales, and along the M62 from Grimsby to Huddersfield. The growing social inequality between these places and the rest of the country is one reason for their economic decline.
We are familiar with the national conversation about growing economic inequality over the last 40 years; our data suggests the same phenomenon exists in the social and cultural assets of the UK’s communities. The social fabric strongly correlates with political volatility. Among the top decile of places in our index (those with the strongest social fabric), 44% of people voted to leave the EU, compared to more than 62% in the bottom decile, where the social fabric is most frayed. Local authorities in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies score 9 per cent lower on average than the UK average, and 13 per cent lower than the Conservative average. Estimating for constituencies, the stronghold seats the Conservatives won after decades of Labour dominance in 2019 have a score 30 per cent lower than the seat (Putney) lost to Labour.
Economic policies alone – from new infrastructure to inward foreign and direct investment – are always welcome but not always sufficient to fix social problems; nor will community revival offset more precarious housing tenure or declines in job security. It is the interplay between economic and social factors that drives the improvement, or deterioration, of the social fabric of a place. This means that “levelling up” must be a social as well as economic endeavour. It also requires that the scale at which interventions take place may need to be at a local, community level, rather through regional or national action.
To make progress – and start to give people back a sense of belonging – policymakers will need to embrace a different set of interventions, using an approach which pulls on both social and economic levers within a specific local geography. They will need policies which seek not only to improve the economic prospects of an area but those which strengthen the social fabric of communities by generating housing and job security, building civic institutions, and fostering local relationships and social capital.
This was important in normal times but becomes essential as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which has done so much to remind us of the enduring power of communities and the deep reservoir of reciprocal support available in society.
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