Social Fabric

The State of our Social Fabric

The report estimates the changing nature of community over time and in different parts of the UK, introducing a new Social Fabric Index to measure the strength of the social fabric in place over five threads: relationships, civic institutions, norms and behaviours, physical infrastructure and economic value.
Lord O’Shaughnessy, Will Tanner, Fjolla Krasniqi, James Blagden
September 14, 2020
The State of our Social Fabric
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“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."

Will Tanner, Onward

 

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

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.

Sep 15
15:30-
16:45
Event Full

A history of community decline

Widening inequality

  • Fewer than half of people in the UK are now members of a group (48%). Just 10% are members of a working men’s or social club and 6% are members of a tenants’ or residents’ association, down 25% and 38% respectively since 1993, and regular church attendance has more than halved from 6.4 million in 1980 to 3.1 million in 2015. Membership of pensioner and professional membership groups, in contrast, has risen seven-fold and twelve-fold respectively since 1993.
  • Between 2011 and 2017, the share of parents engaging in activities or outings with their children several times a week declined from 36% to 29%. Over the same period, the proportion who do so fewer than once a month rose from 34% to 40%. However, the number of 10-16 year olds having dinner with their family regularly has risen, from a third in 1995 to a half today.
  • Even though the number of charities and donations are rising, the generosity of donations is in decline. In 2007-08, the average person donated £1 in every £100 they earned to charity. A decade later, in 2017-18, that figure had fallen by more than a quarter, to 73 pence.
  • Communities are roughly half as likely (47%) to have a local post office than they were nearly two decades ago and three quarters (76%) as likely to have a local pub. This means that there are now only 7 pubs for every 10,000 adults, compared to 11 pubs per 10,000 adults a decade ago in 2010.
  • Roughly three in ten people now live on their own, up from just one in twenty (5%) a century ago. Much of the recent increase in the proportion of the population living alone is men aged between 45-64, who account for 42% of the increase in single person households.

 

  • The places with the strongest social fabric are typically located in the South of England, especially in London’s rural commuter belt and parts of Scotland. Richmond upon Thames is the highest ranked area by social fabric, with Chiltern, South Oxfordshire, South Cambridgeshire, Rushcliffe, St Albans, Windsor and Maidenhead, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire following closely behind.
  • The places with fraying social fabric are typically found in the Eastern coast of England, South Wales and the M62 corridor from Huddersfield to Grimsby. This includes post-industrial towns such as Middlesborough, Methyr Tydfil, Boston and Hartlepool as well as coastal communities such as Great Yarmouth, North East Lincolnshire and Blackpool.
  • Places with a fraying social fabric are more likely to be politically volatile. Among the top tenth of places for social fabric, just 44% of people voted to Leave the EU, compared to 62% support for Brexit in the lowest tenth of places for social fabric. Red Wall constituencies and 2019 Conservative gains have social fabric scores that are not only 12% lower than the Conservative average, but 3% lower than Labour seats too.
  • The growth of the private rented sector has contributed to declining social fabric. Just over 56% of people in social housing and 66% of homeowners feel that they belong to their area, compared to just 47% of private renters. In the areas with the strongest social fabric, stable tenures (owner occupied and social rent) have increased since 2001, while in the areas with the weakest social fabric, they have fallen by 8%.

A history of community decline

  • Fewer than half of people in the UK are now members of a group (48%). Just 10% are members of a working men’s or social club and 6% are members of a tenants’ or residents’ association, down 25% and 38% respectively since 1993, and regular church attendance has more than halved from 6.4 million in 1980 to 3.1 million in 2015. Membership of pensioner and professional membership groups, in contrast, has risen seven-fold and twelve-fold respectively since 1993.
  • Between 2011 and 2017, the share of parents engaging in activities or outings with their children several times a week declined from 36% to 29%. Over the same period, the proportion who do so fewer than once a month rose from 34% to 40%. However, the number of 10-16 year olds having dinner with their family regularly has risen, from a third in 1995 to a half today.
  • Even though the number of charities and donations are rising, the generosity of donations is in decline. In 2007-08, the average person donated £1 in every £100 they earned to charity. A decade later, in 2017-18, that figure had fallen by more than a quarter, to 73 pence.
  • Communities are roughly half as likely (47%) to have a local post office than they were nearly two decades ago and three quarters (76%) as likely to have a local pub. This means that there are now only 7 pubs for every 10,000 adults, compared to 11 pubs per 10,000 adults a decade ago in 2010.
  • Roughly three in ten people now live on their own, up from just one in twenty (5%) a century ago. Much of the recent increase in the proportion of the population living alone is men aged between 45-64, who account for 42% of the increase in single person households.

 

Widening inequality

  • The places with the strongest social fabric are typically located in the South of England, especially in London’s rural commuter belt and parts of Scotland. Richmond upon Thames is the highest ranked area by social fabric, with Chiltern, South Oxfordshire, South Cambridgeshire, Rushcliffe, St Albans, Windsor and Maidenhead, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire following closely behind.
  • The places with fraying social fabric are typically found in the Eastern coast of England, South Wales and the M62 corridor from Huddersfield to Grimsby. This includes post-industrial towns such as Middlesborough, Methyr Tydfil, Boston and Hartlepool as well as coastal communities such as Great Yarmouth, North East Lincolnshire and Blackpool.
  • Places with a fraying social fabric are more likely to be politically volatile. Among the top tenth of places for social fabric, just 44% of people voted to Leave the EU, compared to 62% support for Brexit in the lowest tenth of places for social fabric. Red Wall constituencies and 2019 Conservative gains have social fabric scores that are not only 12% lower than the Conservative average, but 3% lower than Labour seats too.
  • The growth of the private rented sector has contributed to declining social fabric. Just over 56% of people in social housing and 66% of homeowners feel that they belong to their area, compared to just 47% of private renters. In the areas with the strongest social fabric, stable tenures (owner occupied and social rent) have increased since 2001, while in the areas with the weakest social fabric, they have fallen by 8%.

Taken together, these findings suggest that the ways policymakers and politicians have tended to think about community needs to change.

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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