Protecting our social infrastructure

By Jonathan Werran | 03 June 2020
  • Jonathan Werran

For habitués of Tachbrook Street market, Pimlico (and for those in the SW1 know a certain real ale pub just to the south of it) the sight of chancellor Rishi Sunak tucking in to a market stall falafel may have brought hope that lockdown can end soon.  But it would be a mistake to think that one lunchtime will make it a wrap. 

Instead we should prepare for more confidence building public appearances and, as was the case after the 2008 financial crisis, expect the chancellor to deploy the theatrical staging of the House of Commons as the cockpit from which to declare a series of fiscal events to tackle joblessness and kickstart a stalled economy.

So cue the mood music to a series of big-ticket shovel ready schemes as £100bn worth of capital allocations first set to be announced at the time of the March Budget get given an airing.

But we have moved on so far so fast in the last, often bewildering 12 months alone.  However we label, badge and present it, whether as inclusive or green, levelled up or national strategically self-sufficient, measurable growth of any stripe or hue will be order of the day.

As with the industrial strategies in previous years, the success of the HS2 rail link or of schemes under the aegis of development bodies like Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine will ultimately be judged in how they raise the living standards, lives, environments and pay packets of people.

So when we hear expansive talk about pro-growth schemes to kickstart a paralysed economy, we must also talk about the community infrastructure needed to knit places and people together. 

Just as the need for roads, schools, GP surgeries and other infrastructure to be laid down in lock step with ambitious new build housing schemes is recognised, it’s time to kick off a conversation about the connective social infrastructure that needs to be either renewed or created in parallel with the region-spanning big state interventions.

Localis’s report which comes out today ‘Local Delivery – protecting social infrastructure’ is purely focused out of the small end of the telescope – examining the relationships between the local and the community when it comes to supporting social life and delivering valued local services.

Even before the onset of lockdown, the lie had been given to the default assumption that our economic needs and the rational pursuit of them narrowly defines us.  As lockdown begins to end, our community hubs and businesses, many of which came into their own from the onset of the 2010 public finance cutbacks, will find themselves in the unenviable position of facing arrears - having already lost three months’ revenue and set to lose more due to social distancing measures from room hires and commercial activity from cafes and the like.

The recovery will be driven as much by the dictates of restoring social wellbeing as securing economic renewal.  If that’s the case, policy and funding must be channelled to allow local people – the sort of capable individuals who stood up to be counted during the crisis - to provide neighbourhood enterprises in their community facilities.  For an evidence base, look no further than the myriad case studies from NALC detailing how parishes and local councils have responded with great wisdom as well as innovative courage and abiding compassion to care for the most vulnerable in society.

This means when Rishi pulls rabbits from the Treasury hat, there must be alongside it real core funding cash – but skittle money in comparison with the National Infrastructure Commission capital allocations – to run vital community businesses, assets and service hubs which will in turn make life worth living again for so many.

This is especially the case in less affluent areas where we risk hampering recovery by sapping the energy and enthusiasm of capable volunteers – many of whom are likely to be threatened with benefit cuts for their selflessness in taking action to build community capacity.

We have become more appreciative of our immediate environment and local green amenities during lockdown.  And holding onto this thought, with the expectation of funding to follow, the provision of parks and open spaces alongside support for ‘friends of’ groups should be a statutory requirement for councils.

How much of this is directly quantifiable in cost benefit analysis terms or to Treasury Green Book standards remains questionable – but this matter goes beyond the accounts ledger.  ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,’ remarks Antoine de St-Euxpery’s Little Prince.

If as a future society we wish to hold onto what we most value, which is often the intangible connections of human trust, friendship and sociability that of late have been so strained, we must invest in the physical place assets that allow our communities to flourish.  And trust that productive places are synonymous with prosperous communities.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

Free community groups to take on assets - think-tank

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