Moving forward with social infrastructure policy

19 November 2021


Moving forward with social infrastructure policy

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher at CSaP

‘Social infrastructure’ is an important concept in contemporary policy. It has been defined as: the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships. Examples include public businesses, local support organisations, and recreational spaces. Its relevance to the government’s levelling up agenda is acknowledged by advocates, policymakers, and politicians. However, there are definitional, evidential, and policy-based issues which stand in the way of social infrastructure playing a bigger role in government policy.

On 1 November 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) held a workshop on social infrastructure at the British Academy. It was organised in partnership with the British Academy, the Bennett Institute of Public Policy, and Power to Change. The attendees were academics, advocates, policymakers, and researchers with expertise in social infrastructure policy.

It was agreed that this is a moment of change and a moment of real opportunity. Social infrastructure is of clear relevance to all four goals of the levelling up agenda: empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector and raising living standards, spreading opportunity and improving public services, and restoring local pride. Furthermore, the 2021 Budget demonstrates that central government has recognised this relevance.

The definition of ‘social infrastructure’

Despite its recent policy success, there is still disagreement regarding how ‘social infrastructure’ should be defined. This disagreement is not purely descriptive, it is influenced by how different definitions will impact policy.

There is a spectrum of definitions. The narrower view focuses on physical spaces. The more expansive view encompasses things like local public services, housing, and built environment. Focusing too much on the narrower view ignores public services, which risks neglecting key factors that contribute to people’s outcomes. However, the expansive view risks focusing too much on centrally controlled forms of social regeneration, whose historical track record is poor. It was argued that our chosen definition must be flexible enough to allow us to focus on those aspects of social and community provision which are more specific to different places.

An alternative view was that definitions of ‘social infrastructure’ often overemphasise places when the focus should be on people. In response, it was argued that place-tailored––as opposed to place-blind––policies will allow us to address the people-centred needs of communities.

The evidence base

A firm evidence base is accumulating in favour of social infrastructure policy. Several key findings were highlighted. Improvements in social infrastructure generate the conditions which make prosperity more likely. They also make considerable contributions to wellbeing and community cohesion (especially regarding mental health and loneliness). Furthermore, such improvements generate significant ‘social capital’: networks of relationships between individuals, built on mutual trust, understanding, and reciprocity.

Despite this, evidential issues remain. For example, a substantial amount of the available data comes from qualitative surveys, which are viewed as evidentially weak. This problem can be overcome by focusing on natural experiments. This means studying communities which received social infrastructure interventions in comparison to similar communities that received no intervention. The Local Trust’s work on ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods provides such evidence in favour of social infrastructure.

The focus of social infrastructure policy

It was argued that the initial focus of social infrastructure policy should not be government funding. A wonderful feature of social infrastructural institutions––such as charities and community organisations––is that they are generally self-funding and self-sustaining. A non-financial starting focus allows us to consider a wider domain of policy focuses. For example, what is the role of local authorities in obstructing the creation of social infrastructural institutions? And what can the government do create an environment which enables their flourishing?

There is also a tension between central government’s ‘top-down’ approach, and the ‘bottom-up’ approach which is ideal for the flourishing of social infrastructure. The government’s new levelling up funds reward those communities which have the most resources. Devolution was proposed as a solution to this problem. However, power cannot be responsibly devolved when variable community resources means that the outcomes of devolution will also be variable. It was argued that we have strong evidence concerning how community-level organisations and local governments can be supported to take on the relevant responsibilities. The sector just needs to crystalise this evidence into clear solutions. In the meantime, strategies are being developed to market social infrastructure to central government, such as making a comparative case for social infrastructure over physical infrastructure on the basis of expected marginal returns.

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge