Social infrastructure is a broad term which covers a range of services which meet the local and strategic needs of an area. It can defined in many different ways, depending on which reports you read, but definitions often include:
- physical places, services and spaces like youth services, community health, recreation, green space and sport and education and outreach services;
- community organisations, such as voluntary groups, charitable groups, neighbourhood fora, local business groups and social enterprises; and
- the physical and social links between places and people, including digital infrastructure, and walking and cycling infrastructure.
While the definition is broad and sometimes disputed, one thing that is generally agreed on is that social infrastructure is a key part of joining up physical infrastructure with services and communities for the benefit of the people who live and work in an area. It is important for social cohesion and effective placemaking and for that reason it has been highlighted by many commentators as a key part of the levelling up agenda.
A cornerstone of public life in our towns and cities
Many commentators have emphasised the role of “informal” spaces, libraries, parks, recreational spaces and community hubs as being overlooked and undervalued in the wider discussions of services and provisions within local areas for many years.
It seemed there was a perception that many of the services covered by the collective term “social infrastructure” were considered to be “supplementary” to core services delivered at a local level, like social work, and while the work they did within the community was recognised as positive, often they were first in line for cuts to services.
However, in recent years, the wider intangible value that these spaces and communities which social infrastructure supports has become recognised. Social infrastructure plays a vital role in supporting disadvantaged and marginalised groups within communities, often providing links to key services and support for people who had previously had significant barriers to access. More broadly social infrastructure can help with preventative and early intervention, with policies and investment that can reduce the need for more intensive (and expensive) support later on.
It is now considered common practice that investment should maximise public or ‘social’ value – that is investments that deliver the best solutions to support the public good. In practice this means including wider non-financial considerations such as community wellbeing and environmental sustainability when making the business case, and prioritising and planning projects that achieve positive social value outcomes for the public.
Supporting inclusive growth, levelling up and the post pandemic recovery
Having poor social infrastructure has been found to contribute to the lack of inclusive growth and levels of low productivity for left behind communities. Even before the coronavirus pandemic The Inclusive Growth Commission called for investment not just in physical infrastructure in poorer communities but in the social infrastructure which ‘develops the capacities and capabilities of individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in society and economic growth’. The most deprived communities often have the worst social infrastructure, which can exacerbate already deep rooted inequalities around areas like wealth, health and race.
Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, published in 2018, highlights research that demonstrates how social infrastructure affects our personal and collective wellbeing, leading to safer, healthier, more tolerant and stable communities, and facilitates social capital – the connections made between people. As we seek to “level up” those communities left behind, and those most significantly impacted by the pandemic, building these connections and improving social capital will be an important tool to help communities develop.
Research from Frontier Economics, published in June 2021, found that for every £1m invested, there are likely to be economic and fiscal returns worth £3.2m, including a £0.7m boost in employment, training and skills opportunities for local residents. And the Centre for Progressive Policy has illustrated in their recent programme of work that investment in social infrastructure plays a vital role in increasing the “health and skill levels of more deprived sections of the population and reducing place-based inequalities in line with the government’s levelling up agenda,” as well as offering good value for money and significant productivity returns.
High quality and inclusive social infrastructure and its wider role in the creation of socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities is key to a successful levelling up agenda. New investment in social infrastructure will not only help to level Britain up, it will also unlock creativity, innovation and other local resources that can help rebuild the economy and build in local resilience for the future.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read:
- Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic
- Britain’s town centres: down but not out
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