Imogen Sinclair works at the Centre for Social Justice, leading research on transforming deprived communities.
“What would you be doing if you weren’t here this morning?”, I asked Bill, who is a regular player at Treherbert Bowls Club in the Rhondda Fawr Valley. “At home, drinking, bored”, he replied, along with a chorus of affirming murmurs and nods from fellow players.
For Bill, playing bowls is much more than a Friday morning jaunt. And for millions more, our libraries, youth clubs and sports pitches are places on which people depend for social capital. Social capital? Pounds and pence are the coin of the realm, but this year I spent time with community groups in some of our most deprived neighbourhoods to understand what bowls, reading groups and bingo clubs can afford them. The CSJ’s latest report, Community Capital, released today, presents how purposeful participation in such activity empowers humans to flourish.
It was immediately apparent that despite economic decline in many of our town and cities, as long as there are people then “little platoons” will continue to form around shared experiences, interests and values. Burke taught us to respect the platoons, for they are the mediatory institutions that occupy the space between the individual and the state. Accordingly, this space must not be surrendered such that individuals are left with only the state to depend on.
Like Bill, Shelley told us that the Bowls Club provides respite from being the sole carer for her husband. And for Julie, a reading group shapes her week by providing something to look forward to. Similarly, Mike told us, “nothing came out of my life” before he started attending a local youth centre.
This kind of community engagement is not just a nice story to line the cloud of economic hardship, it is vital for what is typically termed “wellbeing”. But why use today’s buzzword when some two millennia ago Aristotle opted for a much more zingy term to describe an ancient take on the same phenomenon, which translates to “human flourishing”?
Bill, Shelley, Julie and Mike’s social contributions empower them towards human flourishing; enabling them to realise their responsibility to people and cultivate a belonging to place. At this, the policy wonks of Westminster enquire “What is the intervention?” Relationships. “And the referral process?” The door, open from 9am. “What is the economic impact?” Well, the invaluable support – effectively unpaid work – offered by family, neighbours and local community groups, was valued by the Office for National Statistics in 2014 at £1 trillion, equivalent to 56 per cent of GDP.
There was much furore at George Osborne’s trebling of a fund to repair listed church roofs in 2015. But the social capital that such spaces like churches afford people must not be left out of Treasury calculations.
John Hayes, who chaired the Working Group for this report, is a long-time advocate for such places as the guarantors of the stability which spawns shared meaning to human lives. He contends that if social capital is the train, then social infrastructure is the track. Our prized economy depends on long-term sustainable enterprise and industry, and so our social fabric depends on social infrastructure. Our Prime Minster vowed to support “vital social and cultural infrastructure, from libraries and art centres to parks and youth services: the institutions that bring communities together, and give places new energy and new life”.
But just last year, the Local Trust found that post offices, pubs, libraries, youth centres, children’s centres, banks, bingo halls, churches, playground facilities, museums, and parks had declined over the past few decades. For the Burkeans among us, this is a tragedy.
There is one final and crucial point that must be made about social infrastructure, and I address it to government. Building community is primarily about shifting power, rather than a new intervention. Our most vulnerable and disadvantaged Britons are not only short of money, but sociologists and economist alike agree that intrinsic to poverty is a sense of powerlessness.
“Poverty is pain: it feels like a disease […] It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair”, said one respondent to a study called Voices of the Poor. This can and must be addressed. Not by cash injections which lift people above an otherwise arbitrary financial threshold, but through fostering secure connections to families, institutions and places. Our communities cherish such places, and are therefore best placed to preserve them.
We must move away from the assumption that government must be the sole operator of filling gaps. There are some 390,000 civil society organisations who are well placed to offer intelligent, nurturing and local welfare. Back to Burke, I say. We must dignify civil society by giving our unsung heroes the tools to sustain social infrastructure. Instead, government must recognise the potential in civil society, and in the spirit of decentralisation, harness this. We need more community ownership of public buildings, we need to trust their judgment and allowing their pride of place to drive creative solutions to local problems.
And, more fundamental, we need to inspire a shift in the ambition of government to pursue a new agenda – human flourishing through measuring not just individual economic contributions, but purposeful participation in our village halls, libraries and youth clubs.
There is a great subterranean shift going on in our culture, a turning away from the brashly new, from the quick and modern, from the solely individualistic measure of personal fulfilment. We are reaching once again for connection, belonging, and a sense of meaning which goes beyond our own immediate gratification. What is left is for government to align with these values by measuring what matters.