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Alex Smith is founder and CEO of The Cares Family and Vidhya Alakeson is CEO of Power to Change.

Addressing a Conservative Party Conference fringe event earlier this month, Michael Gove noted that there has been an erosion of institutions which have given people’s lives meaning and indeed given communities a sense of… richness.’

The newly appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities went on to describe the ‘desire to reclaim… common space[s] where people can interact’ as critical in explaining the feelings of insecurity, dislocation and disempowerment which have upended our politics in recent years.

We couldn’t agree more. In a new report produced by Power to Change and The Cares Family, we describe the institutions and spaces in local communities in which we meet, mix and form connections as our nation’s ‘social infrastructure’. We argue that the Government’s levelling up agenda will only succeed if Ministers invest in this crucial area of national life.

Expanding upon the argument made by the new Chair of the government’s levelling up taskforce, Andy Haldane, in a recent lecture, we set out how a deficit of connections between people – or social capital – is compounding many of the issues which this agenda is intended to address from long-running cycles of economic decline and entrenched disadvantage to regional inequalities in health and wellbeing.

A new pamphlet launched at the fringe event at which Gove spoke, co-signed by ten Conservative MPs, put it like this: it is when people trust each other, feel pride and are willing to take risks that they create the institutions, businesses and organisations that make a place successful.’

That’s why we believe that policymakers must take proactive steps to enable people to build the local relationships and associations which underpin bonds of trust, empathy and shared belonging.

There can be little doubt that targeted investment in and substantive action to reinvigorate local economies in left behind areas must form part of any meaningful policy response to our crisis of disconnection.

There needs to be greater support to enable independent businesses to grow. Reviving high streets and town centres in disadvantaged places will be key to inspiring feelings of civic pride. Increasing common ownership will help tie communities together in real ways.

People with secure and good-quality jobs are also more likely to feel rooted in their local area and to engage in community activities. And enabling young people to build a successful life in the areas where they grew up – should they wish to – would certainly strengthen the family ties which often underpin broader community networks.

But focussing on local economies isn’t enough. New physical infrastructure projects or measures to spread economic opportunity will not reverse or counteract the cultural shifts brought about through the digitalisation of everyday life or the broader fragmentary effects of globalisation, gentrification and individualism.

And we must recognise that Britain today is facing a particular shortfall of spaces in which people from different social and cultural backgrounds and generations can interact in meaningful ways. This serves to compound patterns of social segregation which fuel mistrust and the growth of intolerance. Steps to bolster local economies should, then, go side-by-side with dedicated action to nurture connection within communities and bridge social divides.

It’s of course true that the Government can’t build relationships on our behalf and that cultivating feelings of attachment and fondness isn’t the state’s strong suit. But it’s equally true that Ministers have a golden opportunity in the levelling up agenda to provide community organisations and groups with the tools they need to rekindle feelings of local togetherness and unleash their area’s potential.

As the Secretary of State said, this may mean embracing a ‘more plural form of local leadership drawing together the skills, know-how and passion of citizens, community businesses and locally rooted charities as well as forward-thinking councils.

Certainly, it should mean ensuring that community organisations can access the funding and support which they need to improve the lot of their place and strengthen community networks.

That’s why our report sets out a range of measures – from creating a Community Wealth Fund to passing 25 per cent of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund directly to community-led partnerships – to empower the local organisations and leaders who know, understand and love their community to build up our country’s social infrastructure neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood.

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, explore how, at the turn of the 20th century, people came together to establish new community associations which brought about huge societal change in America. These organisations were established to encourage mutual aid and build social capital, and in turn enabled the development of a more united and just society.

We believe that our shared national ambition should be to trigger a similar boom in neighbourliness and connection, building on our experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is why we’re also calling on the Government to create a new national commission to explore how we might spur on the development of 21st century connecting institutions.

Gove is no recent convert to understanding the power of local relationships to shape and change lives. Way back in 2008, he called for “a politics which [takes] relationships seriously” manifested in action to “put the replenishment of social capital at the heart of policy.”

As he sets out to level up Britain, he has it in his power to mould that politics into being and to deliver a genuinely transformative policy programme – one with the power of social connection to improve health, wellbeing and economic outcomes at its very heart.