The shared initiative by two MPs from both major parties to enhance community empowerment and win more resources for localism formed the basis of a House of Commons debate on January 11. Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab) and Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con) led the discussion ahead of publication of a report from the think-tank Onward entitled “The Policies of Belonging”, which is part of its “Repairing our social fabric” programme.
Opening the debate, Cruddas said "To avoid any confusion, I am well aware that Onward seeks to develop new ideas for the next generation of centre-right thinkers and leaders. Clearly, that does not include me—at least I hope it does not—and I might therefore be expected to use my time to attack the report and suggest it is part of a right-wing plot to dismantle the social fabric and ensure there is no such thing as society. On the contrary, I am here to welcome this piece of work and to congratulate the project’s supporting partners, which include the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Power to Change and Shelter. This work could well provide the basis for a new cross-party conversation about how we rebuild the social character of the country as we emerge from the pandemic."
Cruddas also referred to the paper produced by Kruger for the Prime Minister last September proposing a new social covenant, to build on the community spirit demonstrated in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He saw that and the new Onward report as both being "thoughtful contributions on how we rebuild our country in the tough years that lie ahead, both deserving a wide audience across all parties."
Cruddas said the danger was that "we relegate such thinking in preference to economic policy. This remains an historic tendency in both of our political traditions, despite what we know about how people wish to live and what they value, which stretches beyond questions of GDP, utility and economic calculus."
The Dagenham MP pointed out that last year, Onward introduced its UK social fabric index, which measures the relative social strength of every community in Britain, as a "significant new metric for politicians and public policy makers alike". Its covid-19 community report highlighted resilient local responses to the pandemic over the past 10 months, yet also detailed the limited opportunities for communities to genuinely take back control. "The overall argument is quite simple but telling: the social divides that bedevil our country are just as strong as the economic divides. Talk of levelling up, therefore, needs to encompass social as well as economic policy," said Cruddas.
He noted that a desire to level up communities was not new. "It has informed, among others, the community development projects of Harold Wilson, the single regeneration budgets of John Major, and Tony Blair’s new deal for communities. Yet none of those has unlocked the way we level up communities, not least, arguably, because of an overreliance on economic issues."
"In truth, politicians tend to gravitate towards grant funding issues, job creation schemes and physical infrastructure to foster community. We are most comfortable with that agenda. A more sustainable proposal would be to empower communities to respond themselves and endow them with the resources to do so."
Cruddas described the content of the new Onward report and the strong evidence suggesting that citizens want the power and responsibility to revive their communities. He outlined its 17 specific proposals that are covered in a separate story on the Civic Revival website. These included Giving individuals the power to repair their social fabric through civic sabbaticals, youth-serving years, character education and new permanent volunteer schemes; Providing individuals the capital to do so through new tax changes to support individual activities, reform of precarious housing, funds to support new civic leadership and adapting the apprenticeship levy; Giving communities the power to repair their social fabric with community improvement districts, new community councils, business rate exemptions and the reuse of empty buildings and shops; and fourthly, giving communities the capital to do so, controlled by the community themselves, with new social infrastructure funds, higher education reforms, community land trusts and charitable enterprise zones.
In his contribution to the debate, Conservative Danny Kruger (Devizes) paid tribute to Jon Cruddas for securing it. "I am a great admirer of him, his work and his world view, which I find I largely share," he said. "I think of him as a great conservative, despite what he just said, and am pleased to be working with him on the Onward panel."
He said it was a topical and important debate, addressing an agenda that was "profoundly important to the future of our country, partly for the obvious reason that what people want above all else is strong communities". He believed that everyone derived huge value personally from the strength of their neighbourhoods—but, more profoundly, the debate mattered because what we call social fabric is in fact the foundation of our prosperity.
"The country is made up of the communities within it, and our responsibility as politicians is to strengthen our communities and strengthen the foundations of our national prosperity."
Although his constituency of Devizes dated back 6,000 years to the neolithic period and thus was rather different from, and a lot older than, that of the Member for Dagenham and Rainham - which was only being built from the 1920s - there were many similarities. "We, too, have entrenched social challenges: rural poverty and social isolation are particularly vicious because they are often hidden". Also like Dagenham, there were have tremendous organisations, and a very strong community that was responding to the challenges, including current steps to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the rollout of a vaccination programme.
"We need to trust in the spontaneous energies of communities, as I have described, but we also need to recognise that activity of that sort does not just happen. If we want more of it, especially in more disadvantaged places, we need to take action and the Government have a responsibility."
It was necessary to recognise what had happened over recent decades. The Onward research demonstrated, that our social fabric had grown threadbare over recent decades. "Since 2000, a quarter of all pubs throughout the country have closed, and a quarter of all post offices and a fifth of all libraries have shut their doors." Partly that was because of how we all now work, shop and socialise—the changes in our economy and our society—but partly because of funding cuts, especially since 2010. "I want to acknowledge that," he said. "I recognise that austerity fell most harshly on local government, which then cut non-statutory services the most. Youth services, which I worked in during those years, fell away particularly sharply—some estimates suggest that 70% of funding for youth services was cut in the 2010s."
In response to the situation, more public funding was needed, and Kruger welcomed the measures that the Government had made, both as part of its Levelling Up agenda, and in specific response to the challenges of the pandemic. He paid particular tribute to the work that the Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Barran had been doing.
Kruger said he had called very specifically for a new endowment funded from dormant assets, which are potentially worth many billions of pounds, to finance social infrastructure and community projects. He also hoped that the new levelling-up fund, announced by the Chancellor in November, would live up to its billing and help support the infrastructure of everyday life, which meant not just trains and broadband, but also the libraries, the youth clubs and the social enterprises that bind places together. He saw a major role for libraries as the hubs of digitally connected local communities.
Kruger looked forward to a Scheme that would build on the National Citizen Service, to create a more ambitious project that funds young people to work on social and environmental projects in their communities. He also wanted to address the question of power—who is making the decisions about how money is spent and how services are organised locally. "We are one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. To my mind, taking back control was not just about Brussels. If all we do now is bring power back to Westminster, as we have done, we will have failed the people of this country. We need to put the power to determine what happens locally in the hands of local people."
The Onward report made a number of recommendations along those lines and he had made some in his own report last year. "We are in the midst of a great constitutional change: the restoration of power to the UK. We need to restore power to the communities, too," Kruger concluded.
In reply to the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Matt Warman) said a participatory rather than a paternalistic way of having the conversation was an absolutely key focus for the Government. A "strong social fabric is absolutely vital to the health and well-being of our society and of our economy", and he welcomed the cross-party approach to that mission. In the current pandemic circumstances, it was more important than ever that we paid close attention to those ties that bind us, and to provision of the fundamental infrastructure that makes those links possible. "Whether it is little platoons or whether it is the big society—whatever we want to call it—they are essential to our response both to the pandemic and to our future."
"We know that many people across the whole country are concerned about a growing lack of belonging, about that sense that things ain’t what they used to be—whatever that might be." The report from Onward made for stark reading, providing evidence of a long-term decline in the social fabric, adding to a growing base of evidence for a link between weak social fabric and higher levels of deprivation.
Warman also referred to a recently produced report “Connecting Communities” reviewing how volunteering and community engagement had defined the first national Covid-19 lockdown, authored by the MP for Watford (Dean Russell), and published by the One Nation Conservative group. "We need to do more on that," the minister said. "Deprived areas are not lacking in pride or community spirit; they are often the places with the most community spirit. We need greater investment in the community infrastructure and the institutions that may help those places to address the economic challenges they face, because the two go together."
Social fabric was about more than levelling up and infrastructure, and we would not level up if we only addressed economic challenges. "We must also recognise—and the Government do recognise—that exploring and recognising the role that building strong communities plays is an essential part of that agenda."
Warman referred to "the infrastructure of everyday life”, as described by the Chancellor, and including "not just transport and jobs, but community infrastructure, local arts, culture and libraries that make a real difference to people".
Supporting change within communities "has not traditionally been seen as the space for Government to act, nor has it traditionally been seen as the space for a Conservative Government to act," Warman acknowledged, but added "we all want to create the conditions for civil society to thrive in order to support volunteering and local giving."
The Government had worked hard to enable civil society to identify the challenges posed by the pandemic and to use its experience and fill the gaps, funding and facilitating that sort of work.
It was essential now to work to ensure that this potential was realised for the long term, as recommended in the report last summer by Danny Kruger himself, to which the government would be replying in due course. His recommendation of a volunteer passport, for instance, "is one of the things that we are looking at closely. It represents one of a range of possible measures that will contribute to the strengthening of social fabric." Warman also mentioned place-based charities, and paid tribute to the role of community foundations up and down the country. The government had made a recent announcement about the future use of dormant assets, which could make a real difference (see separate story).
"As we recover from the present crisis, it is vital that we build the stronger, fairer country that, across the House, we have seen a clear consensus for this evening," Warman concluded.