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Inequality and community capacity

Posted on 23 June 2017

The husk of Grenfell Tower is rapidly becoming a symbol of the extent of inequality in our society. 

Inner London boroughs are where this inequality seems at its most extreme and graphic – a function of close proximity – but it exists in every part of our country.  It was against this backdrop that academics gathered this week at Sheffield Hallam University’s People, Place and Policy conference to explore the extent of social and spatial inequalities and how they might be remedied.

In an age of suppressed public spending, finding positive responses to multiple deprivation requires us to acknowledge another layer of inequality in terms of the self-efficacy of individuals and the collective capacity of communities - in other words, our capability to effect change in our circumstances and our resilience to cope with events beyond our control.

Whether or not you buy into the political commentary that the age of austerity is over, the reality is that spending reductions are locked in for the next few years.  Even if the public money tap were opened up a little it would take time to rebuild the capacity and infrastructure that’s been lost in the public sector and wider civil society.

The services that have been impacted most by spending cuts are, unsurprisingly, those that are discretionary – the cultural, environmental, community-focused, place-based initiatives that score highly in terms of public appeal but fare badly in budget setting rounds.  The message from national policymakers has been laissez-faire.  If communities value these activities they should be prepared to take them on and take them over.  Government won’t dictate or regulate but will focus on 'getting out of the way' - 'busting barriers' to enable enterprising communities to take control of the services that matter to them.

Addressing the capacity gap 

Unsurprisingly this message has been heard and this opportunity grasped most readily by those communities with the stability, skills and capability to make it work with limited support.  Successes include the preservation of village pubs and post offices and the spread of share-based community energy schemes.  However, translating these successes to more transient or more atomised urban communities can be harder.

We also need to address this capacity gap if we’re going to resolve the long-term sustainability of services under most strain – adult social care and the NHS.  The long, slow, painful job of turning a sickness service into a champion of prevention and health creation will depend on us all getting better at keeping ourselves well and looking after others.  We need to be more effective agents of our own care, but again we face structural inequalities in achieving this.

Take the issue of fuel poverty.  Our approach to market-making and regulation in the energy sector means that we have all the tools and instruments at our disposal to avoid – or at least alleviate – hardship.  Switching and tariff competition increases competition and keeps prices in check; grants, loans and incentives enable us to increase the efficiency of our homes; smart technology allows us to optimise usage and maximise savings.  The message, as elsewhere, is that we should learn to take control.

Taking control, however, means being in a position to exercise choice over where and how you live, it means being financially literate and it means being digitally connected – all capabilities which are unevenly spread in society.

So what should we do? 

At a macro level, an unclear election result coupled with high profile failures to meet people’s basic needs has opened up the space for a broader political debate about markets, public funding and the allocation of resources within society.

However, while that debate starts to take shape there are things politicians and policymakers at national and local level can be getting on with. 

In order to bridge the capacity gap and help those in society who have least to be in a better position to bring about change for themselves, we need a programme of practical community development support.  Whilst we can see inequality in every part of our country, recent events also illustrate the deep wells of compassion, resilience and community-mindedness that exist in those same places.  Whilst this naturally comes to the fore when people are responding to adversity, with the right support it can also become a powerful force for ensuring our local areas are better managed, more cohesive and people are more engaged in the democratic process.

We also need to make better use of the levers already at our disposal.  The Social Value Act is a good example.  The way our local neighbourhoods function is increasingly dependent on the service companies commissioned to look after our streets and parks, provide our transport, help us find work or manage our probation services.  Intelligent commissioning and a social value-led approach to contract management, as well as procurement, could go much further in ensuring that those companies who operate in our neighbourhoods add value to our neighbourhoods by empowering communities to get more engaged in the services they deliver and the assets they manage.

Lastly, while large parts of government are wrapped up in disentangling us from the EU (assuming they’re not switched to disentangling us from a referendum result), we need an equal focus on how to replace the funds that we’ve accessed from the EU to help mitigate some of the worst impacts of regional and community-based inequality. European structural funds have supported thousands of projects helping those with multiple barriers move closer to the labour market and stimulating enterprise in areas impacted by economic restructuring.  While few will mourn the bureaucracy attached to managing such funds, we will all miss the positive outcomes that have helped change lives. 

Public commitments have been made about replacing EU funds that will be lost to a post-Brexit Britain.  We now need to think hard about how to invest wisely in programmes that will ensure those already struggling in society aren’t further disadvantaged by the inevitable economic turbulence of the years ahead and that will build the infrastructure and capacity we need in our communities not just to meet basic needs when markets fail but also to share more effectively the prosperity gains generated when markets work.

Post by Graham Duxbury, Chief Executive

Groundwork UK

Graham Duxbury Groundwork CEO