25 May 2022

New research programme explores the role of ‘social infrastructure’ in levelling up

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A new collaborative research programme, focused on levelling up social infrastructure, launches today.  

The project is funded by the British Academy and Power to Change and led by the Institute for Community Studies and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. It will be supported by a cross-sector advisory board, chaired by Dame Julia Unwin. 

The research programme will help to better understand how social infrastructure approaches can contribute to the government’s levelling up agenda, which has pledged ‘to renovate the social and cultural fabric’ of areas in the UK where regional disparities are greatest. It follows a recommendation from the British Academy’s Shaping the Covid Decade report (2020) to ‘strengthen and expand [the] community-led social infrastructure that underpins the vital services and support structures needed to enhance local resilience, particularly in the most deprived areas.’ It also builds on the Institute for Community Studies’ report Why don’t they ask us? (2021) which called for greater community asset transfer as key mechanism to level up the country. 

In the first project, funded by the British Academy, we will explore policy interventions that have strengthened or impeded the development of social infrastructure overseas to outline lessons for UK policymakers. Researchers will engage with international policymakers and produce case studies to demonstrate successful approaches and highlight opportunities relevant to the UK.  

Alongside the international review, a second research project, funded by Power to Change, will develop a community-led definition of social infrastructure, and will focus on the key question ‘how do communities across the UK relate to social infrastructure?’ The project will investigate the perspective of citizens through regional workshops, interviews, and case studies. It aims to deepen policymakers’ understanding of social infrastructure, rooted in the evidence of what matters to communities about their locality.  

The programme will inform the ongoing debate on what works to strengthen social infrastructure and build social capital, through a series of roundtables aimed at international and UK policy makers, academics, civil society, the community sector, and local communities over the course of 2022. 

Dominic Abrams FBA, Academic Lead on the Covid Decade and Shape the Future programmes at the British Academy said: 

“Despite growing recognition of the importance of social infrastructure in driving regional regeneration and recovery from Covid-19, definitions of social infrastructure are contested and there is an urgent need to bring together the existing evidence to understand the types of social infrastructure that enable communities to thrive.” 

Richard Harries, Director of the Institute for Community Studies, adds:  

“This is an important time of change for communities around the world, as we face a number of ‘long emergencies’ from Covid to the climate crisis. Through this collaborative programme, we will both review the international evidence and work with communities here in the UK to build new insights into ‘social infrastructure’ and better understand its relevance and role in levelling up. Our aim is to help policymakers drive meaningful change that’s rooted in evidence of what works for local people.”