It is over a year since Covid-19 arrived on British shores and the pandemic’s power to expose the vulnerabilities as well as strengths of our society remains undimmed. As the British Academy’s recent report, The Covid Decade, has shown, the crisis has laid bare long-standing inequalities between rich and poor, old and young, North and South, those in different types of employment, and various ethnic communities. It has revealed the extent of the state’s resources and potential to protect the vulnerable and fix that which is broken. And it has provided a glimpse of exciting futures, such as one in which town centres play new roles, travel patterns are very different, education is provided in new ways, and remote working technology unlocks employment and investment opportunities for previously neglected regions and people.
But the pandemic has also demonstrated the essential role that communities play in individual and collective wellbeing as well as the deep attachments that many people feel to their local communities.
For proof of the latter, look no further than the ferocious backlash that followed recent attempts by six English football clubs to join a new breakaway European Super League. At the heart of people’s rage was the sense that a tiny group of distant billionaires could have the audacity to exploit precious community assets, some of them over a hundred years old, ostensibly to expand their profit margins. In a rare display of solidarity, football fans across the UK and Europe joined forces to oppose this assault on their communities and forced the instigators to think again. With protests emerging from all directions, including the most senior politicians, we witnessed the force of shared common interests and values.
Amid this renewed focus on the value of communities, the British Academy and the Nuffield Foundation have devised Understanding Communities, a timely collaboration to bring together and fund new research from policymakers, researchers and practitioners ‘on the ground’ to identify practical means of understanding and supporting local communities across the UK. This work builds on the British Academy’s Cohesive Society programme on how societies can remain cohesive in the face of rapid political, social, economic and technological change, and the Nuffield Foundation’s interests in strengthening the collective understanding of the role of community in social and individual well-being in the UK.
The research programme will shed light on what makes some local communities stronger, more equal, and more connected than others; why some communities are particularly vulnerable to crises; and how policymakers can use these insights to reinforce the strength of communities and improve social, economic and environmental outcomes.
The answers to these questions will be multifaceted. For instance, evidence shows that the presence of – and accessibility to – local volunteer, community and mutual aid groups have been critical to the Covid-19 response, which hints at the potential advantages of building and sustaining this type of capacity in communities across the country. Meanwhile, history shows that local and community knowledge, including knowledge held within local government, is a vital resource in combating and recovering from epidemics.
Strongly related to understanding people’s connection to communities is the question of where people are willing to place their trust. The UK entered the pandemic with already very low levels of trust in central government and the media but the evidence suggests these have declined even further. Through December 2020, levels of general political distrust rose from 57% to 61% while expressions of trust dropped from 24% to 21%. At the same time, however, we know that trust in local government has been higher and steadier, which tells us that attending to the relationships between community members, local politicians, local policymakers and local decision-makers could play a key role in improving community development and individual and community wellbeing.
The need to find ways to support community resilience that are based on sound evidence and principles, as well as being practical and feasible to implement, is particularly urgent given the ‘perfect storm’ currently engulfing local councils’ finance departments. For example, in November 2020 – following years of cuts, the erosion of the high street and finally the pandemic – Croydon Council issued a section 114 notice to effectively declare bankruptcy, and many local authorities are in similarly precipitous circumstances, and any further constraints on spending will inevitably compound inequalities – they will have much more damaging effects in areas that already face greater social and economic challenges and weaker formal and informal social infrastructure. Economic ‘levelling up’ is certainly essential, but there is also much work to be done to enable communities to make the most of what is available to them – to ensure they are equipped to recognise, share and use their economic resources to establish greater personal and collective strength for the whole community.
By drawing on the skills and unique insights of policymakers, researchers and people working on the frontline of local service delivery, the Understanding Communities project aims to find out what makes a strong community – and then develop targeted measures to create more of them across the UK.