The fourth event in our ‘thinking through’ series took place last Wednesday and focused on social infrastructure. This series has focused on helping local policymakers assess the local economic impacts of policies proposed as part of levelling up and assess their potential wider impacts and costs.
You can watch a recording of social infrastructure event here:
We have used a narrow definition of social infrastructure, focusing on the places (e.g. community hall, shop, pubs), amenities (e.g. libraries, museum, and galleries), and organisations (e.g. parent and baby groups, book groups, walking groups), which bring people together to form meaningful connections or build their capabilities. This definition aligns closely with decisions local policymakers tend to be making about social infrastructure.
Assessing the local economic impacts of social infrastructure
Most social infrastructure is not designed to increase the number of jobs in an area or to increase productivity or wages – so it is perhaps not surprising that most projects do not have significant direct local economic impacts. However, social infrastructure can have indirect effects. For example, participating in community events at a library may help an individual grow in confidence, leading to them sign up to attend training at college and ultimately move into work. Or parent and baby groups could help signpost some parents to benefit realisation services, perhaps helping improve household income. The social infrastructure in these examples plays a partial role in achieving the outcome and will likely only affect a small proportion of participants. This makes it difficult to measure and attribute outcomes to specific social infrastructure. But these examples highlight how important social infrastructure can be in supporting some members of the community.
There are examples where social infrastructure may have direct local economic effects and we were lucky to have a guest speaker on each.
Community-owned social infrastructure
There is increasing interest in community ownership of social infrastructure. If community-owned social infrastructure produces goods or services that are sold in the market (for example, a community shop selling groceries), this will generate turnover and employment. The size of the impact will depend on the size, type, and supply chain of the community-owned business.
Natalie White, Local and Regional Partnerships Manager at Power for Change, shared some examples of these kind of community-owned businesses. She highlighted a community hub in Leicester located in a previously empty building. The hub provides services for children and young people and has become a place for the community to meet, improving the quality of life in the area. The hub hosts a few other successful community businesses, including a bar, a café, a football club, and a dance studio, that generate income, employment, and opportunities to develop skills, as well as improving the sustainability of the community hub through the rent they pay.
In a second example a community-owned coffee bar trained staff to provide mental health support and signposting, creating a safe space for members of the community with mental health issues or struggling with loneliness, while also generating employment opportunities and income for people in the community.
In both cases, the community-owned business has direct economic impacts, while also providing services and spaces for the community. As with indirect effects, however, it is important to note that these economic effects are likely to be small relative to the overall size of the local economy. Moreover, the overall effects can be even smaller if the businesses are only re-locating from elsewhere (i.e. displacement).
Social infrastructure delivering local economic growth related services
Social infrastructure can also impact local economic outcomes if it is used to deliver local economic policies, such as employment training or business support.
Tito Shokubi, Business Support Specialist at BIPC Kent, talked us through the example of the Business and Intellectual Property Centre (BIPC) service they deliver across Kent. BIPC is a national network set up by the British Library with the support of the Intellectual Property Office, offering free resources and advice to local businesses. BIPC Kent is located in the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone and has additional sites in Whitstable, Deal and Sandwich. Libraries are open and safe spaces, accessible to all, and these features may make them a good location for business support, especially for those in pre-start or early stages of business, or from underrepresented groups. Whether this translates into significant amounts of business activity is, of course, a key question that we discuss extensively in our business support resources . But this approach certainly provides some wider benefits relative to more traditional approaches – BIPC also helps libraries fill empty spaces, reach a broader range of audiences, and increases the number of library visitors.
What are the wider benefits?
The discussion also touched on the wider benefits of social infrastructure. Evidence from What Works Wellbeing finds that ‘community places and spaces’ have an impact on social relations, individual wellbeing, and community wellbeing. The effects vary across different types of social infrastructure and whilst the impacts are mainly positive, can sometimes be negative (for example, if a community event made some groups feel excluded).
Social infrastructure has the potential to have several other wider benefits including improving ‘pride in place’ or increasing the take-up of public services, through word-of-mouth and direct targeting. Sadly, we know relatively little about whether these effects occur in practice.
What do we need to think about?
As with any other policy intervention, it is important to define objectives and be realistic about magnitudes. Many projects will produce some economic benefits but are unlikely to have a direct impact in the local economy. Where there are benefits, they may not be large and may be difficult to measure or attribute to the project.
Our speakers also highlighted the importance of recognising the non-economic value of social infrastructure. Social infrastructure is the ‘heart’ of social interactions and community building, and the impacts on the community and individual wellbeing can be lost if too much focus is place on the economic impacts.
As ever, further evidence is essential! Monitoring, collecting data, and when appropriate, evaluating the impact of projects, will help build the evidence on potential economic impacts, wider outcomes, and other benefits.
If you missed the previous events of the series, there are summary blogs and recordings available on public procurement, public spaces and community wealth building. Resources on public procurement are already available, and resources on public spaces will be published in July.
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