Social capital matters

Social capital matters
John Tizard
07.05.14

Social capital matters. It holds communities together. It ensures resilience. It enables communities to support themselves and those members of the community who for whatever reason and, for however long, become in need of support. It is like a wire that runs through communities, providing the human electric current to sustain and, when necessary, resuscitate life.

It may sound pompous or even too poetical but social capital is precious. It should be protected and, wherever possible, strengthened.

At a time of austerity, rising poverty, increasing inequality, cuts to vital public services and, in many places, significant demographic change, social capital is more important than ever.

Economic growth requires financial capital, human capital and social capital. In fact, growth is unlikely to be sustainable unless all three are present. Equally, it is unlikely that any of these can thrive on their own. Rather, they are interdependent and inseparable.

Social capital should matter to locally-based businesses as much as it does to social enterprises, trade unions, faith groups, charities and the voluntary and community sector. Accordingly, business owners and leaders should be actively considering how they can support the development of local social capital. Equally, charities, and voluntary and community groups that are not adding to the sum of social capital are not worthy to call themselves charities or to be part of the local voluntary and community sector. For its part, the public sector relies on social capital to fulfil its responsibilities and obligations. It should therefore always be considering how it can best support sustainable social capital without taking control or stifling it through ill-considered bureaucracy, or poor commissioning and procurement practice, or planning decisions that split communities asunder for no positive social gain. The same applies to housing, welfare and wider social policies as well as employment policies.

Social capital underpins and fuels much volunteering; and neighbours supporting each other. That said, it would be wrong to assume that social capital is simply about volunteering or the voluntary sector alone. It is vital to create the conditions for local social action since, above all, social capital manifests itself in the form of solidarity and a sense of community – a genuine sense that ‘we are all in this together’ and through collective effort or individual effort on behalf of the collective community, we really can make a difference.

Like all forms of capital, social capital is unevenly distributed and this creates further inequalities and imbalances in an already divided society.

In a locality (perhaps a neighbourhood or place), it is vital that all sectors consider how they can best contribute to social capital accumulation and growth. Schools, Sure Start centres, GP surgeries, businesses, social enterprises, social housing, trade unions, faith groups, charities, community groups and public bodies (especially local authorities) all have roles here.

These contributions can take many forms including: being inclusive; supporting and empowering service users and members of the local community, especially the most marginalised; providing support (in-kind and financially), to local voluntary and community groups; and promoting a sense of community based on opportunity and fairness. Schools, for example, can: teach the importance and contribution of social action; encourage a sense of common purpose in their students; and play an active role in their local communities, as well as opening their facilities (including learning) to the wider community.

Communities (both self-help and volunteering) will be stronger where there is strong social capital so it is logical that the public sector should have a strong self-interest in such an approach. Active citizenship is closely aligned with social capital, as consequently is political engagement.

Actually, public bodies currently have a legal ‘duty’ to take the pursuit of social value into their commissioning and procurement decisions in respect of public services. Sadly however, it is my experience that the practical application of this legislative requirement is ‘patchy’ at best, with far too many public bodies still being driven by ‘lowest price’ procurement, rather than whole place and social value strategic considerations. And even where public bodies (including local authorities) are aiming to apply a social value test to their commissioning and procurement decisions, they are losing sight of the importance of social capital.

Many community-based voluntary groups are critical to building and sustaining local social capital in their locality, in addition to providing public services on a contractual basis with a public body. When a public body simply procures on price or seeks economies of scale from a business sector or a larger national charity without any safeguards, it is likely not only to be damaging to the smaller community-based group, which may have previously provided the service, but it might very well have the unintended consequence of seriously reducing local social capital. This capital will not be easily rebuilt, resulting in serious long-term negative impact for the community.

In my view, it is absolutely vital that as part of its consideration of social value, a public body takes into account wider issues relating to social capital when commissioning and procuring services. Public bodies should also consider how their directly managed services and their other activities, including leadership of place, are focused on building and protecting social capital as much as on physical capital assets.

Social capital and its resilience should never be taken for granted. Nor should its contribution to economic, social and environmental well-being be underscored.

At a time when government is seeking to reduce the role of the state for economic and political reasons, and when many families and individuals are struggling to maintain their living standards, it is very important that we retain effective local social action and strong local community voluntary sectors. Together, and as part of the same approach, it is equally important that there is investment in and support for social capital based on solidarity, collective commitment, and even ‘love’ and trust of fellow citizens.