Social capital – what we mean by this, why it matters and why we joined up with other organisations to write to the new Levelling Up Secretary about it

Author: Belong Network
Published: September 15, 2022

In recent years it has often seemed like there are no ‘slow news days’ anymore. Conflict, change and history appear to have been coming at us thick and fast. Now, just days after a new Prime Minister came to power (the fourth in six years), we are having to adjust to the death of Her Majesty The Queen; someone who for most has been a constant presence for all of our lives.

Times like these have a tendency to focus real attention on the underlying state of our social fabric, our identities and sense of connection with one another. The death of The Queen will have led many of us to consider our sense of connection with, and place in, history. In a more concrete sense, the pandemic clearly revealed the strengths and weaknesses of our social fabric (as captured in our Beyond Us and Them research), and the same will likely be true of the cost-of-living crisis we are now facing.

How we fare in the course of these difficult times rests to a large degree on the strength of the relationships and structures through which individuals and communities are connected with one another, trust one another and are willing and able to work together. This is what is often described as ‘social capital’. Yet, as important as it is, and as grand as it sounds, it tends to get easily forgotten.

This is why the Belong Network has joined with a group of other organisations to write to the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ask him to prioritise strengthening the social capital of communities across the country. As the statement sets out, the organisations who have signed this letter – the Belong Network, British Future, The Cares Family, The Good Faith Partnership, The Jo Cox Foundation, The Linking Network, Neighbourly Lab, The Relationships Project and /Together – share a common focus.

We are a group of organisations, all of whom have a strong focus on the importance of social ties and relationships between people. We have differing approaches to this issue; some of us are practitioners, some think tanks, some researchers. And we have tended to use different terms to describe the issue; anything from ‘social connectedness’ to ‘social cohesion’. However, we all believe that these social ties that we describe play an extraordinarily important, yet typically under-recognised, role in our collective and individual well-being. 

The focus of the Belong Network’s work will always be on social cohesion and integration, and within this we place a strong emphasis on the importance of relationships across difference – which can be described in social capital terms as ‘bridging capital’. However, we believe that cohesion and integration do not benefit from being part of a siloed conversation, separated out from broader conversations about social capital and the range of different relationships that are important to our well-being. Rather, issues of cohesion and relationships across difference should be seen as they are, as integral elements of our social capital.

A recognition of the importance of social capital ran throughout the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper that was released earlier this year. Yet, as the statement says:

…its importance extends still further than this. Whether it is about our resilience to future crises, our concerns over the extent of division, isolation and dislocation in modern societies, or the battle against prejudice and hate, we know that relationships and social ties (including those relationships which bridge divides) have a central role to play in securing a better future.

However, there is a real danger that in the immediate need for a new Prime Minister and a new set of Ministers to deal with the cost-of-living crisis, and an ongoing focus on the succession, that this agenda once again gets forgotten. This letter challenges the new Government not to let this happen and to show where a plan to strengthen social capital fits within their vision for the country. It sets out the need for us all to do more to:

…proactively cultivate the networks of relationships and community ties which prevent people from slipping into division, dislocation and isolation, and which build resilient, connected communities with an inclusive sense of pride in place. 

It sets out five key things which the Government needs to do to start to address this shared challenge:

1. Give policy priority to relationships and social connection. We need greater attention paid to relationships and social connection across all spheres of policymaking.

2. Invest in coordinating capacity at a local level. Bolstering social capital requires individuals and organisations at a local level with the resource and responsibility to invest in and nurture the relationships and associations that constitute social capital.

3. Invest in shared spaces. Opportunities for social connection require shared spaces in which people come together. Many of these spaces have been lost or decayed in recent decades, and we urgently need to invest in expanding and improving them.

4. Support initiatives and practices that develop bridging capital. We need to support community groups and associations, and programmes and initiatives at local and national level that promote meaningful connections between people from different backgrounds.

5. Invest in the evidence base. We need to invest in developing sources of data, especially local level data, that allow us to better understand and measure different elements of social capital and their impacts.