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Tue, 26 January 2021

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After years of neglect, Britain’s social fabric is in urgent need of repair

After years of neglect, Britain’s social fabric is in urgent need of repair

Few things root us to a place better than a home. Yet many of my constituents are stuck in insecure and often exploitative housing, writes Jon Cruddas MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Covid has shone a harsh light on our increasingly threadbare society. We must revive the social institutions that have been critical to sustaining communities throughout this crisis

The first spring lockdown was characterised by a national outpouring of civic spirit. Last March, neighbours clapped for the NHS, mutual aid groups swelled in solidarity, charities and communities went into overdrive. For a brief moment, it was possible to believe that Britain’s social fabric was thriving. That even in self isolation, we would beat the virus together.

The third, winter lockdown we are now living through has a different tenor. The social institutions that have sustained communities for ten months - charities, churches, families and community groups - valiantly keep on carrying on. Yet volunteers are fewer, money is tighter and fatigue is high. We are increasingly discovering that the social fabric of Britain has frayed after years of neglect - and that the ties that bind us together locally are in urgent need of repair. 

This should be the driving purpose of politicians as we begin to look beyond the pandemic. The past year has been a salutary lesson in the importance of human connection. Forcibly separated, our health, happiness and horizons have withered. The best way to honour our collective sacrifice would be by refounding the institutions and networks that root people in their place and sustain their sense of belonging. 

The lesson from past attempts at social revival is that a reliance on economic regeneration or government transfers doesn’t work. From Harold Wilson’s Urban Aid programme in the 1960s to Tony Blair’s New Deal for Communities in the 2000s, politicians gravitate towards grant funding, job creation schemes and physical infrastructure to foster community. A more sustainable proposal, put forward by the thinktank Onward today, would be to empower communities to respond themselves, and endow them with the resources to do so. 

If working parents were able to transfer their income tax allowance to a stay-at-home spouse, families would be much better able to manage the competing demands of work and childcare

This should start with the family, the oldest and most fundamental of all social institutions. Keir Starmer wrote on Sunday that families have too often been let down or forgotten. He is right. They are not even acknowledged in the tax code. If working parents were able to transfer their income tax allowance to a stay-at-home spouse, for example, families would be much better able to manage the competing demands of work and childcare - and families would no longer be penalised for choosing the latter. 

Beyond family, few things root us to a place better than a home. Yet many of my constituents are stuck in insecure and often exploitative housing with rents that bleed their pay packets every month. More social housing will help. But we should also give people the ability to build their own affordable homes, through community land trusts, and require local councils to find the land for them to build upon. And when private developments are approved, we should make sure that the infrastructure levy is given directly to neighbourhoods as a locally run endowment, not indirectly through top-down schemes. 

Most importantly, we need to foster a more civic culture after years of declining volunteerism and group membership. This is especially true of young people, who are more socially conscious but less locally rooted than any post-war generation. One option would be to give young people on furlough or universal credit paid opportunities to contribute to society - perhaps by supporting social care, tutoring disadvantaged children, or conserving the environment. Investing in them now will pay dividends for society after the crisis. 

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a harsh light on an increasingly threadbare society. But it has also offered a quiet reminder of the resilience and spirit of communities coming together in the face of adversity.

As we enter what hopefully will be our final lockdown, we should resolve to repair the social fabric on which we all rely. There would be no better monument to the hardship and heartache of the last year.

 

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and member of the steering group for Onward's Repairing our Social Fabric programme. 

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