Strong and Sustainable Communities

The biggest challenge for prosperity in our towns, cities and rural communities is about quality of life. As guardians of place, local authorities have a crucial role – particularly in times of austerity – making very difficult choices about how to ensure citizens and communities have the best lives possible.

However you might choose to define a ‘good’ quality of life, for local government we think the path to prosperity should to be about sustainable economic growth, preventing negative outcomes and cultivating social capital.

We are currently seeing the biggest cuts to the public sector for a generation. While councils are largely managing this challenge, they are doing so by reducing and sometimes entirely cutting services that make places pleasant and support quality of life outcomes. And while we may return to headline growth similar to that of the last decade, we will do so with markedly weaker public services. The weakness of these public services has the potential to have a huge impact on communities. After all, quality of life is not just affected by economic growth, but also by social prosperity, sustainable social capital and cohesive and resilient communities. The challenge for councils and local areas is to foster both economic and social wellbeing in a period of contracting funding and public resources.

So the big question for local authorities is how can the economic growth and wellbeing of an area contribute to a sustainable public service settlement? This doesn’t necessarily mean higher taxes to fund local public services; rather it means asking how local authorities can encourage the kind of sustainable growth that provides more of the things that people need and want, to have a good quality of life. Of course, this means vital statutory services such as adult social care and children’s services, but it also means services that people value because they generate social capital, like museums, libraries, community centres, parks and leisure facilities – exactly the sort of services that bring people together to have human interaction with each other.

Sustainable growth is partly about the way that councils shape their local economies to deliver infrastructure and attract business to their area as well as how they prioritise middle-income jobs and sustainable growth over short term, low paid positions. But it is also about cultivating social capital. With plenty of evidence suggesting that high levels of social capital have a positive impact on health, crime rates, educational attainment and inequality in an area – it is a crucial resource that is vital to quality of life and community resilience.

By adopting a new attitude to place, councils could work with business to invest and build capacity in the areas that they are based, through an agreed framework of outcomes with the council. By for instance, adopting local parks and libraries, sharing their skills locally and helping to develop enterprise, local business can contribute more to place. A new generation of Section 106 agreements, or new approaches to Business Improvement Districts could help councils in developing sustainable growth locally. By investing in place, local business can take a significant role in helping to build social capital locally, becoming an active part of their communities.

Sustainable growth also means ensuring responsible growth, where councils intervene in markets to ensure that they deliver opportunity and a good quality of life. Councils have a role to play – for example – in offering alternatives to payday lenders through developing their own credit unions, which provide communities with responsible alternatives. Councils can also choose to use their moral suasion, by contracting with and commissioning organisations that commit to paying the minimum wage locally. Shaping good local markets means challenging those businesses that contribute to negative outcomes locally: betting shops and fast food outlets for instance.

Preventing negative outcomes is not just challenging failing private sector markets, but also about investing in early intervention, to help prevent communities developing acute and costly problems. Helping an older person to live independently for longer is undoubtedly about quality of life, but also about ensuring that the scarce resources that are available locally are used more effectively.

Both sustainable growth and increased social capital enable communities to be resilient and foster for themselves the quality of life that is so important to local prosperity. Enabling communities to become self-sufficient is key to this both during austerity and for the longer term. But councils must do so in a way that protects and supports the most vulnerable. The shocks to local government that austerity has brought with it have been difficult and are not over yet. But out of them could spring a new vision of strong and sustainable communities fostered through local government.

Photo by Niall Kennedy

Prosperity corner

Read more of Lacuna’s series of Perspectives on Prosperity