Going, going, gone: The unrelenting destruction of our social infrastructure  

Date Posted: Thursday 22nd November 2018

A guest blog by Hilary Land, Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol

Social InfrastructureTransport

Barbara Castle, a senior minister in Wilson’s government, understood the importance of the social infrastructure , particularly for women.: “What matters to women even more than the cash wage increase they or their husbands get is the standard of publicly provided services which mean so much to the family-health care, education, housing and a good environment. In other words the social wage. In the 1930s R.H.Tawney, social historian and socialist discussed the importance of a collectively funded social income in his classic study Equality : “England put its surplus resources into cotton mills and railways before it invested in sewers, not to mention parks, schools and libraries – today the balance, though tardily and inadequately, is being corrected”.  Now, far from being corrected, expenditure on our economic infrastructure and lower taxation for the wealthy have taken priority. “Social income, received not in the form of money, but of increased well-being” is diminishing.

For example, the National Children’s Bureau’s cohort study of 16,000 children aged 11 in 1969, found little difference between children from different income groups with respect to their access to and use of  safe green or play spaces. Over forty years later children living in the least deprived areas were nine times more likely to enjoy access to safe play and recreation. This is not surprising because the  Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee found the most affluent 20%  of wards in England now have five times the amount of green space as the most deprived 10%.

In the 1960s over four out of five primary school children went to school unescorted by an adult. By the early 1990s only one in six could do so. Today the figure is even lower.  We now have the ‘school run’ and parents (mainly mothers) have to make time to escort them, very often by car. These cars are polluting the air we all breathe. Children take less exercise because of the dominance of the car. They can no longer ‘play out’ in the streets and obesity is a growing problem especially for poor children.

Our social infrastructure depends heavily on local government. Since 2010 their funding from central government has been halved (a reduction of £16 billion). However they still have major statutory responsibilities, particularly for adult social care and children’s services. Prior to the 2018 October budget the funding gap in adult social care was expected to be £1.5 billion together with £1.1 billion in children’s services. The increases subsequently announced will not fully meet these shortfalls.

Adult social care services now account for almost 40% of total council budgets compared with 28% in 2010. This means cuts have continually been made elsewhere which are  “… threatening the future of other vital council services such as parks, leisure centres and libraries, which help to keep people well and from needing care and support and hospital treatment”. There are big differences within and between the poorest and richest  councils with respect to healthy life expectancies amounting to 14 and 15 years for men and women respectively. However, the poorest authorities can raise the least from council tax and business rates. This is a recipe for growing inequalities within and between local councils.

Altogether three-quarters of councils say budget cuts are affecting parks and green spaces. One in five plan to sell off chunks of parkland in the next 3 years. One in three have already raised money by auctioning off parkland in the last 12 months. This is just one of the ways in which land is being almost invisibly privatised in Britain, described by Brett Christophers as “a classic case of death by a thousand cuts”. He has calculated that since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 about 10% of the entire British land mass has passed from public to private hands.

Cuts in our social infrastructure coupled with loss of staff capacity (960,000 fewer council staff since 2010) lead to a vicious circle of decline. In addition the closure of public toilets make parks and public spaces in general less welcoming to women, children and older people. In 37 areas major councils no longer run any public conveniences. It is harder to sustain a public campaign to keep a park which has become vandalised and neglected.

The CLG Select Committee recommended understanding parks as part of a wider green infrastructure relevant to national strategic issues such as obesity, flooding and climate change. They noted that “traditional grey infrastructure, such as roads, is in our view often prioritised over green infrastructure.” Indeed the October budget announced £25.3 billion more for motorways, trunk and A roads and £3.5 billion for new networks of local roads. In contrast, with half of all bus routes in England which currently receive partial or complete subsidies from councils under threat, the funding gap is expected to reach nearly £4 billion by 2019-20. Over 2000 bus routes have had to be reduced, altered or withdrawn across England since 2010.

The ability to travel easily locally is vital for frail elderly people as well as for those caring for them. With formal social care services under strain and a housing market which is scattering poorer families and friends, it is even more vital that the need for a strong and reliable social infrastructure by the 6.6 million carers and those they are looking after, are recognised and strengthened. Unless we do so our environment will become more and more hostile to the well-being of our citizens young and old.

A shortened version of a paper given at the Fifth Peter Townsend Memorial Conference 2018  Fifty Years of Poverty Research-What have We Learned ? Bristol Poverty Institute, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol 5 November 2018

Hilary Land is Emeritus Professor of Family Policy and Child Welfare at the University of Bristol and a member of the WBG