Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

< Back to '23rd Sept 2020' briefing

September 22, 2020

Measuring community strength

It seems a bit of an omission, given how much is being expected of communities at the moment, but there is no real consensus around how to measure the strength of a community. No doubt views are formed anecdotally and shared informally but the lack of transparency and a common understanding of how such views are arrived at helps no one. A useful contribution – although not without flaws – comes from think tank Onward which identifies 5 key threads that combine to form our social fabric and can be used to measure changes in community strength over time.


Will Tanner, James O’Shaughnessy, Fjolla Krasniqi and James Blagden by Onward

This morning Onward publishes a new research paper, State of our Social Fabric, by Will Tanner, James O’Shaughnessy, Fjolla Krasniqi and James Blagden. This landmark report is a part of Onward’s Repairing our Social Fabric research programme launched in March 2020.

The report estimates the strength of community over time and in every local authority in the UK, focusing on five key threads: the strength of social relationships, the quality of civic institutions, the acceptance of positive social norms, the value of its local economy and the levels of physical infrastructure. Alongside the report, the authors have published the Social Fabric Index using these five key threads. Head to our interactive map of the Social Fabric Index to see how your own constituency does.
Read the research here | Interactive Map of the Social Fabric Index
A history of community decline
The findings expose the way community has changed – and in many ways has declined – over the recent decades, leaving many parts of the UK with weak social institutions and networks and a falling sense of belonging:
• Fewer than half of people in the UK are now members of a group (48%). Just 10% are members of a working men’s or social club and 6% are members of a tenants’ or residents’ association, down 25% and 38% respectively since 1993, and regular church attendance has more than halved from 6.4 million in 1980 to 3.1 million in 2015. Membership of pensioner and professional membership groups, in contrast, has risen seven-fold and twelve-fold respectively since 1993.
• Between 2011 and 2017, the share of parents engaging in activities or outings with their children several times a week declined from 36% to 29%. Over the same period, the proportion who do so fewer than once a month rose from 34% to 40%. However, the number of 10-16 year olds having dinner with their family regularly has risen, from a third in 1995 to a half today.
• Even though the number of charities and donations are rising, the generosity of donations is in decline. In 2007-08, the average person donated £1 in every £100 they earned to charity. A decade later, in 2017-18, that figure had fallen by more than a quarter, to 73 pence.
• Communities are roughly half as likely (47%) to have a local post office than they were nearly two decades ago and three quarters (76%) as likely to have a local pub. This means that there are now only 7 pubs for every 10,000 adults, compared to 11 pubs per 10,000 adults a decade ago in 2010.
• Roughly three in ten people now live on their own, up from just one in twenty (5%) a century ago. Much of the recent increase in the proportion of the population living alone is men aged between 45-64, who account for 42% of the increase in single person households.
Widening inequality
The report also reveals how the decline in the social fabric has affected different places markedly more than others, with Onward’s Social Fabric Index revealing wide variation between local areas. In particular, it shows that:
• The places with the strongest social fabric are typically located in the South of England, especially in London’s rural commuter belt and parts of Scotland. Richmond upon Thames is the highest ranked area by social fabric, with Chiltern, South Oxfordshire, South Cambridgeshire, Rushcliffe, St Albans, Windsor and Maidenhead, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire following closely behind.
• The places with fraying social fabric are typically found in the Eastern coast of England, South Wales and the M62 corridor from Huddersfield to Grimsby. This includes post-industrial towns such as Middlesborough, Methyr Tydfil, Boston and Hartlepool as well as coastal communities such as Great Yarmouth, North East Lincolnshire and Blackpool.
• Places with a fraying social fabric are more likely to be politically volatile. Among the top tenth of places for social fabric, just 44% of people voted to Leave the EU, compared to 62% support for Brexit in the lowest tenth of places for social fabric. Red Wall constituencies and 2019 Conservative gains have social fabric scores that are not only 12% lower than the Conservative average, but 3% lower than Labour seats too.
• The growth of the private rented sector has contributed to declining social fabric. Just over 56% of people in social housing and 66% of homeowners feel that they belong to their area, compared to just 47% of private renters. In the areas with the strongest social fabric, stable tenures (owner occupied and social rent) have increased since 2001, while in the areas with the weakest social fabric, they have fallen by 8%.
Impact of COVID – a new generational divide
Meanwhile, polling alongside the report reveals that just two in five (42%) of 18-24 year olds feel more connected to their community than they did a month ago, compared to 52% when asked the same question just after lockdown started in March. This 10 point decline compares to a 13 point rise, from 53% to 66%, among 55-64 year olds over the same period. On average, 57% of people feel more connected to their community than they did a month ago.
Since March, the share of 18-24 year olds who trusted their neighbours fell by 10 percentage points (from 57% to 47%). In stark contrast, social trust among 55-64 year-olds increased by 12 percentage points (from 53% to 65%) and over-65s are now almost twice as likely to trust their neighbours than under-35s. On average, just over half of people say that they trust their neighbours to support them through this crisis.
Will Tanner, Director of Onward, said:
“We have instinctively known that communities have been fraying for decades but we have always struggled to measure how and in what ways.
“This has meant we have placed too much focus on what we can measure, rather than the social networks, institutions and norms which underpin our neighbourhoods and local places and give people a sense of belonging.
“Onward’s Social Fabric Index fills that gap, shining a light on the decline of community in Britain and identifying the places which need greatest attention from policymakers.”
The programme has a cross party steering committee including Danny Kruger MP (Conservatives), Jon Cruddas MP (Labour), Eilidh Whiteford, former MP (SNP) and is funded jointly by the JRF, Shelter and Power to Change. Further details at: