If the Covid pandemic did generate a ‘Blitz spirit’ during the crisis itself, its positive legacies are likely to fade without a more proactive policy agenda to sustain cooperation across traditional boundaries, a panel of experts told a British Future webinar to discuss the Social Integration APPG’s inquiry report on social connection beyond Covid.
“For many people, there was a Blitz spirit in how we faced the challenges of Covid,” said Peter Gibson, MP for Darlington and Chair of the Social Integration APPG. The inquiry evidence showed several positive lessons during a tragic pandemic, particularly the broadening of volunteering, including an estimated 3.5 million first-time volunteers, and catalysing community engagement by business.
“We don’t want to see that fall by the wayside,” Gibson said, “It needs to be bottled and kept.” That had informed the Social Integration APPG’s 20 policy recommendations, including proposals for new volunteering passport schemes and platforms to maximise the accessibility of opportunities to volunteer.
“We have seen a Blitz spirit. The challenge is that, as the war ends, we all go back to normal,” said Andrew O’Brien of Social Enterprises UK, who saw the increased engagement during the pandemic as continuing earlier shifts, such as the rising profile of purpose-led businesses. This would be important to develop further income streams for civic action, when one-off grant funding may prove harder to sustain.
The future challenge would be in ensuring that business engagement was sustained, rather than PR-led. “The primary issue is a cultural one,” he said. “To put more pressure on the whole business community to ensure that this was not a one-off for Covid, and to sustain it for the longer-term. Levelling up will require business to make more sacrifices for local communities.”
Emelia Quist of the Small Business Federation said the APPG report offered interesting and inspiring insights into social contribution during the pandemic. Some 60% of small businesses reported having participated in a community and volunteering role during the pandemic. Quist said that small business contributions often reflected the life experiences and personal connections of business owners, who were often more likely to donate time than cash to local causes. Small businesses, embedded in local communities, could play a key role in place-based agendas. Employment policies can also play a key role in social connection. Extending the Kickstart scheme beyond March 2022 would help to sustain this, she suggested.
Catherine Johnstone, Director of the Royal Voluntary Society, said she welcomed the report, particularly in its focus on finding solutions for the post-pandemic context at a time when the voluntary sector should accept the challenge not to return to normal.
“Hundreds of thousands of national, local and hyper-local organisations supported the volunteering efforts,” said Johnstone. While there was enormous variety of volunteering opportunities, it remained a challenges for the public to find those that are available.
“Many people are unable to understand how to give their time easily,” she said. “It is often very confusing and quite difficult, as to what barriers and hurdles you have to get through in order to try to give your time.”
“The landscape and the expectations of volunteering have changed,” Johnstone argued – and so the volunteering sector should not now go back to pre-pandemic systems and practices. Prior to the pandemic, she said, the willingness of older people to volunteer had masked a weakness in engaging young people and in engaging fully across an increasingly diverse society.
So Covid had been an important catalyst, lowering barriers to participation that would not have happened without a war or a pandemic. It was now vital to gather, share and act on the lessons from the pandemic, “To make opportunities more open and accessible to all members of the community,” Johnstone said. The Shaping the Future of Volunteering network had come together to do this and had several important challenges to address, including the lack of universal architecture highlighted by the APPG report.
Peter Gibson said that a central post-pandemic social connection challenge identified by the APPG inquiry was that social and civic action tended to be weakest in those places that needed it most. “Where society is better engaged, and more connected, there is greater integration and more volunteering. There is less civic engagement in poorer and less integrated communities,” he said. These dynamics could create both upward and downward spirals, setting the key social challenge for the levelling up agenda, he added, arguing that the quality of local leadership and engagement by councils was as important as local government funding.
Panellists agreed on the central importance for social connection of investing in local places where people meet. Yet the pre-existing challenges for high streets in the internet age had been further exacerbated by the pandemic. The panel shared the view that the high street offer had to go beyond transactions and purchases to become more of an ‘event’. A key question was how to provide a forum for more sustained engagement across sectors about the future vision. The engagement of local business, civic and political voices on Towns Fund boards could provide an opportunity to promote a shifting mix of business, housing and community hub activities. “What does success look like in five years’ time on levelling up?” was something on which more clarity was needed from both government and civic society, Catherine Johnstone argued.
Peter Gibson MP said that government policies could not bring a community together without public participation too, and issued a challenge to the audience. “We can all vote with our feet. Everybody could accept the challenge to buy at least five presents in shops and small businesses local to you, not just going online. That keeps money in the local economy – and it would be a way to support those small businesses who have contributed socially during the pandemic.”