Delivering social infrastructure: principles for community participation

10 September 2020

By Rosie Fogden

7 minute read

The seventh blog in CPP’s social infrastructure series explores the principles for community participation in the design and delivery of social infrastructure, building on the public spirit generated by Covid-19.


  • Covid-19 has highlighted the ability and potential for local groups to lead community regeneration.
  • Committing to community participation means empowering community organisations to play a key role in the ownership, design and implementation of social infrastructure. It does not mean exploiting community resources to deliver public services cheaply; civic engagement is enabled by public investment, it is not a replacement for it.
  • A framework for community participation should allow for experimentation and variation of provision between different communities and will require local government and community groups to work together.

Covid-19 has reiterated the value of community involvement in social infrastructure delivery

Community groups have been central to the Covid-19 crisis response. In towns and cities from Wigan to Hastings, residents have volunteered their time to package and deliver food parcels to those struggling to cope with the pandemic, whilst nationwide over 750,000 people volunteered to support the NHS. These examples have underlined the capability of residents and businesses to respond to local issues and have raised the question of community involvement in the delivery of more permanent social infrastructure. Acknowledging this movement, the Prime Minister commissioned MP Danny Kruger to review how the government can “maximise the role of … community groups”, harnessing their contribution to reduce place-based inequality and promote levelling up.

This is something that organisations such as Local Trust have been promoting since they were set up in 2012 to run the National Lottery funded Big Local. Big Local gives £1m to local communities to spend as they see fit and has funded projects such as buying property to house drug and alcohol addicts in Telford and a youth club and forum in Pitsea. But Big Local groups have also grappled with difficulties such as lack of engagement and how to evidence outcomes without burdening resident groups. So, what are the principles for doing community participation well?

Community delivery should be about empowerment not exploitation

Firstly, national and local government have to be prepared to transfer meaningful powers to residents and community businesses. Identity and belonging play an important role in creating inclusive and thriving communities and local organisations are often best placed to understand the challenges and opportunities of specific places. National and local government must recognise this and allow community organisations to occupy genuine positions of power and influence within local public services, involving them at every level of design and implementation rather than restricting their role to the point of delivery.

It is important that community delivery is not simply used to fill the gaps left by the state, exploiting volunteers to save money and cut costs. CPP research has found that local government spending on key areas of social infrastructure, such as libraries, open spaces and youth services fell by more than twice the level of overall local government spending between 2013-14 and 2018-19 and as a result, Britain has closed nearly 800 libraries since 2010. Many communities have attempted to avoid closure by creating volunteer libraries, of which there are over 500 in the UK at the moment. While this is in itself admirable, it is by no means a model for the effective and sustainable delivery of public services and social infrastructure, particularly as CPP’s research found that civic engagement and volunteering ultimately fell in every English region over the same period. Rather than being a replacement for public investment, civic engagement is enabled by it.

Community participation in design and delivery is important in ensuring that local people have a genuine say in the nature of social infrastructure in their area. It also furthers democratic and local control over governance and services in an area. In any representative democracy, there are many intermediaries between citizens and the government which represents them, whether on a local or national level and allowing greater community involvement in designing and implementing services bypasses these layers of bureaucracy. For this to work, it is essential that residents are engaged and encouraged to be actively involved.

Local areas must be allowed to experiment

Another key principle for delivering social infrastructure in the community is experimentation. National and local government should enable local areas to experiment and try out different methods of community participation rather than imposing top-down organisational structures. Councils should allow residents to use spaces as they see fit, providing an operational freedom that enables them to try out new ways of doing things and facilitates innovation.

Locality have also stressed that moving away from a focus on efficiency and competition in procurement is key to unlocking the creative power of communities. Current guidance limits the scope for local collaboration and perpetuates a marketised view of services which has dominated in the UK since the 1980s. Within this framework, there is little room for empowering residents as mentioned above, nor is there much space for variation in the needs of different communities and areas. Instead, procurement frameworks should embed flexibility encourage collaborative rather than competitive tendering.

Community groups and councils will need to work together

Resident engagement and empowerment in the design and delivery of local social infrastructure has the potential to transform communities and help to secure an inclusive recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. But this potential cannot be scaled unless community groups work together with local councils to direct resources. In the past, political tensions have led some community groups to fall out with their councilors, whilst the lack of control and uncertainty around outcomes inherent in community led initiatives has occasionally frustrated local political leaders.

Initiatives such as Barking and Dagenham’s Every One Every Day project show how councils can better support community activity, in their case through the provision of advice materials and facilities. In 2014, the borough was advised to move beyond a paternalistic working model and partnered with a third sector organisation with the aim of creating a ‘participation culture’ and encouraging all kinds of initiative, both large and small. Secure funding, lack of judgement and taking time to build trust within the community were all key to the project’s success, which has mobilised at least 6,000 people. Localis has argued that local government should be more consistent in recognising the importance of local social infrastructure and both councils and resident alike will need to be open to learn from places like Barking and Dagenham if community delivery is to be a success.