The post-pandemic landscape poses enormous challenges for ensuring hope over hate. HOPE not hate’s Building Back Resilient report looks at how some of the communities most at risk of social division across the UK have been affected by the pandemic, and recommends that ‘levelling up’ needs to go beyond improvements to the economy, ensuring that initiatives which strengthen cohesion and community resilience are funded.
This report aims to understand how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted social cohesion and integration. It asks what the post-pandemic environment will look like when it comes to community resilience, and what is needed to ensure that the economic hit imposed by COVID-19 does not exacerbate tensions in communities. Ultimately, it asks how we can ‘build back better’ when it comes to cohesion, so that the period of hardship which is likely to follow the coronavirus pandemic does not harm resilience.
The COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a period of real economic difficulty for the UK. It has effectively created a ‘perfect storm’ – exposing weak social infrastructure, accelerating certain types of automation and stretching local authorities, many of which were hit hard by austerity long before the coronavirus. This is not just an economic crisis but one that undermines the resilience of our communities, and puts many at risk of division and rising hate.
Our research has consistently shown how, during economically tough periods, resentments and frustrations can brew, and people look for someone to blame. When people have little hope for their own chances in life, it is much harder for them to show openness and compassion for others. And it easier for opportunists to exploit real fears with hatred. The post-pandemic landscape therefore poses enormous challenges for community resilience.
This is likely to play out across geographic divides. Our research has consistently found that communities with the greatest anxiety about immigration and multiculturalism are also the ones which have suffered through economic decline, have weak civic, social and economic infrastructure, and feel most distant from power.
Some of the key insights from this report are listed below:
- Our polling suggests that, alongside feeling the immediate hit, Britons are anxious about the long term impact of the coronavirus outbreak. More than half (54%) say they are less hopeful for the future as a result of the pandemic, and just 28% are optimistic about a return to pre-pandemic life within a year.
- The vast majority (62%) are concerned that the coronavirus outbreak is exposing great inequality in British society. Just 20% of people say they think Boris Johnson will succeed in ‘levelling up’ less affluent areas of the country.
- We have identified 52 local authorities where challenges to community tensions are most likely to be exacerbated as a result of economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Each of these 52 areas fulfil three criteria: a significant short term COVID-19 impact, lower long term capacity to recover from economic shocks, and more hostile than average attitudes to migration and multiculturalism among parts of the local population.
- We believe that these are the local authorities where stresses on social cohesion have been amplified most acutely by the economic consequences of the pandemic. This does not mean they will automatically be susceptible to far right overtures, or even that they are the most vulnerable in the country to cohesion issues. But it does mean that these are the areas where COVID-19 has heightened existing risks in the most pronounced way.
- Efforts by central government to ‘build back better’ within these areas will need to work particularly hard to strengthen the social fabric; they will need to look beyond definitions of ‘levelling up’ which relate purely to economic infrastructure, and to develop initiatives which strengthen cohesion and community resilience.
- The government has a series of difficult decisions to make in the recovery process, with the country facing large economic shortfalls. But many of these will have direct consequences for community relations. Our research shows that a move to cut benefits could expand the list of authorities where community relations are at risk by almost 50%, from 52 to 75. We identify 23 council areas – in addition to the 52 – which could be hit especially hard by cuts to Job Seeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit. Such a step would create pressure on resources and in turn put community relations under further strain.
- If productivity does not recover during the years after the pandemic, eight further authorities outside our list of 52 could face more acute hardship, taking the number of communities at risk to 60. Again, this could have major knock-on effects for cohesion.
- From our engagement with community leaders and decision-makers in the 52 ‘at risk’ areas, it was clear that recovery support from central government must be geared towards enabling integration and strengthening the social fabric. These is a need for additional support and funding for the third sector, for designated resources for neighbourhood cohesion roles, for a longer term approach to funding, and for greater investment in young people and skills.
- There was a strong sense among the 52 ‘at risk’ areas that austerity had never really ‘ended’, and that another wave of cuts would leave councils with little or no capacity to strengthen trust and build community relations. Pursuing austerity measures would weaken community resilience across the board, as well as cutting services at a time when the needs of vulnerable communities have become more acute.
Post-COVID efforts to ‘level up’ or to ‘build back better’ have tended, so far, to focus on infrastructure, growth and jobs. However, given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on community relations – and the scale of the forthcoming challenges for community resilience – it is essential that ‘building back better’ is also focused on strengthening civic and social infrastructure.