When Theresa May appointed me as her Minister for Civil Society, I was struck by an enormous sense of purpose. After all, she was the Prime Minister who had entered office promising to tackle the “burning injustices” that are a sad fact of life for so many in the UK – and my role was at the heart of her efforts to deliver on that ambition.
How to define “civil society”, an undeniably vital but slightly nebulous concept? I took it to refer to individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control. Social value meant enriched lives and that most elusive of goals – a fairer society for all.
By the time we put pen to paper on our Civil Society Strategy, published in 2018, it had become clear that a fairer society must be built upon five foundations of social value: people, places, the social sector, the private sector and the public sector.
We identified that the dormant assets scheme, which has already made hundreds of millions of pounds available to good causes, was a relatively untapped opportunity to direct vital funding towards local community projects, civil society organisations and social enterprises. £135m was allocated to Big Society Capital to be distributed to people who needed it most, and a further £145m was dedicated to tackling youth employment and financial exclusion.
Four years on, some welcome progress has been made but significant gaps remain. In left-behind neighbourhoods from Kent to Cornwall to Cumbria and back again, social capital is depleted. Social infrastructure is fractured. It is high time we created a focal point for the betterment of communities, through initiatives with the potential to transform the lives of local people.
The proceeds of the expanded dormant assets scheme could provide that focal point. Earlier this year the government launched a consultation seeking views on which community projects and other good causes should benefit from another £880m, untouched for 15 years or more, that will be made available in the years ahead. It laid out eight criteria that must be met by any worthy recipient. The creation of a Community Wealth Fund ticks every box.
Fundamentally, it would channel investment directly to the communities that need it most. Funds would be distributed at the hyper-local level to neighbourhoods suffering from both the highest levels of multiple deprivation and the lowest levels of social infrastructure. The investment would be long-term in nature – patient capital, providing certainty and clarity for communities over decades, rather than months or years.
The evidence suggests that this funding, though relatively small in monetary terms, would be utterly transformational: rebuilding social capital, revitalising civic pride, and altering the community landscape for the better. There would be a local multiplier effect, too, generating £3.2m in economic benefits for every £1m of investment.
To rebuild those vital civic foundations, a Community Wealth Fund would bring together local people, the public sector and the private sector to restore pride in place and improve residents’ prospects.
The impact would be localised but repeated time and again, nationwide. Research has already identified 225 neighbourhoods the length and breadth of England as initial candidates for investment. Well targeted, and well timed.
Successive governments have been too timid in their efforts to reinforce the foundations of civil society. The Culture Secretary is due to communicate her decision on the dormant assets scheme in January, and she has in her grasp the opportunity to establish a vehicle for long-term, societal change in the shape of a Community Wealth Fund.
It is a ready-made mechanism to rebuild our frayed social fabric, which is in urgent need of repair. All that is needed is the political will to do so.