By Matthew Whittaker

For a short time at least, governments like to set the parameters against which they should be judged. Gordon Brown spoke of creating opportunity for all in order to make Britain “the great global success story of this century”. David Cameron offered stability and responsibility, building a political system that “people can trust and look up to once again”. For her part, Theresa May pledged to support the just about managing by fighting against the “burning injustice” facing too many in the country.

Unfortunately for Prime Ministers, events have a habit of getting in the way of ambitions. For now at least though, the UK’s newest leader is gaining plenty of traction with his promise to level up across the UK. And (perhaps unsurprisingly) his cabinet is fully on board, with the phrase cropping up across government. As with each of the past pledges, it is a sentiment that is hard to disagree with. And with a Budget just around the corner and the public finances in better condition than they have been for some time, it is an ambition on which the government might just be able to make some headway.

But look again at Boris Johnson’s post-election speech on the Downing Street steps, and notice that his promise was not just to level up, but also to “unite” – bringing “closure” to the Brexit debate and kickstarting a period of “healing” across the country. With politics having taken a nastier turn over recent years and the country feeling more divided than it has for some time, that feels like a vision which is every bit as important as levelling up – but every bit as tricky to deliver on too.

And if the Prime Minister needed reminding of the scale of the task at hand, he need look no further than this week’s Social capital in the UK data release from the ONS. The publication serves as a fascinating compendium, bringing together government data from across the four domains of personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, and trust and cooperative norms. It is the first time it has been published since 2017, and it paints the picture of a country drifting in the wrong direction.

There is some good news in the release, including a considerable increase in the proportion of people in England and Wales feeling safer walking home (up between 2010-11 and 2018-19 from 86 per cent to 88 per cent among men and from 64 per cent to 69 per cent among women). But the updated measures are predominantly gloomy, adding a real sense of urgency to the Prime Minister’s drive for unity. Here’s five reasons why he might want to make a better job than his predecessors did of turning his warm words into concrete action.

Reason one: we don’t ‘belong’ like we used to

As Figure 1 shows, our sense of belonging to our neighbourhoods across the UK declined quite markedly between 2014-15 and 2017-18. The proportion of people “strongly agreeing” with the statement “I feel like I belong to this neighbourhood” fell from over 20 per cent to under 19 per cent; and the proportion agreeing overall dropped from 69 per cent to 62 per cent. Just as worryingly, the proportion of respondents actively disagreeing with the statement increased from 7 per cent to 9 per cent – a jump of nearly one-quarter (24.3 per cent). A clear majority in the UK still feel like they do belong, but a sizeable minority feel like outsiders in their own communities.

Figure 1: A weakening sense of belonging

Proportion of adults (16+) agreeing/disagreeing with the statement "I feel like I belong to this neighbourhood": UK

Figure 1

Source:  PBE analysis of ONS, Understanding Society: UK Household Longitudinal Study

Reason two: our support networks are showing signs of fraying

As our sense of belonging has waned, so too have our support networks appeared to weaken. Looking within the family for instance, Figure 2 shows that fewer parents are giving help to and receiving help from their grown-up children. The proportion of such parents across the UK helping out with lifts, financial support, house repairs and the like dropped from 63 per cent in 2011-12 to 59 per cent in 2017-18. And the proportion receiving similar support likewise fell from 42 per cent to 36 per cent.

Figure 2: Fewer parents are giving help to and receiving help from their adult children

Proportion of parents with children aged 16 or over not living with them who "regularly" or "frequently" give or receive help to and from those children: UK

Notes: Tasks include "Giving them lifts in your car (if you have one)/Shopping for them/ Providing or cooking meals/Looking after their children/Washing, ironing or cleaning/Dealing with personal affairs e.g. paying bills, writing letters/Decorating, gardening or house repairs/Financial help/Anything else".

Source:  PBE analysis of ONS, Understanding Society: UK Household Longitudinal Study

This is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing of course. We might expect independence to rise alongside growing prosperity. But it nevertheless points to a potentially important shift in the way families interact.

And it is worth noting that one of the other social capital measures included in the ONS release shows that the proportion of adults in England who “definitely agree” that there are people who would be there for them if they needed help has nudged down from 70 per cent in 2016-17 to just over 68 per cent in 2018-19. Likewise, the proportion across the UK agreeing that they “borrow things and exchange favours with their neighbours” dropped from 41 per cent in 2011-12 to 38 per cent in 2017-18. For whatever reason, we are collectively leaning less on friends, family and neighbours than we used to.

Reason three: we’re joining in less

We are simultaneously taking fewer opportunities to join community groups and organisations. Figure 3 shows that the proportion of adults who are members of trade unions, parent teacher associations, the scouts, church groups, sports clubs, residents’ associations and the like dropped from 53 per cent in 2014-15 (broadly unchanged from the 2011-12 level) to 48 per cent in 2017-18

Figure 3: Fewer of us are members of clubs and groups

Proportion of adults (16+) saying they are a member of political, voluntary, professional or recreational groups: UK

Notes: Respondents were asked if they members of any of the following; Political party/Trade Unions/Environmental group/Parents'/School Association/Tenants'/Residents' Group or Neighbourhood Watch/Religious group or church organisation/Voluntary services group/Pensioners group/organisation/Scouts/Guides organisation/Professional organisation/Other community or civic group/Social Club/Working men's club/Sports Club/Women's Institute/Townswomen's Guild/ Women's Group/Feminist Organisation/Other group or organisation.

Source:  PBE analysis of ONS, Understanding Society: UK Household Longitudinal Study

The ONS figures also point to a drop in recent years in the proportion of people undertaking unpaid voluntary work at least once a month. Having risen over the first half of the decade to reach 33 per cent in 2014-15, the proportion fell back to 30 per cent by 2016-17 (the latest year for which such data is available). The longer-term picture is steadier, but the recent drop is nonetheless a little concerning.

Reason four: loneliness might be on the rise

Much of the above will of course reflect shifting demographics and changes in the ways in which we choose to live our lives. Many people may be entirely comfortable in a world in which we interact a little less with those around us – especially given the potential for technology and social media to connect us in new ways. But there is at least some evidence that these changes sit alongside explicitly negative trends.

For instance, Figure 4 shows that the proportion of people in England saying they feel lonely “often/always” increased from 5.4 per cent in 2016-17 to 6.1 per cent in 2018-19. Likewise, the proportion saying they “never” feel lonely dropped from 22.5 per cent to 21.9 per cent over the same period.

Figure 4: More of us are feeling lonely “often/always”

Proportion of adults (16+) describing feeling lonely…: England

Source:  PBE analysis of DCMS, Community Life Survey

These movements are relatively slight, and the ONS officially categorises this as “no overall change”. But the direction of travel is nonetheless worth monitoring. And it seems to fit the with longer-term picture painted by other measures captured in the release. For example, the proportion of people across the UK who say they regularly stop and talk with people in their neighbourhood fell from 66.3 per cent in 2011-12 to 62.2 per cent in 2017-18. Similarly, the proportion of those aged 15 and over in the UK who meet socially with friends, relatives or colleagues at least once a week dropped from 71 per cent in 2002 to 63 per cent in 2016. Our world has never been smaller or more crowded, but there is at least some sense of a growing isolation within communities.

Reason five: trust in national government has plummeted

On their own, deterioration in any one of the measures set out above would be worthy of note; the fact that they are all drifting in the wrong direction should serve as a clear prompt for action.

But the update in the ONS release that might most concern the Prime Minister is that relating to trust in national government. As Figure 5 shows, the proportion of those aged 15 and above in the UK who say they “tend to trust” national government dropped from one-in-three (32 per cent) at the end of 2018 to a low of one-in-five (19 per cent) at the start of 2019. The figure appeared to recover very slightly by Autumn 2019, but not in a statistically significant way.

Figure 5: Trust in national government dropped by 11 percentage points between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019

Proportion of respondents aged 15+ saying they "tend to trust" national government: UK

Notes: Dotted lines denote 95 per cent confidence intervals; solid line denotes central result rounded to the nearest 1 per cent.

Source: PBE analysis of Eurobarometer

Importantly, this finding follows a period in which we have become much more politically active. Interest in politics among those aged 15 and over jumped from a low of 48 per cent in 2012 to a 21st century high of 63 per cent in 2016 (with more recent data not yet available) for instance. And the proportion of people engaging in at least one political action in the past year (incorporating attending political meetings and demonstrations, petition writing and correspondence with public officials) has surged: jumping from 17 per cent in 2006-07 to 34 per cent in 2011-12 and 40 per cent in 2016-17. We saw above that we are, in general, joining in less: but not when it comes to protesting it would seem.

Yet there has been no discernible recent change in how we perceive our ability to influence what is going on around us. Across England, the proportion of adults agreeing that they can personally influence decisions in their local area has – if anything – dropped slightly; from just over 26 per cent in 2016-17 to just over 25 per cent in 2018-19. The implication is that we are shouting louder than we used to, yet feel no more likely to have our voices heard.

Securing capital gains means investing in more than physical ‘stuff’

This all adds up to a significant challenge for the new government, and one which it must seek to tackle with more than just platitudes.

Even ahead of Sajid Javid’s resignation as Chancellor, there was a clear expectation that next month’s Budget would set out lots of new investment in capital designed to support the government’s levelling up agenda. With Rishi Sunak’s arrival there is speculation that the spending taps may be turned on even more fully. That raises important questions about how such expenditure might be funded, and the sustainability of borrowing more versus taxing more for instance. But it is important also to reflect on just where any additional money might be directed. There is obvious merit in supporting our country’s physical infrastructure. But it is vital that the government recognises that social and human capital also matter, with spending in these areas offering just as much investment opportunity – especially for a government that wants to restore unity among its citizens.

Yet restoring trust and rebuilding community spirit and belonging is ultimately about more than money. The ending of Brexit’s first act may well produce a partial rebound in many of the measures set out above, in the same way as we’ve seen on the economic side of things. But sustained improvements will only come if there is a renewed focus on supporting civil society in the UK.

That needs the Prime Minister and other civic leaders to set the right tone in their words and their actions, but it also requires a deeper understanding of what promotes (and what harms) community cohesion and individual wellbeing. Only by doing that can we put in place the infrastructure that can best support a strengthening of our social capital.