Where we live is where we pursue our own individual dreams of success, where we come together to provide a range of informal support as a community, and where institutional policy, laws and regulations are implemented in practice. We all try to build the foundations for a decent life, where to some extent or another we seek to learn, work, save, maintain a roof over our heads, volunteer, exercise and so on. Some of these needs are met through individual endeavours, for others we rely on the support of our families and communities, and for some we rely on the state or other institutions to provide services. All of these factors, collectively, comprise the quality of life1 we experience and are able to achieve, as summarised below.2 It forms a kind of menu of the core things we might all look for in our lives, communities, institutions and places to some extent or another.3
Another way to think of this is to reflect on what it might be like to live in a place without these things, when they are missing or remain unfulfilled. At their worst, then, places alienate: creating divisions and fostering prejudice between individuals and groups can lead to isolation, lack of ambition, hate crime, ill-health… Such a life, and community, might look something like this:
The need for a social settlement that brokers these challenges and steers them towards the positive manifestation and away from their ‘shadow’ is crucial. In this, clearly, is a role for government, nationally and locally, as the elected bodies responsible for brokering between different perspectives and philosophies and establishing the societal norms that form the core elements of a social settlement. Local government, it could be argued, would be strengthened by being given more explicit responsibility for local strategic oversight, ‘see the system’ in a place and creating safe spaces for community conversations that tease out the nuanced balance between these issues that is relevant. It’s easy to get hung up on questions around the role and the size of the state. Yet without – or even with – some degree of intervention, the shadow side of these factors are likely to emerge, and it is in our collective responsibility to not leave them untreated. As Will Hutton4 notes, “Who cares about the state? If it becomes very much smaller with a demoralised, indifferently paid and de-professionalised workforce, so what? Yet economies and societies need functioning states. There are spheres of activity in our lives animated by a distinct ethic of public service. I want my doctor to get me well. Teaching is about an ongoing relationship of trust between teacher and pupil. Taxes should be collected and justice administered upon principles of impartiality and fairness. Police exist to provide order and justice for all. The infrastructure essential to modern life is publicly provided.” This dilemma is the heart of the idea of a social settlement.
1 Whilst this is presented as a framework for simplicity, clearly the different domains interrelate and overlap in a series of complex relationships and interactions
2 Of course, each domain covers a number of specific issues. ‘Income and wealth’, for example, covers destitution, economic insecurity, endebtedness, financial resilience, proportion of income from wages or from assets, financial capability, and so on.
3 It is interesting that there are few such frameworks in the literature; the Egan review for ODPM in 2004 remains one of the few https://www.ihbc.org.uk/recent_papers/docs/Egan%20Review%20Skills%20for%20sustainable%20Communities.pdf. The research question here is as follows: if I were to visit a town I knew nothing about, what are the domains I would want information on in order to determine what makes the place work and how well it is doing?