John Griffiths: How London is unleashing the power of civil society

John Griffiths: How London is unleashing the power of civil society

After a decade of being battered by the effects of austerity, Brexit and then Covid, London is rediscovering the value and importance of investing in civil society. It took a pandemic to shine a light on the capital’s capacity for community endeavour, mutual aid and social ingenuity, which helped sustain it through a time of crisis. In its recent detailed prescription for unleashing its full potential, the Law Family Commission on Civil Society argued that civil society’s full potential for the whole country is yet to be recognised at a national level. Yet there are signs that in some crucial respects London is leading the way .

Appreciating the true value of civil society  

It is notoriously difficult to measure civil society’s contribution to the national economy, but its gross value added (GVA) has been estimated at around £17 billion. A recent assessment by Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, suggests the figure could be as much as £200 billion when you factor in volunteering, the fiscal benefits associated with charitable activity and the wider economic spillovers from the sector’s work. On a per capita basis, this is equivalent to around £25 billion a year for London.

Growing funder collaboration  

This month has seen the announcement of a second major collaboration between leading funders of civil society in the capital. Go! London is a £19.5 million investment by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Sport England and the London Marathon Foundation in a five-year programme to promote sport and physical activity among under-served young Londoners.

This initiative follows closely on the launch last November of Propel, a £100 million collaborative investment between the Mayor, City Bridge Trust, Bloomberg and the National Lottery Community Fund to give the capital’s civil society the flexibility and capacity to develop ways of tackling some of London’s biggest challenges. Both programmes can trace their origins to the London Community Response, an unprecedented collaboration between London’s funders which allowed civil society sufficient freedom to tackle the pandemic whose more open and trusting practices have now helped shape these new funds for London.

Investing in infrastructure (and civic strengths)

Civil society’s responses to the pandemic highlighted the value of local (and specialist) infrastructure in supporting front-line community organisations. There is compelling anecdotal evidence that the London boroughs which had continued to invest in civil society despite a decade of austerity measures were able to mobilise local responses to the pandemic more quickly and effectively. Councils as different as Hounslow, Southwark, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth now share a goal of putting communities at the heart of plans to “build back better”. The recently published Civic Strength Index for London, commissioned by the Greater London Authority as a tool to encourage an asset-based approach to its mission of “Building Strong Communities” , attaches considerable weight to the value of “public and social infrastructure”.

Enabling a place-based approach   

The pandemic also highlighted place as a focus for social investment. Already emerging as a new type of local civil society infrastructure, London’s Place-based Giving Schemes were severely tested by Covid, yet showed their capacity and agility by harnessing local philanthropy, community-level resources and place-based assets in a concerted effort to address different communities’ needs.

Place-based giving plays to the capital’s composition as a collection of towns and villages, each with its own identity and different set of community assets, and the latest data on London’s giving suggests that people’s affinity with places was enhanced during lockdown. Inevitably, however, as the Civic Strength Index highlights, certain places are richer in assets than others and find it easier to attract more, potentially widening rather than bridging the divide between London’s hot and cold spots.

Ensuring civil society’s seat at the table

Civil society’s contribution to London’s post-Covid recovery has now been recognised in the form of four voluntary and community sector member places on the London Partnership Board, established last month as the reconstituted successor to the London Recovery Board. It will include a representative of London’s funders plus three members from the wider sector, identified via an open and transparent process, and continue to oversee the recovery board’s mission-based workstreams, not least The Building a Fairer City Action Plan ensuring that equality is at the heart of the capital’s long-term future.

As London embarks on the next phase of its recovery from the pandemic, these are encouraging signs of civil society taking a leading role, aided by a more trusting and long-term collaboration between investors and political leaders.

John Griffiths is Director of Rocket Science, who are the learning partners for London’s Giving and Grant Managers for the Go! London programme. Follow John on Twitter. Image is still from Go! London promotional video. Watch it here.

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Categories: Analysis

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