The need for a new social capital agenda in Wales

Community activity is declining at a time when it is most needed, warns Andy Green.

There’s a warning of a hidden crisis for Wales and the rest of the UK from an old black-and-white photograph, taken in the early 1970’s of my late father-in-law’s ‘Early Birds’ skittle team in Barry.

This crisis affects the very heartbeat of our communities.

It was evidenced by the recent BREXIT Referendum, revealing a Wales and the rest of the UK divided into two tribes, who increasingly have less to do with each other.

Fewer people devote themselves to the communal good. Less of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other.

It affects our capacity to connect, co-operate and collaborate on our common cause. It is not just a nice thing to have but critical to how well we live and work together.

It’s called social capital – and we need to do something about its decline.

Looking closely at the ‘Early Birds’ skittles team photo shows a group of men of great diversity: their ages ranging from 20 to 70, their social status evidently spanning different classes. It’s a photo of a disappearing phenomenon of people hanging around with people different to yourself. Yes, online connects you with more people: but they tend to be people like you.

The guru of social capital, Robert Putnam identified in his seminal book ‘Bowling Alone’ how bowling alley attendances in the United States are rising yet bowling alley leagues have dramatically declined – hence we’re increasingly ‘bowling alone’: a metaphor for a decline mirrored in every aspect of communal and civic life.

The Barry or Welsh equivalent book title could be ‘Skittling No More’: over the last 20 years for example, half the skittle alleys in Barry have closed.

Yes, this reflects changing social habits, the decline in numbers of local pubs, and also the changing nature of employment, evoked by the names of many of the alleys that have closed such as the ‘Dockers’ and ‘Railwaymen’.  

People however, like the ‘Early Birds’ team, have not replaced this activity with another that nudges them to get out of their homes more, mix with people they may not normally have social contact with, or collectively work to a common goal. As a result we have a social capital deficit.

The core assets for existing social capital, the hubs for communal activity are being destroyed or are in significant decline – whether it is a skittle alley closing, declining local newspaper circulations, the local record shop or other community retail closing, or fewer milk deliveries – anything where we help each other, to help each other.

This is not about restoring or trying to keep alive what may be commercially or socially unviable or unsustainable, but rather recognising the social capital consequences of these trends. We need to invest and create new activities to offset the deficit.

Yes, there are those who argue that we are not witnessing a social capital decline but more of a social capital transformation; we may be playing skittles less, but many of us are now, for example, doing park runs or taking part in online forums.

Yet, despite these changes in social engagement, the broad expert consensus is of social capital’s underlying decline.

We live in an age where local public service providers and community groups need to tap into the untapped potential within our communities. Where community groups have to cope with a Tsunami of demands, yet community stalwarts, the do-ers and people who want to change their community, still work in isolated pockets.

We need to create new ways of bringing change makers, activists and anyone wanting to contribute together.

While technology creates tools that encourage greater social isolation, engagement, they also offer the potential to encourage greater connectivity, collaboration and co-creation.

There is new thinking in how off-line networks operate. How narrative and values underpin change. There is greater understanding of how we can harness emergence and emotional engagement for change. These can all work to address the decline of social capital and work to rekindle and nurture its growth.

Yet there are significant shortcomings with our current thinking around ‘social capital’: how can it be measured? Do we need a national scale, a social capital quotient of Wales to identify shortfalls or gaps? What new tools and processes can we establish as a better way of doing ‘social capital’?

Even the very brand of ‘social capital needs to be addressed.

The thinking within Puttnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’ was quickly adopted by political advisers like Steve Hilton, using it to frame the launch of the Conservative Party-led ‘Big Society’.

Soon social capital became tarred with being a smokescreen for politically-led public services retrenchment and austerity. The nascent social capital’s potential and momentum for change quickly dissipated.

Yet, is all lost for the cause of social capital?

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) is now taking up the challenge to do something. We need actions not just words – a new agenda for change.

A range of pioneering projects developed in Wales show a way ahead for building new social capital whether it is encouraging greater creativity, or enabling communities to come together more to boost their well-being or promoting civic engagement.

These projects, such as creative citizenship harnessing digital media, or the ‘Our Place’ young mother’s group in Pontypridd harnessing social capital to create better well-being, or the ‘Barry IdeasBank’ transforming the way community ideas banks can bring communities together, or the Cardiff Citizen Tech Pioneers all show how we can now find new ways to harness and strengthen the power within communities, rather than viewing them as a bundle of needs.

Using a combination of ‘blended’ offline and online activities they reveal new ways to build their connectivity, capability and confidence in our communities.

They champion how relationships have a value. Through working with communities this value can be grown by connecting people to one another to build, strengthen networks of social relationships create a renaissance in our civic and communal life.

Declining social capital is not inevitable.

Like the ‘Early Birds skittles team we need to come together to achieve a common goal of tackling the growing social capital deficit in our communities. Can you do something to boost the social capital of Wales?

Andy Green is a Fellow of the RSA and a director of the Flexible Thinking Forum which runs the Barry IdeasBank project. ‘Can we build a New Social Capital Agenda?’ showcasing new projects tackling the social capital agenda and seeking to create further new thinking and activity is taking place at the Senedd, Cardiff on November 10th 4.30pm for 5-7.30pm. The event is sponsored by Jane Hutt AM. Tickets are free and can be obtained from

5 thoughts on “The need for a new social capital agenda in Wales

  1. Employers, through their HR selection mechanisms, can help. The lead could be taken where it is easier for policy to gain traction – perhaps in government service (one of our biggest employers in Wales) for a start.

    In the 1990’s I lived in New Zealand where, during many job interview, up to a third of the time was typically devoted to exploring what a candidate did in their lives outside of work and how it benefited their community. There was an expectation that the more you had personally benefited in life through education (or even allocation of ‘smart genes’) the more of a moral obligation there was upon you to organise and assist your fellow citizens. If you didn’t stack up against this expectation in wider society then you were less likely to cut it as a fully rounded and productive employee. Sometimes people would need to take time off work to fulfil requirements of voluntary positions however it was widely believed that their higher level of social engagement manifested itself as less time off for mental illness and depression – good for the employer.

    Nice article – thank you.

  2. This was a major problem throughout the Western world even before the internet, and there is no real solution in sight. There are two reasons why it is particularly serious in Wales.

    First, the retreat of organised religion has been especially pronounced here. A hundred years ago, Church and Chapel were the foundations of social, as well as Spiritual, life in almost all Welsh communities. Now they are being pushed, increasingly, towards the margins, sometimes deliberately, and there is nothing to take their place. There are few long-established secular organisations that do not owe at least something to religion, and its expulsion from the mainstream has destroyed much of the ethos necessary for their survival and for the establishment of new ones. A paid ‘organiser’ working from an impersonal ‘community centre’ is a poor substitute for volunteers meeting in a Church Hall.

    Second, the corrosive effect of socialism has led generation after generation of Welsh people to wait for the state to organise things – which it never does – rather than encouraging them to organise themselves. The suppression of enterprise in social activity is the twin brother of its suppression in the commercial sphere.

    One of the ironies of socialism is that organised and organic social interaction seems to be greater among supposedly individualistic Tories than it is among socialists.

  3. “Fewer people devote themselves to the communal good. Less of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other.”

    I think many of us would like to get more involved, but it feels to me like as a society, we are ever more focussed on work. Spending more time in work, commutting to or from work, or recovering from it.

    Shorter working weeks, changed attitudes to work could help long term. Short term official time off to volunteer, as was proposed before the 2015 general election (but then quietly dropped) could really help make a difference.

  4. JWR, I think you are correct about your assessment of the efficacy of paid organisers but I don’t fully buy into the ills of socialism argument. The social collapse we see in the Valleys is also mirrored in Detroit and other post industrial areas of the USA where the free market & enterprise is relatively rampant.

    In the 1980’s our mines and steelworks were staffed by a relatively high proportion of skilled men and, to a lesser extent , women. They had transferable skills and many successfully moved to other employment. At that time BHP in Australia were paying golden hellos to electricians and fitters who had just left the NCB with a goodbye cheque. Quite a few of the present wineries in the Hunter valley, NSW, started out as hobby farms for the influx of workers to BHP Newcastle who bought land with their windfalls. Those with get up and go got up and went. Back in Wales that led to a social hollowing out as those more capable individuals – the organisers within the workforce, unions and social life – moved away. As is ever the case their impact on wider society had exceeded that of their simple number. It left behind the epsilons, the elderly, the unskilled who had little chance.

    The mistake was to keep those communities on life support for so long. They were in fact relatively modern (150 years) one horse towns whose raison d’etre had disappeared. The brave political decision would have been to bulldoze them and concentrate services and the population in fewer more efficient 20th century centres creating employment in the process.

    We don’t do brave political decisions any more.

  5. Brian, you make some very good points. Socialism was certainly a contributory factor in Wales but it was far from being the only, or even the decisive factor.

    Bulldozing the Valleys would have been going too far, but there should have been a general recognition that most of the communities there were effectively gold rush towns and that the gold was gone. The writing was on the wall when the Royal Navy switched from coal to oil, over a hundred years ago. If that was not enough, the Clean Air Acts should have made it clear that the economic base had to diversify if there was to he any chance of these communities remaining viable. As it was, you are right that a whole generation was wasted on life support.

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