A better place for everyone: how investing in social infrastructure could be the key to levelling up

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Social infrastructure is a broad term which covers a range of services which meet the local and strategic needs of an area. It can defined in many different ways, depending on which reports you read, but definitions often include:

  • physical places, services and spaces like youth services, community health, recreation, green space and sport and education and outreach services;
  • community organisations, such as voluntary groups, charitable groups, neighbourhood fora, local business groups and social enterprises; and
  • the physical and social links between places and people, including digital infrastructure, and walking and cycling infrastructure.

While the definition is broad and sometimes disputed, one thing that is generally agreed on is that social infrastructure is a key part of joining up physical infrastructure with services and communities for the benefit of the people who live and work in an area.  It is important for social cohesion and effective placemaking and for that reason it has been highlighted by many commentators as a key part of the levelling up agenda.

A cornerstone of public life in our towns and cities

Many commentators have emphasised the role of “informal” spaces, libraries, parks, recreational spaces and community hubs as being overlooked and undervalued in the wider discussions of services and provisions within local areas for many years.

It seemed there was a perception that many of the services covered by the collective term “social infrastructure” were considered to be “supplementary” to core services delivered at a local level, like social work, and while the work they did within the community was recognised as positive, often they were first in line for cuts to services.

However, in recent years, the wider intangible value that these spaces and communities which social infrastructure supports has become recognised. Social infrastructure plays a vital role in supporting disadvantaged and marginalised groups within communities, often providing links to key services and support for people who had previously had significant barriers to access. More broadly social infrastructure can help with preventative and early intervention, with policies and investment that can reduce the need for more intensive (and expensive) support later on.

It is now considered common practice that investment should maximise public or ‘social’ value that is investments that deliver the best solutions to support the public good. In practice this means including wider non-financial considerations such as community wellbeing and environmental sustainability when making the business case, and prioritising and planning projects that achieve positive social value outcomes for the public.

Supporting inclusive growth, levelling up and the post pandemic recovery

Having poor social infrastructure has been found to contribute to the lack of inclusive growth and levels of low productivity for left behind communities. Even before the coronavirus pandemic The Inclusive Growth Commission called for investment not just in physical infrastructure in poorer communities but in the social infrastructure which ‘develops the capacities and capabilities of individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in society and economic growth’. The most deprived communities often have the worst social infrastructure, which can exacerbate already deep rooted inequalities around areas like wealth, health and race.

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, published in 2018, highlights research that demonstrates how social infrastructure affects our personal and collective wellbeing, leading to safer, healthier, more tolerant and stable communities, and facilitates social capital the connections made between people. As we seek to “level up” those communities left behind, and those most significantly impacted by the pandemic, building these connections and improving social capital will be an important tool to help communities develop.

Research from Frontier Economics, published in June 2021, found that for every £1m invested, there are likely to be economic and fiscal returns worth £3.2m, including a £0.7m boost in employment, training and skills opportunities for local residents. And the Centre for Progressive Policy has illustrated in their recent programme of work that investment in social infrastructure plays a vital role in increasing the ​“health and skill levels of more deprived sections of the population and reducing place-based inequalities in line with the government’s levelling up agenda,” as well as offering good value for money and significant productivity returns.

Final thoughts

High quality and inclusive social infrastructure and its wider role in the creation of socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities is key to a successful levelling up agenda. New investment in social infrastructure will not only help to level Britain up, it will also unlock creativity, innovation and other local resources that can help rebuild the economy and build in local resilience for the future.


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The benefits of third sector research for policy and practice engagement

By Bonnie Thomson

Policy determines almost every aspect of our lives. It dictates the social, ecological and economic conditions around us and acts as the backbone to a functioning society.

For policy to be fair and reflective of everyone’s needs, it should have a solid grounding in evidence. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector research can have a huge part to play in evidence-based policy development. Organisations in this sector tend to be embedded in the communities they serve and operate on a “values-driven” basis, making them ideal candidates to represent those from all facets of society who may not otherwise be represented in the policy sphere.

Using third sector research to influence policy and practice was the focus of a recent Policy Scotland webinar, where guests from across the sector shared insights and experiences of harnessing their third sector research projects as vehicles for policy engagement.

Developing projects with policy in mind

Dr Hannah Tweed of Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland commenced her presentation by emphasising the importance of allowing real life experience to guide policy. Her project, which focused on experiences of self-directed support in Scotland, was co-produced with peer researchers who utilised their lived experience of social care to direct the design of the study – including which areas to focus on and how best to phrase questions.

Hannah went on to discuss how the team sought to involve local authorities and third sector partners working in social care in the development stage of the project. In doing so they benefitted from practical expertise on how to distribute surveys and conduct interviews in the most accessible formats. This helped to reduce barriers to participation and ensure a wider range of responses.

Engaging governing bodies early on in the project was also a reliable way of garnering interest which could be useful for policy influence down the line. Third sector partners offered invaluable local knowledge and contacts which may not have been reached without the power of word-of-mouth. Additionally, by invoking this level of cross-sectoral input in the project, the team were able to amplify the magnitude of the research, making as many people aware as possible.

Communications and dissemination

A steady stream of communications was also cited as key to policy impact and engagement. Robbie Calvert of the Royal Town Planning Institute discussed this in relation to his 20 minute neighbourhoods research.

Reports, news releases, policy briefs and social media posts were just some of the project outputs that Robbie highlighted as being crucial to gaining and maintaining traction around his research. Timing was a key element for disseminating research outputs, as this piece of work began to take shape around the time of the 2019 general election. Seizing an opportunity, Robbie and his team lobbied with party spokespersons and researchers across the political spectrum, delivering regular consultations and briefs. The end result was that almost every political party featured 20-minute neighbourhoods or a similar idea in their manifestos, which gave a strong sense of added value for the concept.

Both Hannah and Robbie discussed the merits of a succinct set of recommendations, covering large and small issues, in gaining the attention of policy makers. Hannah explained that policy recommendations at the small scale should not be forgotten as they can act as useful, simple outcomes to meet and complement the larger, national changes. Recommendations should be robust, showing consideration for practicalities and cost implications, whilst also painting a clear picture of “where next” for policy, practice and future research avenues.

Knowing your stakeholders

Dr Sarah Weakley of Policy Scotland rounded off the webinar by highlighting the importance of well-defined stakeholders in achieving policy influence. She began by describing how best to position a piece of research within the policy landscape. This involves working out which policy actors are key players in the area, what kind of work they have been known to engage with in the past, and, crucially, what new perspectives can be offered. Taking the example of poverty, she explained:

“We know about poverty, it has been with us forever, there’s nothing new about it. What can be added are some of the new solutions that your research might point to.”

Knowing the policy space was noted by all three speakers as being key to achieving influence. Sarah followed this up by acknowledging that the range of policy stakeholders is far wider than just central government. Some examples of other lesser-considered policy actors include:

  • think tanks;
  • community planning partnerships;
  • other third sector organisations; and
  • universities.

Establishing a network of groups and individuals who are doing work either directly or tangentially in a similar field and forging connections was a message echoed by all speakers. Sarah summarised this most succinctly by stating that policy making is based on relationships. Knowing not just the kind of work being done in an area, but also the people working in and around the area, is essential for exerting influence.

A key piece of advice offered was to not be afraid of reaching out to those in the sphere. Policy makers are usually looking for expertise in a broader sense, rather than a very narrow specialism on one specific topic – meaning research can be beneficial in policy areas which may seem digressive at first glance. Moreover, cuts to local authority departments over the years mean that there has been a decline in in-house research capacity. As such, there can often be more enthusiasm for external engagement. On this note, Sarah explained that local authority engagement can also influence practice on a grander scale if you can find the “right” person, making a further case for the necessity of networking.

Final thoughts

This webinar provided invaluable information on how to use third sector research to influence policy and practice. Each speaker gave practical advice on designing a far-reaching research project, disseminating outputs to the right people at the right time, and understanding the policy landscape – all contextualised neatly within their own research.

Evidence-based policy making is integral to building an equitable society that functions effectively for everyone. Third sector organisations conducting novel and meaningful research are well-placed to contribute to this and have the tools to enact real policy change. The guidance from this session could be a useful starting point for organisations looking to maximise their social impact and alter the policy landscape for the better.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on the third sector and policy making

Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

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Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

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