Civil society and the social side of levelling up

Levelling up the United Kingdom will require major boosts to physical infrastructure. But any complete attempt to rebalance life outcomes across the country will also have to address a wider range of social issues.

Polling by YouGov for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society shows that good jobs, good health services, and a low level of crime are the top three things that people feel government should prioritise in levelling up their local areas.

Community investment of this kind makes up a strand of the Government’s plan for levelling up. And the government has acknowledged the role that civil society has to play in strengthening communities and restoring people’s pride in the places they live.

But in ensuring that levelling up meets the public’s expectations, it is important not to overlook civil society’s role in delivering on the broader objectives at the programme’s core.

A wide range of evidence demonstrates how civil society drives positive social outcomes in the top three areas of public concern listed above by, among other things:

  • Cultivating the strong social networks and informal support systems that address the causes of many social challenges
  • Delivering public services while gravitating towards overlooked aspects of provision, such as early intervention
  • Engaging and targeting groups that are otherwise marginalised and excluded from these services


Civil society supports good jobs and the positive educational outcomes that help people gain access to them

Civil society is a notable provider of employment opportunities. UK charities alone employ over 900,000 people — around 3% of the workforce. And despite the high proportion of voluntary sector jobs located in London and the south-east of England, some civil society groups have been found to provide jobs specifically in the places where they are most needed. Community organisations, for example, are based disproportionately in neighbourhoods battling high levels of unemployment and deprivation. The jobs that they provide can also be fairer and more sustainable than those provided by the other sectors. Across the UK, Europe, and the Americas, cooperatives have more stable employment than businesses, share profits more equitably between workers, and are better at preserving jobs and avoiding pay cuts during downturns.

In turn, civil society also plays a vital advocacy role in campaigning for fairer employment practices everywhere. For example, the Living Wage Foundation campaigns for workers to be paid a wage based on the cost of living, rather than the government’s legal minimum. It conducts research, raises awareness, and supports employers and service providers in meeting this wage standard. As of 2020, almost 7,000 UK employers were voluntarily doing so, and over 250,000 employees had received a pay rise as a result of its introduction.

But civil society does more than just ensure that there are good jobs in the right places. It also improves access to these jobs by supporting educational opportunities for those most often excluded from them and providing employment skills training for those furthest from the labour market. According to government estimates, third sector organisations (mostly charities and companies limited by guarantee) accounted for 12% of all lead providers on the Skills Funding Agency’s Register of Training Organisations in 2011/12. This is equivalent to the proportion of training provided by local authorities, and as much as half of the amount provided by general further education colleges. These organisations further played an extensive role in the outreach and learner support services that are vital to engaging with hard to reach learners, and delivered training to a higher proportion of female learners, people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, people from BAME backgrounds, and people aged 65 or older.

Charities like The Sutton Trust run programmes for young people from less advantaged backgrounds to broaden their educational opportunities and improve social mobility. When compared to students with similar grades and backgrounds, Sutton Trust students are 50% more likely to apply to a leading university and four times more likely to receive an offer.

Likewise, the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) helps incarcerated people into work by supporting their enrolment in distance learning courses before their release from prison. On average, their courses increase a person’s chance of finding work by 26%.


Civil society also contributes both directly and indirectly to our health and wellbeing

Civil society is responsible for a significant chunk of our country’s direct health and social care provision. The estimated 1.5million people who access NHS-commissioned mental health support from the voluntary and community sector each year make it the largest forum of provision for such services. Meanwhile hospices, the vast majority of which are charities, support more than 200,000 people with terminal and life-limiting conditions each year.

It is civil society organisations that typically provide opportunities for social prescribing, from arts activities and group learning to healthy eating advice and sports. Social prescribing allows GPs and nurses to refer people to local, non-clinical services that address the range of social and environmental factors that support health and wellbeing outcomes. And as with civil society’s contributions to employment and educational outcomes, the holistic, personalised nature of social prescribing means that it is often people with complex needs who benefit most.

Studies have even shown that third sector providers of social care are rated more highly than their for-profit counterparts in terms of quality of care. And civil society is again particularly skilled at delivering this care to those most at risk of exclusion. A study of 25 countries (including the UK) finds that a strong civil society may be particularly beneficial to the health outcomes of vulnerable populations, such as those on low income and the unemployed.

Civil society also contributes a huge amount of resource to the health and social care sectors, with medical research charities investing £1.9billion into UK research in 2019, and funding half (51%) of all publicly funded medical research nationally. The value of UK hospices’ 125,000 volunteers alone is estimated to be more than £200m each year. But with an estimated 1.7m people volunteering for health or care services across Britain, the value they bring to the sector is undoubtably much higher.

Volunteering is good for volunteers, too. It makes us happier, being associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing. Indeed, a recent study of the NHS Volunteer Responders programme finds that even small acts of volunteering, like delivering groceries, boosted volunteers’ wellbeing for up to three months. There is even evidence that giving to others can accrue physical health benefits by reducing stress and strengthening the immune system. A 2014 study finds that the health index of charitable donors is larger than that of non-donors, and giving to others is also negatively associated with the probability of suffering from high blood pressure, lung disease, and arthritis.

Finally, some other vital contributions that civil society makes to our health and wellbeing are indirect by nature and therefore easily overlooked. These include the proven contributions to wellbeing made by a range of factors, from close personal connections and social trust to the employment and education outcomes described above.

Another example is the well-documented importance of social capital — from strong interpersonal relationships to high levels of community trust — in supporting and maintaining our physical and mental health. After we have an operation, it is our family and friends who spend the most time caring for us. It is the communities we live in that provide the context and norms that will help shape our levels of wellbeing.

One study finds a 50% increased likelihood of survival for people with stronger social relationships, compared to those with weaker ones. In fact, social isolation has been shown to be as powerful a predictor of mortality as traditional clinical risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure.

Civil society also helps to prevent health issues arising in the first place. High levels of social capital can help to reduce the onset of common mental illness and poor self-rated health, and are linked to reduced participation in potentially harmful practices such as smoking.

Cornwall-based charity WILD Young Parents’ Project works with young parents expecting a child, providing early years support and helping to establish “the building blocks of a healthy, happy future”. Research shows that 97% of total cuts in spending on disadvantage have fallen on the fifth most deprived English councils. In this context, early intervention initiatives such as WILD are vital in preventing poor health outcomes for the children who will receive the least support in managing them. In the process, such initiatives further reduce strain on public sector health provision.


Finally, civil society helps to reduce crime rates while and by supporting people caught up in the criminal justice system

Civil society helps to tackle crime in our neighbourhoods. Again, one of civil society’s core strengths here lies in its ability to serve communities particularly at risk of falling foul of the law. By delivering services for people with mental health needs and substance misuse problems, as well as people facing homelessness and poverty, civil society organisations provide targeted support to the disadvantaged groups that most often come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Civil society and government representatives alike credit the voluntary sector with having a distinct ability to address the diverse needs of offenders. This is borne out in data gathered from interviews with users of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Pathway Programme, which provides support for young adults who are either offenders or at risk of offending at various stages of their engagement with the criminal justice system. Service users’ experiences with T2A were generally more positive than their experiences with other agencies, as they described how the services were delivered as more important than solely what was delivered.

Another core function of civil society, closely related to the above, is its distinctive role in reducing reoffending. From practical and emotional support for offenders and their families, to delivering skills training and running restorative justice programmes, civil society provides a range of interventions where the public sector fails to deliver.

On average, such interventions help to reduce one-year reoffending rates by an average of 7%, with some having a much greater impact. For instance, Safe Ground’s Fathers Inside project, a group-work programme for men in prison, uses drama, fiction, group discussion, games, and written portfolio work to enable students to develop a better understanding of their roles as fathers. The programme is associated with a reduction in one-year reoffending from 40% to 24%.

As with issues such as early intervention in healthcare, such reductions in recidivism also have further spillover benefits for society more broadly. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics shows that The Clink delivers at least a four-fold return on investments by reducing reoffending and its associated social costs. PBE calculates that for every £1 invested, The Clink’s integrated training and support programme has the potential to deliver a return of £4.80 to society.

In fact, the very presence of civil society has been associated with reductions in crime within entire communities. For instance, in the United States, academics estimate that every 10 additional local non-profit organisations focusing on reducing crime and building stronger communities in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate.

Finally, civil society organisations play an important advocacy role for people in the criminal justice system, helping to ensure they know their rights and campaigning to improve outcomes for them. Social justice charity Nacro run a wide variety of campaigns in support of people in contact with the criminal justice system. For instance, their campaign to end Friday releases reflects a deep understanding of the problems posed to people being released from prison at the end of week, and subsequently being unable to access vital support services. Nacro polling shows that 94% of resettlement workers and 70% of the public support Nacro’s proposal to end Friday releases. Yet more than one-third of prison releases continue to take place on Fridays.

Examples such as these are just a sample of civil society’s vital contributions to the positive social outcomes that communities expect from levelling up. Various other case studies could be used to illustrate how civil society supports employment, education, and health outcomes, while working to reduce crime. And civil society’s impact could also be examined in relation to a range of different topics, from the provision of housing and community spaces to the availability of sports and culture facilities.

What is already clear is that any rebalancing of outcomes across the country must take full account of the role that civil society has to play, or else risk remaining incomplete.