British skyline

A new social recovery

Rethinking policy

What is a social recovery?

If Britain is to recover from the impacts of Covid-19, economic measures on their own will not be enough. Attempting to ‘level up’ through physical and economic infrastructure, whilst neglecting social infrastructure and the role of civil society in providing it, risks making inequality even worse.

We need a new approach to policy, putting social recovery at the heart of our efforts to rebuild our country. This means tackling entrenched social needs like homelessness, mental and physical health inequalities, and racial injustice. This new policy approach should put the voluntary and community sectors and funders at the heart of rebuilding our local economies and communities, helping them to target their activity and interventions more effectively.

To build a new social recovery, charities and community groups will need to form new alliances outside of the sector, working with businesses and local leaders. We need to collectively demonstrate to decision-makers and influencers, such as MPs, what our sector can do to help Britain’s recovery, and why shutting out the social sector will hold our country back.

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Why we should seek a social recovery

The disparity in how different groups experienced the pandemic has been a stark illustration of the impacts of entrenched inequality. People living in the poorest places had Covid-19 death rates over three times higher than those living in the richest areas. Rates of Covid-19 deaths in all ethnic minority groups were higher than for White/White British groups, with rates of deaths in the Asian/Asian British ethnic groups over double that of White/White British groups.

Creating jobs and economic growth through building hard infrastructure like roads and buildings can help to address some of these inequalities. But it won’t be enough on its own. We will need to fund programmes and policy interventions that directly address social needs, such as the racial injustices, homelessness, addiction, and poor mental health that will undermine economic recovery.

Yet our analysis, Should we ‘level up’ social needs?, carried out as part of our Rethink Rebuild work, showed that as much as 93% of the government’s £8.77bn levelling up funds could be spent on hard infrastructure. Very little has been allocated to addressing social needs, even though charities and community groups are ideally placed to address them. Many have missions dedicated to social needs, from homelessness to mental health.

The extraordinary response of the voluntary sector to the pandemic demonstrated that charities can be efficient and effective providers of social services. Yet despite having delivered in the crisis, they are being overlooked in the recovery, with charities not prioritised for some of government’s major economic recovery funds.

Levelling Up is the government’s flagship attempt to address inequality. To fail to make the most of civil society is to miss a golden opportunity.

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Where there’s an opportunity for change

Levelling Up, which focuses on addressing inequalities, is the government’s flagship social policy agenda. The policy agenda is broad. There is scope for the third sector to influence how it is implemented and secure their role in delivering it. To do so, we need to demonstrate how and why levelling up – reducing inequality – can’t be done without civil society. But this window of opportunity is short, so it is critical that the sector moves fast.

What are the challenges to a social recovery?

One of the greatest challenges to a social recovery is the lack of strong relationships between charities and government. Although a few charities have strong and trusted relationships with national and local decision-makers, for many this isn’t the case. As part of this new approach, the social sector will need to build new relationships, demonstrating how it can be part of a positive social recovery.

How a social recovery could work

In NPC’s recent ‘Should We ‘Level Up Social Needs?’ report, we set out recommendations for how government policy should be changed to enable charities to be part of a new social recovery. These include:

Freeing up local councils and charities to target funding to communities and people where greatest social recovery is required: The criteria for national levelling up funds are largely restricted to hard infrastructure projects with little autonomy for local areas to flex funding to meet local needs. The funds should therefore be expanded to include social as well as economic recovery, and flexibility should be built in to give local partners the agency to target funds on the social needs that are the greatest drags on recovery in their areas.

Building charities and local partners into local social recovery plans: Charities are currently peripheral to the government’s funds for local recovery. Local levelling up route maps should be produced by local authorities receiving over £30m of funding which detail what is required for social recovery in that area, and how local authorities will empower the voluntary and community sector, alongside businesses, to help deliver services that will make both economic and social recovery a reality.

Helping charities and funders to align and target their funding in different areas: National and local government should work with local charities and funders to share data to understand what different groups of people in different areas need for social recovery, where there is already provision and where more is needed. This will help national charities to understand where more activity may be needed, and local funders to understand where their funding could best be targeted and leveraged.

Underpinning all of the above will be the need for charities to develop better relationships with government where intelligence is shared on local needs, and where charities have an influential voice with government.

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What we’ll do next

Most organisations interested in social and economic policy, whether it be think tanks, representative bodies or local groups, are working to influence the government’s post-Covid recovery plans. Some of these, if not many, will have recommendations for policy which align with the ones we have put forward to enable the social sector to be part of the country’s recovery.

We want these ideas to be listened to. We want to build new alliances across these groups and different sectors and coordinate our advocacy to government. We’ll be tracking the government’s progress and sharing intelligence on how and where funding is being allocated to ensure that the recovery is more than just an economic one.

Protestors at a rally

Rethinking strategy

Systems strategy
people writing on board

Rethinking collaboration

Equitable collaboration
Looking at data on a screen

Rethinking data

Shared intelligence

How this idea was developed

Our social recovery idea is based on conversations, workshops and research with numerous charities and funders who have taken part in our Rethink Rebuild initiative. Here’s what we’ve learnt from this work.


Changes, challenges, and opportunities in the pre- and post-Covid policy landscape

The pandemic has both revealed and accentuated existing challenges in the relationship between charities and national and local government, as well as generating fresh challenges and opportunities.

Through the evidence given by charities and funders in our Rethink Rebuild workshops and wider research, we identified the following:

Policy is failing to address entrenched social inequalities: Covid mortality rates fell starkly along demographic and racial lines, highlighting entrenched social inequalities. Tracey Bignall from the Race Equality Foundation wrote on our Labs site about addressing these racial inequalities highlighted by Covid, and attendees at our workshops expressed concern that policies to stimulate the country’s recovery, particularly the Levelling Up agenda, would not address these underlying social disparities.

There are fewer charities in more deprived parts of the country where Covid-19 had greatest impacts: NPC’s 2020 report, Where are England’s charities? found that there are fewer charities in more deprived parts of the country. Yet people living in these areas were three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than people who lived in the richest parts of the country. We can infer from this that in the places where people were most affected by Covid-19, there was the least charity support available to them. Writing on NPC Labs, Soo Nevison from Community Action Bradford and District highlighted the need for better charity capacity and local coordination infrastructure.

Trusted relationships with local authorities helped charities respond more quickly: Charities and funders at our Rethink Rebuild workshops reported that in places where they already had a trusted relationship with the local authority, they were quickly given the funding and flexibility they needed to target support to priority areas. In contrast, attendees at our workshop also said that in areas where there weren’t existing relationships, local authorities were slow to respond and found it hard to coordinate their support with local charities. Although our Coordination in Place research demonstrated that the pandemic spurred some local authorities and charities to work together more effectively.

There was limited government support or recognition of civil society: The £750m the charity sector received from the government was considered small compared to what was needed. The Public Accounts Committee found that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had limited evidence to base this figure on compared to other support packages, and many questioned whether this support was sufficient. Charities reported at both our workshop and through our State of the Sector research that they felt their contribution to the pandemic response was not being fully recognised.

There were new collaborations between government, funders and businesses: Our workshop attendees highlighted how new partnerships were formed in response to the pandemic across sectors. For example, as Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde at CAF wrote in this NPC Labs post, Government, CAF and businesses matched each others funding and created the CAF Resilience Fund to support charities to respond to the pandemic. We should build on these as we emerge from the crisis.


As national and local government switches its focus to rebuilding, we need the recovery to address entrenched social needs and to include charities and the voluntary sector as part of this national effort. This is what we have pursued through our Rethink policy work.

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Get in touch

Leah Davis – Head of Policy and External Affairs

Leah Davis Policy Expert

Back to Rethink, Rebuild: Five ideas for our post-pandemic future


We are grateful to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation for supporting this work.