Institute for Community Studies research paints uneasy picture of social cohesion

Date: 30 June 2020


  • Institute for Community Studies paints an uneasy picture of social cohesion in the UK, with important lessons for post-Covid-recovery plans 

  • ‘Top down’ approaches to community engagement, interventions and policymaking risk exacerbating deep social inequalities — say authors of new report 

  • Reverberating impacts of austerity and loss of public services likely to undermine ambitions to build back better

  • Radical new methodology developed to put 3,000 first-person voices and lived-experiences at the heart of research and policymaking agendas

30 June 2020: Safety and concerns about responsibility for care top the list of what matters to UK communities, putting the future of the social contract into question — reveals a radical new research agenda published today by the Institute for Community Studies (ICS). Purposefully co-created with communities and focused on the lived-experiences of more than 3,000 people, Safety in Numbers? A research agenda with communities, for communities challenges traditional ‘top down’ approaches to community interventions and calls on researchers, funders and policymakers to adopt this new methodology or risk exacerbating social inequalities.

Seven priority issues* were identified and safety was the single biggest issue that mattered to UK communities; covering the full spectrum of fears that included rising inequality and the knock on effect on crime and unrest; the lack of community policing and gaps in local services; and awareness of tensions exposed between communities due to four years of exacerbated political and social differences.

Carried out pre-pandemic, the research paints an uneasy picture of social cohesion, with the majority of people reporting that local action and taking responsibility for others is very distant from their understanding of what the social contract should be. Almost a quarter (23%) of the questions raised in the agenda process focused on public services, with people asking why some cuts to some services have been so deep and whether those in power truly understand the impacts of those decisions on peoples lives at local level.

Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies said: “Given the well-evidenced impact of recession on mental health, education and housing, it would be a mistake to ignore the warning sign that UK communities already feel deeply insecure. The post-pandemic recovery period is a unique opportunity to disrupt the status quo in how we listen to communities and chart a new course in how we research and make policy, putting communities at the heart of the process and giving legitimacy to their stories as evidence of what’s working – and, crucially, what is not. We’re delighted to launch this new agenda today and show others how it can be done.”

Also shaped by the perspectives of two advisory boards, one from communities and the other made up of academics, business, civil society and established institutions, the new methodology used by the ICS has been designed to close the gap between the commissioners and users of research about communities, and the people and places on which it focuses.

Commenting on the findings, Tom McNeil, Strategic Adviser to the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner and member, ICS Community Advisory Board said: “This report highlights some difficult home truths – rising fear and a perception that there is more for the police to do. Severe austerity over the last decade has made policing significantly harder; despite that big steps have been taken by us to give our communities an authentic stake in our policies. Nonetheless, it’s clear we need to build trust in our communities and hold many more conversations about the challenges we and many of our partners in social services, health and education face in tackling and preventing crime.”

The ICS will now:

  1. Form partnerships with organisations that are keen to listen to the voice of ‘what matters’ to communities in agenda and committed to identifying the best evidence for what will support communities through recovery, restart and renewal post-Covid-19.
  2. Work through national networks including the Community Advisory Board to support communities to take action on the findings of the research.

The research agenda — Safety in Numbers? A research agenda with communities, for communities – is available to read and download now.



*The top priorities for communities:

  1. Safety: Across all questions, safety was the biggest single issue. Worries about social insecurity; drug dealing and abuse, gang related and knife crime among young people, and frustrations with community policing come up repeatedly, but so too do lower-level annoyances around anti-social behaviour, graffiti and littering. Time and time again, however, people also connect their feelings of insecurity to a sense of alienation from others; simply not recognising neighbours on the street or feeling that where their lives are at risk – authorities and those in power will not act quickly and responsively to protect them.
  2. Public services: Almost a quarter of the questions asked under this theme related to the impact of cuts to public services, with people asking why some cuts to some services have been so deep, whether those in power truly understand the impacts of those decisions, and when investment might start to flow again. Worries about the NHS and education systems in particular are accompanied by frustrations about daily concerns such as waste and recycling services, or sports and leisure.
  3. Local economy: The decline of the high street and vacant shops, offices and commercial units are the visible signs that stoke anxiety about the decline of a local community and raised many questions about if and how it can be reversed. People also had questions about the future – what impact will new technology have on jobs and how can more investment be attracted into the area. In the face of an unprecedented recession, it is likely these concerns to have grown exponentially since the end of 2019.
  4. Social cohesion: Questions focus on how problems such as discrimination and anti-social behaviour can be tackled, and how population changes, arising from regeneration, development and immigration, can be managed in a way that is for the benefit of all. Underpinning this theme is the idea that people generally want to be part of a community where they get on with each other, and respect each other and the place they live.
  5. Community building: The unprompted expression of questions about how community can be strengthened and (re)built stemmed from concerns about an inconsistent sense of community and calls for ‘improved community life’. Even pre-Covid-19 there was an evident yearning for a sense of community which is often dismissed as nostalgia; yet this is now being powerfully reimagined through the crisis felt in every community across the UK.
  6. Roads, transport and infrastructure: Questions about the state of the roads reverberated from every part of the county. More substantively, however, it speaks to a need for looking at existing, local infrastructure, rather than a desire for major new national infrastructure or aviation expansion. Questions arose about connectivity within and between places, but with a clear demand to design this in response to the expressed needs of people who live there.
  7. Planning and the green belt: The need to balance demand for new housing, the provision of affordable housing, and protection of green space has long been a contentious issue in many communities across the UK. The strength of response through this theme reflects the many questions people have about how these needs are prioritised and the decision-making processes behind them.


Please contact Kasia Murphy, Communications Manager: or by telephone on +44 777 473 6497

Spokespeople for interviews or written comment:

  • Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies — lead for the ICS methodology and an academic in citizenship and communities.

  • Helen Goulden, CEO of The Young Foundation — communities expert and former Executive Director of Nesta, the innovation foundation.

  • Tom McNeil, Strategic Adviser to the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner and member, ICS Community Advisory Board.

About the Institute for Community Studies: The Institute for Community Studies is a new kind of research institute, with people and communities at its heart. We believe that involvement of communities leads to better decision making on the issues that most affect them. We engage with communities and experts across the UK to identify and prioritise the top questions that research and policy need to answer based on what matters, directing research towards the most urgent and salient questions and amplifying community perspectives. We prove and improve our practice by understanding what’s working, and through systematic engagement with communities, the sector and experts, share where there are weaknesses and gaps in our understanding. Through a unique combination of methods, we are giving increasing weight to the stories, experience and evidence created in communities supported through our growing national network of community researchers. We provoke direct engagement with policy makers, business and those holding the power to change the experience of communities today through working with those who care about taking action. The ICS is part of The Young Foundation.

About The Young Foundation: The Young Foundation is a charity based in London, focussed on developing better connected and stronger communities across the UK. We are a UKRI accredited research institute. We work nationally, regionally and locally in alliance with our many partners and funders. Since 1954, we have developed and created over 80 organisations to target unmet social needs, including: Which?, The Open University, Language Line, Social Innovation Exchange, School for Social Entrepreneurs, Uprising and Action for Happiness.