Background Social factors associated with poor childbirth outcomes and experiences of maternity care include minority ethnicity, poverty, young motherhood, homelessness, difficulty speaking or understanding English, migrant or refugee status, domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse. It is not known what specific aspects of maternity care work to improve the maternal and neonatal outcomes for these under-served, complex populations. Methods This study aimed to compare maternal and neonatal clinical birth outcomes for women with social risk factors accessing different models of maternity care. Quantitative data on pregnancy and birth outcome measures for 1000 women accessing standard care, group practice and specialist models of care at two large, inner-city maternity services were prospectively collected and analysed using multinominal regression. The level of continuity of care and place of antenatal care were used as independent variables to explore these potentially influential aspects of care. Outcomes adjusted for women's social and medical risk factors and the service attended. Results Women who received standard maternity care were significantly less likely to use water for pain relief in labour (RR 0.11, CI 0.02-0.62) and have skin to skin contact with their baby shortly after birth (RR 0.34, CI 0.14-0.80) compared to the specialist model of care. Antenatal care based in the hospital setting was associated with a significant increase in preterm birth (RR 2.38, CI 1.32-4.27) and low birth weight (RR 2.31, CI 1.24-4.32), and a decrease in induction of labour (RR 0.65, CI 0.45-0.95) compared to community-based antenatal care, this was despite women's medical risk factors. A subgroup analysis found that preterm birth was increased further for women with the highest level of social risk accessing hospital-based antenatal care (RR 3.11, CI1.49-6.50), demonstrating the protective nature of community-based antenatal care. Conclusions This research highlights how community-based antenatal care, with a focus on continuity of carer reduced health inequalities and improved maternal and neonatal clinical outcomes for women with social risk factors. The findings support the current policy drive to increase continuity of midwife-led care, whilst adding that community-based care may further improve outcomes for women at increased risk of health inequalities. The relationship between community-based models of care and neonatal outcomes require further testing in future research. The identification of specific mechanisms such as help-seeking and reduced anxiety, to explain these findings are explored in a wider evaluation.