Embedding social value in project planning is more than a nice-to-have

By Kelly Watson | October 7, 2020

Put simply, embedding social value in the built environment means finding ways to add value across the full project process from early commissioning and investment decisions, through to design, planning, and construction, and into long-term operation, decommissioning processes, and post-closure planning.

The emergence of social value planning–lessons from the UK experience

The last six months have been characterized by immense challenge, uncertainty, and change at a global level. The world is shifting, and the major shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the ideas of the past are not fit for the future. This is being recognized at all levels, including international, with calls for a joined-up green recovery across nations. In the UK, a recent survey commissioned by the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, found that 85% of participants wanted to see at least some of the personal or social changes they experienced during lockdown to continue, with over half citing cleaner air, more than a quarter noticing more wildlife, and over a third feeling a stronger sense of local community.

The rapid uptake of “build back better” has continued to open up opportunities to think about, plan for, and act to promote a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable frame of reference. Back in April 2020, the Center for Local Economic Strategies in the UK published a practical tool for local authority and municipal politicians, officers, and economic development professionals to respond to the local impact of the pandemic, to complement their paper “Owning the Future: After COVID-19, a New Era of Community Wealth Building.” Amsterdam proved to be an early mover, announcing a new recovery strategy focused on circular economy principles and drawing on Kate Raworth’s donut economics. According to the city’s mayor, the pandemic has stimulated changes in people’s priorities towards health and community across Amsterdam, instead of just focusing on economic growth.

In the UK, a growing movement focused on social value has considerable resonance in these current times: this agenda has gone from strength to strength over the last eight years. Founded in legislation in 2012 through the Public Services (Social Value) Act, it requires local authorities to make decisions based on long-term value rather than upfront cost savings. Defined as “economic, social, and environmental well-being” in the original Act, it has close links with concepts like social sustainability, social capital, and shared value as well as speaking directly to many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Interest in social value and its relevance to infrastructure and the built environment has been building for several years. Put simply, embedding social value in the built environment means finding ways to add value across the full project process from early commissioning and investment decisions, through design, planning, and construction, into long-term operation, decommissioning processes, and post-closure planning. A series of professional institutes have published related resources recently (including the RIBA, ICE, and RICS) and this past summer, the UK Green Building Council launched a social value task group, which Hatch is represented on, with the objective to build consensus and enhance clarity over what has proved to be a somewhat elusive concept.

Uptakes in the public and private sectors

The public sector in the UK has embraced this agenda at local, regional, and national levels, with social value now firmly embedded across local authority procurement processes, up to 30% of tender quality marks in some areas of the UK. In 2019, the national government consulted on a similar approach to the award of central government contracts, with suggestions that a 10% social value weighting could be applied to the £49bn of public spend each year. It was over two years ago that updates to the UK government's guidance on project appraisal and evaluation techniques included direct reference to social value and methods drawing on well-being economics were identified as a robust way to capture a wider set of impacts.

The private sector is also acting on social value drivers. Initial confusion about how to define social value and how to capture and measure it in a consistent way is increasingly giving way to new ideas and ways of working. Thames Tideway, London’s £4bn super sewer plan, has embedded concepts of social value and legacy across the programme, with regular reporting on progress against defined targets. The widespread uptake of innovative methods and tools to capture, assess, and report on social outcomes is producing an invaluable evidence base, yet creates its own challenges in terms of consistency and comparability.

More than a “nice-to-have”

There's an important need to push beyond measuring social value as the end goal, towards more reflective exercises that seek to measure, manage, and therefore optimize the value that can be delivered through projects, structures, and other investments. Ensuring there is space to learn and improve is key. Embedding social value within established processes and systems helps to make it a core aspect of ongoing decision-making, rather than being treated as a bolt on.

Social value is becoming ever more important in these uncertain times, and the concept and related measurement approaches have started to translate beyond the UK and into Australia, for example. Organizations are interested in a better understanding of how social value relates to their projects and stakeholders. They want to know how to create new insights so that positive impacts are maximized for the future. Having the capability to generate tangible, social evidence that informs decision-making from a local level up means that we can track, assess, and understand what's working across a much wider set of priorities. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog where I’ll be expanding more on why this is important.