Why Are Developers Failing to Embrace Social Value?

Every fortnight, Partisan hosts a breakfast roundtable event for business leaders and professionals connected to the built environment.

Our recent discussion was about social value, its importance in the built environment, and what we should be doing to encourage it in developments.

There is more discussion of social value, and social impact, than ever before when it comes to the development and regeneration of our towns and cities. But how far does this talk extend beyond paying lip service?

In fact, what does social impact in the built environment actually entail?

What Does Social Value Mean?

Social value is enshrined in law. The Social Value Act 2012 puts a responsibility on public sector organisations to consider social value in the service contracts they put out. 

This has enabled these organisations to put social value more firmly on the agenda, encouraging public sector procurement to delve deeper into what should qualify contractors to carry out work.

What it boils down to is maximising public benefit by enabling outcomes that are for the public good.

However, social value is also often misunderstood.

Sometimes there is the assumption that it is only about the social capital of a specific locality – how a specific group of people lives, works and interacts.

This then feeds into the idea that social value has limited impact and worth. But social value has much wider implications.

It is about much broader economic and environmental benefits.

In this, development has the potential to be a real catalyst for change in the wider built environment.

Is Anyone Driving Social Value?

It is tempting to think of social value as being a rather nebulous concept, rather than the hard edges of venture capitalism, for instance.

But social value is not simply a vague public sector concern.

The green credential of buildings, could be a very real factor in providing investment funds for new developments.

The British Council for Offices (BCO) has conducted research measuring the social value of commercial developments and concluded that the property industry could be capturing between £15bn and £20bn a year in lost social benefit.

But to do this, it must embed social value in investment strategies.

Putting Value Above Cost

At present, it feels like it will take a bold type of investor to look beyond the immediate costs of a project and see its potential future legacy in terms of social impact.

Current re-generation developments in Manchester, for example, appear not to be alleviating the region’s housing crisis, but rather exacerbating it.

A report from Karel Williams, Professor of Accounting and Political Economy at the Alliance Manchester Business School suggests that the city will fail to provide adequate housing and transport in the future.

There are expected to be an additional 110,000 jobs in the city by 2040, but without sufficient infrastructure to support them.

While welcoming the benefits that redevelopment originally brought to the city centre, Professor Williams now thinks it is out of control.

Should We Be Demanding Better?

One of the issues to do with social value in the built environment is that its development has been mostly confined to construction.

Here, there has been some emphasis on job creation for a positive social impact.

But job creation is just one value output. There should be room for a lot more, including supporting local communities and, ultimately, the wider environment and economy.

But at the heart of the problem are longstanding issues such as land values, the erosion of perceived profitable margins and private developers stepping in where local councils are too financially constrained.

Are Values Changing?

While social impact may not yet have embedded itself in development culture firmly enough, it is making deeper inroads in the corporate world.

More businesses are recognising the real value that responsible practices brings back to them. And more consumers and customers are demanding this of the businesses and retailers they use.

The signs are there that there is a cultural shift underway.

Ultimately, sustainable developments that are community-focused should become more attractive as investment opportunities.

Developers need to attune themselves to these changes and see them for the opportunities they are.

Our Guests This Time

The guests at Partisan’s breakfast roundtable event included:

Emma Antrobus, ICE
Alison Ball, Arup
Rob Henderson, JDA Architects
David Livesey, re-form Landscape Architects
Steve Martlew, Stephen Martlew Landcape Architects
Nick Moss, SixTwo Architects

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