Hats off to the RICS on social value. But we need to go further.

Hats off to the RICS on social value. But we need to go further.

Social value is a key consideration for the built environment, but it’s still frequently overlooked. Many surveying and valuation practitioners either ignore it completely or adopt a rather narrow interpretation of the Red Book / International Valuation Standards. 

So we were delighted to see the RICS taking social value seriously and building discussion among its members in the current edition of its Construction Journal (February / March 2019). Entitled “Contributing to Society – Social Value: what is it and how do we achieve it?”, it contains several articles from a range of professionals working in and around the built environment. Julie Hirigoyen’s (UK Green Building Council) opening piece provides a useful perspective on her view of sustainable development in the context of initiatives like the 2015 Paris Agreement, and there’s an interesting interview with senior figures at the Construction Leadership Council and the BRE. Which is all great. 

But is it enough? In our opinion, no. It’s not. 

As social value practitioners, with a lot of history working in the construction and development sectors, we thought we’d share our thoughts on the positives, as well as what’s missing.  

Too much ‘environment’, not enough ‘society’

Too many column inches are spent explaining the environmental impacts of construction and the use of buildings. Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge we face as a society, but it’s a topic already covered in detail outside the social value arena. We wanted to see articles examining the links between the environment (e.g. air quality) and social value (e.g. health). We all need to start considering people and their experiences automatically when we think and talk about social value. 

More should be made of place-making

Although the importance of place-making in establishing social value is touched on by various authors, this was significantly underplayed. Our experience is that the approach taken by policy makers, commissioners, designers and investors is fundamental to creating inclusive and sustainable communities. And these sustainable communities are the source of the greatest social value that the built environment can create.  

Aligning the vision and ambition of these different actors, and making them aware of existing tools and their potential benefits, is a huge opportunity. It needs to be realised, and quickly. 

What’s binding it all together?

There are lots of indicators, guidelines and frameworks referenced in the various articles. While they all have their place, it feels like there’s an urgent need for a glue to stick them together so people can easily understand their different merits and applications. We are definitely approaching “Portal Framework Indicator Overload”.  

It’s time for organisations to stop doing their own thing. Quests for competitive advantage, brand enhancement and company profits need to be put aside in favour of greater collaboration and shared understanding. We know of several high-profile public and private sector organisations who are sitting on the fence (or their hands) while trying to work out which tools are best suited to them, and which being used by their competitors. They should be commissioning trials and pilot studies to inform their thinking and decision making. This kind of procrastination is a big lost opportunity, not just for the organisations themselves, but for their customers, communities and the wider industry as a whole. 

Four ways we can all move forward

It’s easy to criticise. Finding solutions is much harder work, but we believe strongly in the need to do that work. Not just doing it but doing it together. So here are four collective solutions we would like to see championed across the industry. 

1. Debunk, demystify, simplify

The language we all use needs to be simpler. Wherever possible, the approaches we use to describe, measure and communicate social value should be standardised. We should use terms that engage not just practitioners but the very people who are affected by development; i.e. residents, local businesses and visitors. One way to do this would be to improve dialogue between the disparate think tanks, panels and forums – including our own Social Value UK Thought Leadership Group – to form a cross-discipline movement. A single movement could engage all the actors in the built environment, from designers who are passionate about place-making to commissioners, landlords, developers, investors, policy makers and public/third sector agencies.  

2. Mandatory Social Value Plans

We agree with Rob Wolfe that Social Value Plans should be a mandatory part of the planning process, but we would like to go even further. The term ‘Protected Characteristics’ should be widened to include people or groups living in poverty to give them a mandated voice in shaping the future of the places they live, work and play. 

3. Plans should have to be proven

We think that measuring and proving the eventual social benefits forecast in the planning phase should be a legal requirement. This can be done by maintaining dialogue with stakeholders for a number of years after the cranes and hard hats have disappeared. We need a better way of creating lasting relationships based on trust and mutuality with the people who are affected by development. The whole consultation process needs a radical overhaul, and we can learn a lot from the third sector in doing this. If we change together – and insist on accountability – we can develop a shared approach to delivering places which support and nurture inclusive growth. 

4. A single source of information

More and more clients, landlords, occupiers and commissioners are asking for information on social and environmental factors so they can use it in their decision-making. We should all be less precious, and work together to develop, collate and share information so that it is as accessible and easy to understand and adopt as possible.  

We know these kind of changes won’t happen overnight, but if all people and disciplines involved in construction and development embrace common goals, we can multiply the impact of societal value in the built environment exponentially. And it’s not an unrealistic ambition. Especially if industry leaders like the RICS are on board and help drive the change. 

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Phil Higham is a Fellow of the RICS, a Director and Founder of RealWorth and a Joint Chair of Social Value UK’s Thought Leadership Group on Maximising Social Value in the Built Environment 

Suggested Further Reading:

UK Green Building Council’s Guide to Social Value (March 2018)  https://bit.ly/2DWsHG0

The Real Value Report Commissioned by Trowers and Hamlin, produced by RealWorth. (March 2018) https://bit.ly/2TYC2pP

Future of London’s Making the Case For Place (November 2017) https://bit.ly/2Sba6xa

RSA Inclusive Growth Commission Report (March 2017) https://bit.ly/2yGpJUz

Details of SVUK’s Thought Leadership Group for the Built Environment https://bit.ly/2NgYSGB

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