Social Value, Really

By Chris Whitehead, Group Head of Sustainability and Innovation at Balfour Beatty,

The Social Value Act, passed in 2012, placed an obligation on commissioning public authorities in England and Wales to consider how the services they procure might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area.

That all sounds positive, but what does it actually mean?

A statement as broad and all-encompassing as this is bound to lead to confusion amongst those responsible for implementing it. As a contractor we have a broad range of experiences of the Act, and on numerous occasions we have seen it reduced by Authorities to the simple question, ‘how many local apprenticeships will you create on this project?’ Don’t get me wrong, it is a legitimate question and something we really pride ourselves on, but does this really cover the broad spectrum of social value?

This lack of understanding around what real Social Value truly means is clearly shared by many, and in the Roundtable Report ‘Doing Good is Good Business’ published in July 2014, the cross party recommendations make reference to the statistic that 85% of respondents to a Business in the Community (BitC) survey would like additional guidance from commissioners and/or Government.

(As an aside, I personally find the title of the report itself misleading. It suggests that it is all about suppliers ‘doing good’ on government projects, when it should be about a collaborative effort between public and private sector to improve neighbourhoods).

So, how do we achieve real social value in projects?

The best examples of the Act in practice are when it has caused an Authority to ask ‘How shall we live?’ Real social value lies in considering what contribution a public procurement can make to social cohesion, inclusion, conviviality, equity, security and resilience in the long run.

Take social infrastructure. Real social value is released when an authority has worked collaboratively with its contractor to engage with the community and co-create a scheme; where the brief for a residential scheme has taken into account the need for its proper integration with schools, healthcare, utilities and transport.

The Olympic legacy has tried hard in this respect. Cambridge University’s urban extension North West Cambridge is thinking this way and outside of the UK, Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm and Malmo Western Harbour reflect these principles. Royal Seaport in Stockholm is being moved forward with the same approach.

In the case of economic infrastructure, the best examples once again involve collaborative working. On the Beauly-Denny overhead transmission line in Scotland, we were involved right from the concept design stage and that meant we were able to put in place a comprehensive plan of engagement with the local community and skills enhancement. We invested £473,000 in training the local community who were then employed in building and delivering the scheme over a period of 5 years, and ecological protection works were put in place a year in advance of the works proper.

There is a tendency to apply a narrow definition of social value – jobs and apprenticeships – but we should really be thinking about it in the broadest possible sense. What impact will this development have on the quality of life of all the stakeholders associated with the scheme, and particularly on those who will live in or adjacent to it? One of the keys to that is the collaborative involvement of the community and the contractor right from inception.

Let’s broaden our horizons and ambition for the Social Value Act.

As Group Head of Sustainability and Innovation at Balfour Beatty, Chris leads the sustainability function of a multinational business that encompasses all aspects of the asset lifecycle from inception and design through to financing, construction and operations.

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