How is social value delivered in the built environment, and what is the impact?

Three men in hard hats using a spirit level to check a tiber frame on a building site in the Olympic park in London
Creating social value by upskilling communities Photo: London Legacy Development Corporation

How is social value delivered in the built environment, and is it having a meaningful impact? We asked  a group of social value experts and here’s what they said.

Five clear themes emerged at the launch of our new research programme, Unlocking Social Value, including the need to consider value beyond physical assets and lived experience when evaluating impact. These are the key points from the discussion on delivering social value in the built environment, which will shape the programme during 2023/24.

Meet our expert panel

Nicola Bacon, Director, Social Life
Marcus Bate, Partnerships and Communities Director, Mount Anvil
Michael Blake, Head of Social Investment, RB Kensington & Chelsea
Layla Conway, Head of Education, Careers and Youth Engagement, London Legacy Development Corporation
Louise Page-Jennings, Director of Communications and Social Impact, Yoo Capital
Paul Quinn, Director of Regeneration, Clarion Housing Group
Polly Robbins, Coworking space and events manager, Outlandish

Redefining social value for accessibility and authenticity

Social value is now an integral part of urban development. And there’s a strong desire from the public, private and third sectors to deliver social value in the built environment – and to get it right.

“Architects and planners need to understand lived experience. Residents need to understand the pragmatic decisions about building new places,” says  Nicola Bacon.

However, Nicola argued that the term is too narrowly defined and fails to account for public understanding of well-being and lived experience. Louise Page-Jennings agreed that social value must come from a genuine desire to deliver for local communities.

Bridging the communication gap requires accessible language that is understood by community members to explain social value.

Delivering social value should be a process that captures outcomes

Delivering social value is not a one-time activity, but a continuous process that involves many stakeholders. New actors and industries bring fresh perspectives to social value delivery.

“Community engagement and social value are completely intertwined. You can’t build in social value until you know what the community wants and needs.”

Louise Page-Jennings, Yoo Capital

Communities and residents are experts too, and should be engaged throughout a project’s lifespan. However, different views of community assets and social networks can challenge social value delivery.

“It’s very easy to listen to the people who reinforce your views. It’s good to dig deeper,” remarked Louise.

Place-based projects can be adaptable. That means learning as you go and changing the way you engage within and across different communities.

To ensure long-term impact, local communities must shape the places they want to see in the future. The sector must make sure they benefit from emerging careers and opportunities.

Achieving a balance between community and sector demands is crucial for delivering meaningful social value.

Embedding social value through partnerships and accountability

Private-sector partners see delivering social value in the built environment as providing a competitive edge for winning bids, as well as being the right thing to do. Investors increasingly support activities linked to social value and environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria.

“Social value isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s becoming a core element in our day-to-day services, embedded in our financial strategy.”

Paul Quinn, Clarion Housing Group

For Paul Quinn, this creates accountability to deliver social value KPIs that are core to the group’s financial modelling. Marcus Bate believes this “competitive edge” wins work and develops lasting partnerships with supportive boroughs.

Public sector organisations need to set expectation in partnerships with the private sector. They need to hold private companies accountable, embed innovation and think creatively about the long-term impact of social value.

“Constituents need and prefer us taking that role, rather than accepting the minimum considerations,” said Michael.

Measurement – beyond the numbers

Polly Robbins outlined some of the drawbacks of existing frameworks for measuring social value. Firstly, they often boil people down to numbers and figures, becoming a box-ticking exercise. To truly capture the impact of social value interventions, case studies and real, human stories need to be included too.

Man with dreadlocks and a blue hoodie talks into a microphone while four other members of a conference panel listen
Community workspace and training in Islington Picture: Outlandish

Secondly, smaller organisations are often unable to complete existing social value frameworks due to the significant overhead costs. This undermines their ability to effectively measure and communicate the social value work they have lead. Michael believes it is the council’s responsibility to choose procurement processes that facilitate access for small organisations.

“At times, reporting requirements are one-size fits all. The challenge is helping people understand how they map onto a real, human situation.”

Polly Robbins, Outlandish

Outlandish partnered with LB Islington to operate an affordable workspace and deliver a masterclass programme to address Islington’s priority skills gap. They report social value activities through the Social Value Portal. The project has been a success and Outlandish are now working with the council to make their supply chain more local, ethical and cooperative.

Reimagining social value beyond physical assets

Social value metrics currently focus on physical changes and capital flows. But they often fail to capture the intangible aspects of placemaking and emotional connections to spaces and communities.

Polly and Nicola both called for co-produced measurement frameworks, while Marcus and Michael championed interdisciplinary collaboration to incorporate innovative approaches from other sectors.

Marcus noted that the many ways of defining social value are a sign of the breadth and depth of inquiry and number of experts working in this sector. He emphasised the need to work with all stakeholders and bring in new expertise to achieve creative social value outcomes.

Layla shared London Legacy Development Corporation’s approach of using interim spaces to test ideas that respond to community needs and create a sense of shared ownership.

“This use of temporary sites and interactive learning allowed us to draw people in and bring the communities on that journey with us,” she added.

Social value in the next ten years

Ten years after public bodies were first required to consider social value, the sector is still finding its footing.

We heard about many innovative examples from across London at the launch of Unlocking Social Value.. But there’s also room for experimentation to capture the true value of collaboration, community engagement and participation beyond the physical assets created by development.

Find out more about our Unlocking Social Value programme here
Watch the full launch event here
Register for updates on our social value conference on 4 July here.

Thanks to our programme sponsors

Bouygues UK, Countryside Partnerships, Linkcity, Montagu Evans, Mount Anvil,
Pollard Thomas Edwards, Trowers & Hamlins, YooCapital