Social Value and the Construction Industry 

Creating social value when delivering a construction project can lead to new jobs, training and education opportunities. But essential to successfully harnessing a scheme’s social value is establishing its aims and goals from the beginning of a project’s development.

What is social value in construction? 

The construction industry doesn’t work in a vacuum. Those seeking to design, finance, plan and build a project—whether it’s a housing development, office scheme, school or infrastructure asset—increasingly consider the impact it will have on both its users and the wider community. 

Designers, architects and developers are more mindful than ever of the need to create positive conditions for those who will live, work in or be close to a new building, along with how local people can benefit not only from the finished product, but throughout its delivery. 

The notion of creating “social value” in construction has been around for years, with foresighted architects and construction companies appreciating that for a project to work effectively, engagement with local people is crucial. 

Recently, the concept has been enshrined in law. The UK’s Public Services (Social Value) Act, which came into force at the end of January 2013, “requires people who commission public services to think about how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits,” according to the government

“Before they start the procurement process, commissioners should think about whether the services they are going to buy, or the way they are going to buy them, could secure these benefits for their area or stakeholders,” it adds. 

What are the benefits of delivering social value? 

The potential benefits of implementing social value when building a project are wide-ranging. 

According to Social Value in Salford (SVS), part of Salford’s local authority, in the right circumstances social value can release millions of pounds of public money for the benefit of the local community.  

“It encourages smarter spending to not only deliver a proposed service but also address social, economic and environmental issues in the local community,” SVS adds. 

And with public funds and the local services they support increasingly under threat, SVS argues that construction’s social value “can yield positive medium to longer-term outcomes in a cost and resource-efficient way. For example, by employing long-term unemployed Salford residents we are taking people off benefits and into paid employment.  

“This in turn has a beneficial effect on people’s well-being and has been proven to produce outcomes which might include a reduction in criminal and anti-social behaviour and reducing the burden on health and care services. It also strengthens community cohesion and resilience, as well as fostering a greater sense of happiness and well-being and reducing the ‘benefits bill.’” 

Applied appropriately, social value can also incorporate employment practices that enable less-represented communities to play a part in the construction workforce.   

How to implement a social value strategy in construction 

So how would one approach implementing a social value strategy in construction? Clare Chamberlain, category lead for construction at the Crown Commercial Service, said those looking to secure public sector contracts need to embed social value considerations throughout the entire project. 

“For larger projects consider a project-specific social value strategy,” she said. “Don’t wait until the main contractor tender [is being drawn up] to start thinking about it either; consider writing clear guidance around social value and what is expected into the brief for project designers and project managers.”  

She also encourages early engagement with local communities, which she says will deliver tailored social outcomes. “This will help your team to be able to focus on what social value outcomes you want for your project. What are the key themes for the area of construction? Does it have a high unemployment, or a large BAME representation? Is it in a built-up area with limited community space?”  

By engaging with local charities and social enterprises a developer can discover what is important to them; this can then be built into the development strategy, she adds. 

Not a box-ticking exercise 

But deciding upon and then hitting social value targets should be more than a box-ticking exercise, warns Holly Lewis, co-founder of We Made That (WMT), a design and research consultancy that works exclusively for the public sector. 

Holly argues that social value in the form of jobs or training is often brought about by being bolted onto something else, rather than being an important component, one that’s considered from the outset.  

“Delivering on local aspirations shouldn’t be an inconvenience that accompanies a contract,” she told the author recently. “Social value assessments should start with ‘what does the community need?’ But in most cases these dots aren’t being joined up properly, since such a process takes time and effort. 

“Rather than the narrow definition embedded in the Social Value Act, we ought to use a ‘community needs’ framework, which sees developers work to deliver what communities want rather than to hit targets on creating apprenticeships or training places.” 

WMT has worked on numerous schemes where social value has been central to the delivery ambitions of the project, including the Town Investment Plan for the Kent coastal community of Margate. The firm says the plan came into being “at an important time in the town’s history, [and] after many decades of endemic deprivation with sparks of regeneration, there is an opportunity for change.” 

“The need still exists to ‘level up’ the economy with the rest of Kent, the South East and the UK, but there is potential to do this through market-driven growth, strong civic participation and people power,” it adds. 

Measuring social value in construction projects 

Measuring the impact of any given social value strategy requires having a social value plan in place from the outset of a project.  

Such a plan should set out short-, medium- and long-term objectives, according to BuildBetterPartnerships, a collaboration of property owners who work together to improve the sustainability of commercial buildings. “Having a long-term vision helps create a lasting legacy. The social value vision should be embedded in the way the building is managed on a day-to-day basis.  

“Select a measurement framework which can help define what social value means for building stakeholders and support social value maximisation. Engage with other building stakeholders, such as occupiers and service providers, so as to develop alignment towards the social value vision.” 

According to fireproofing firm CLM Fireproofing, social value needs not only to be incorporated into both the design process and construction phase of a project; it should also be tailored to clients’ visions so that they can realise the social aims they want to achieve.  

“For example, tech companies can be energy-intensive, so they may not only want their buildings to create work opportunities, they also want to minimise carbon emissions. This could mean incorporating bicycle paths, solar farms and water waste reduction systems into the building’s design so they can offset their energy usage,” it adds. 

Challenges and potential for social value in construction 

Striving to incorporate social value in a construction project is not without its challenges.  

According to Social Value in Salford, achieving what it calls “buy-in” from external partners, bidders and providers can be an issue, as can redefining value for money when pitching social value against the lowest price for a contract. 

But such hurdles aren’t unsurmountable, and community engagement can be improved by communicating the goals of the project and the benefits for local people from the earliest point in a scheme’s life. 

Encouragingly, according to a recently published report by the SCAPE Procurement Authority, the UK construction industry delivered £1.1 billion of social and local economic value in the first half of last year, providing a 30.33% return on investment. 

SCAPE accompanied the latest figures with two calls to action. It was “imperative,” it said, that organisations ensured that social value and community lay at the heart of every project. And there should be collaboration nationally and across different policy frameworks to deliver more social value through new construction activities. 

Can Construction Be Completely Emissions-Free? Norway Aims to Find Out